Like many kids in Alabama during the early 2000s, 11-year-old Shannon Paulk spent long summer days playing outside, roaming her neighborhood, going house to house visiting her friends.
But this kind-hearted, outgoing girl loved people of all ages. Some days she could be found on the porch of her elderly neighbor, Miss Mary, chatting away, despite their age difference. Other days, she’d be at another neighbor’s home, checking in on their new baby.
“She never met a stranger,” Shannon’s mother, Marie Stroud, told Dateline. “She had a heart of gold and just loved people - all people. And everybody loved her.”
Shannon only lived to be 11 years old, but her family said she made a lasting impression on them and their community that will never be forgotten.
“The impression that child had on this community is not one that will be forgotten any time soon,” Marie tearfully told Dateline. “She’s remembered and loved by so many people here.”
Nearly two decades have passed since Shannon’s murder gripped the tight-knit community of Prattville, Alabama -- and her family is still without answers or closure.
It was August 16, 2001 when Shannon was last seen playing outside in her neighborhood in Prattville’s Candlestick Mobile Home Park off U.S. Highway 31.
Her mother went to work and left Shannon in the care of her older sister, who was 16 at the time.
Marie told Dateline it was not unusual for Shannon to be out playing with friends and visiting neighbors, but she always made it home by nightfall.
That night, Shannon didn’t come home.
“I knew something was wrong,” Marie said.
Marie called the Prattville Police Department just before 9 p.m., and intense searches with dogs, boats and helicopters were launched in the community over the next few days. But the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months. There was no sign of Shannon.
Sergeant Tom Allen with the Prattville Police told Dateline Shannon’s case was treated as a missing juvenile. But after reports that she had been seen talking to an unidentified man in the neighborhood, and with what family describes as Shannon’s “trusting heart,” it’s believed she was taken that day.
Nearly two months later, on Saturday, October 6, rabbit hunters found Shannon’s badly decomposed remains in a remote section of the Autauga Wildlife Management Area in northern Autauga County, about 15 miles north of Prattville.
An intense investigation began and Sgt. Allen told Dateline hundreds of people were questioned, but no arrests were made.
A sketch of the man Shannon believed to have been seen talking to that day was released in 2007, but a decade later it was deemed to not be credible by Autauga County District Attorney Randall Houston.
Sergeant Allen, who was a patrolman with the Prattville Police at the time, has since taken over Shannon’s case and said he’s fully dedicated to getting it solved.
“It doesn’t matter how it gets solved or who solves it - the most important thing is that it’s solved and closure is brought to Shannon’s family,” Sgt. Allen said. “This case has greatly affected this community and it’s time to get some answers.”
Sergeant Allen told Dateline there have been a few persons of interest over the years, but there hasn’t been enough evidence against any of them to move forward with an arrest.
Shannon’s case drew national attention when it was featured on America's Most Wanted on September 30, 2006 . Thousands of tips came in and viewers pointed out that her case was eerily similar to the disappearance of at least two other 11-year-old girls who were abducted from their mobile home parks in Northport, Alabama and Twiggs County, Georgia. Each of those also happened in the month of August.
Sergeant Allen said that at this point, investigators don’t believe the cases are connected, and added that he needs to focus on solving Shannon’s case before trying to link it to any others.
In the five years Sgt. Allen has been on the case, he, along with the Alabama State Bureau of Investigation, have been in the process of resubmitting evidence and re-interviewing people. He wouldn’t comment on what sort of evidence was being resubmitted.
“We’re hoping that some of that evidence might just yield something that could break the case wide open,” Sgt. Allen told Dateline. He added they have a 10x14 size room that is full of boxes containing only material related to Shannon’s case.
“Some people call this a cold case, but to us this is a very active and ongoing investigation,” Sgt. Allen explained. He said that some investigators who previously worked on Shannon’s case, and have since retired from the force, still check in to see how they can help.
“This case has touched all of us and we all want answers to what happened to Shannon,” Sgt. Allen said. “We’re still receiving tips all the time - even 19 years later. And we want the public to keep sending information. And one day, we’re going to get that tip that will finally bring this case to a close.”
Sunday, August 16, marked 19 years since Marie Stroud last saw her daughter alive, and she said her pain is still very fresh.
“It’s like a nightmare that you can’t wake up from,” Marie told Dateline. “She was my baby, and someone took her away from me.”
She said it’s her faith in God that has kept her going.
“I was never one for going to church,” Marie said. “But Shannon went to church. With friends. Neighbors. Whoever. She loved God. And when this happened, it was so devastating, so heartbreaking, I turned to God. In a way, Shannon led me to God. She would be happy knowing that.”
Shannon would be 30 years old if she were alive today. Her mother often wonders the kind of woman she would have grown up to be.
“I know she would be doing something that involved helping people,” Marie told Dateline. “Because that’s who she was - she helped others. She had a heart of gold and always wanted to do for others.”
Shannon’s aunt, Tammy Evans, echoed those sentiments to Dateline.
“She was the most kind-hearted child I have ever known,” Tammy said. “She would always think about others before herself.”
Tammy hopes a vigil for Shannon will encourage someone with information about her case to come forward.
“It’s been 19 years - surely someone knows something,” Tammy said. “It’s time for our family to get some answers, for our community to know what happened.”
Tammy said people in the community haven’t been the same since Shannon’s murder, constantly living in fear about letting their children play outside.
“I hold onto my grandchildren for dear life,” Tammy said. “I’m scared every time they are outside playing. It just doesn’t feel safe since this happened.”
The candlelight vigil for Shannon will be held Sunday, August 16, at 6 p.m., at the amphitheater in Pratt Park near the Stanley-Jensen Stadium in Prattville. The vigil will include music, speakers and sharing memories of Shannon. Former Prattville Mayor Jim Byard is expected to attend.
A tree planted 19 years ago in the park, that is now fully grown, is a reminder to those attending the vigil of how long it’s been since Shannon was murdered.
Shannon’s mother moved away after the murder, but she still wonders how something so horrific could have happened in that neighborhood.
“I just pray that whoever did this to Shannon did not do this to anyone else. It’s heartbreaking,” Marie said. “I always ask ‘Why? Why MY baby,’ but I wouldn’t want anyone to go through this pain. This nightmare -- this nightmare that never ends.”
Marie told Dateline that finding the person who killed her daughter would help bring her some sort of peace, but will never replace her baby girl who had a “heart of gold.”
“Nothing will ever fill the emptiness I feel,” she said. “She was a special girl and no matter how much time passes, she’ll never be forgotten.”
Anyone with information that could help solve Shannon’s case is asked to call the Prattville Police Department's Secret Witness Line 334-365-2220 or Criminal Investigations at 334-595-0256.