Monica Caison figured it was worth a shot, so she fired off a letter, a single paragraph, to the man on death row for kidnapping and killing Alice Donovan during a two-week, 2,300-mile crime spree.
“You say you want to do the right thing,” wrote Caison, the founder of a group that searches for missing people. “I’m here and I’m listening.”
She received Chadrick Fulks’ reply two months later: a map, color photos of the area where he says he left Donovan’s body six years ago, and instructions to look where searchers had not ventured before.
Donovan’s daughter Angie Gilchrist was skeptical. This wasn’t the first time Fulks and co-defendant Brandon Basham had sent people on fruitless searches for their victims’ bodies.
Just ask investigators who spent Thanksgiving 2002 looking through another patch of woods for Donovan and found nothing. Or the family of Samantha Burns, the 19-year-old Marshall University student who disappeared a week before Donovan from a Huntington, W.Va., mall not far from her home.
Caison, founder of Community United Effort — Center for Missing Persons, felt this time would be different. She had written to Fulks on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind., after one of Donovan’s daughters approached her at a fundraiser marking the sixth anniversary of her mother’s disappearance. She was carrying a letter the convicted killer had written to a local newspaper saying he’d help find the body.
Mom's last steps
Donovan, a 44-year-old mother of two, was last seen pulling into a Wal-Mart parking lot in Conway, just north of Myrtle Beach, in November 2002.
Her kidnapping — captured on a security camera — and killing were Fulks and Basham’s last major crimes during a two-week spree that started when they broke out of a jail in Madisonville, Ky.
Authorities said the pair also carjacked a Kentucky man and left him tied to a tree in frigid temperatures in Indiana, shot a South Carolina man who refused to give them his vehicle, and attacked police officers in Kentucky and Ohio.
When Fulks’ response to her letter arrived two weeks ago, Caison didn’t even stop at home before driving 75 miles from Wilmington, N.C., and organizing a search.
“I knew he was steering us the right direction,” Caison said this week as the search wrapped up. “His instructions were very specific. He told me, ’You have to push forward. You have to go deeper. Go into the thicket, no one wants to search there.”’
On Jan. 18, after about seven hours of searching, dozens of volunteers and four dogs found bones in thick brush and thorns about 150 feet from a dirt road on the North Carolina line.
Volunteer searchers and the FBI have since found remains in five different locations, about 15 miles from where Donovan disappeared. The bones may have been spread out because heavy equipment has been used to cut down many of the trees that once stood there.
DNA tests aren’t expected for weeks, but Caison and Donovan’s family are convinced the remains belong to Donovan.
There’s no such comfort for Burns’ relatives in West Virginia, who quietly marked the sixth anniversary of her disappearance still wondering if she will ever be found. A woman identifying herself as Burns’ grandmother said family members don’t have faith that Fulks will help them. She wouldn’t give her name and asked a reporter to call Burns’ mother, who did not return a phone message.
Fulks’ lawyer, Beattie Ashmore, said his client will continue to help West Virginia authorities look for Burns and hopes the discovery in South Carolina might appease Donovan’s family and prompt prosecutors to rescind the death penalty.
Ashmore said Fulks has always insisted Donovan’s body was left near the small community of Longs.
“He has mentioned this area before. It looks like the earlier searchers missed Mrs. Donovan,” Ashmore said.
'Eye for an eye'
Even if the remains are in fact her mother’s, Gilchrist said she plans to watch Fulks and Basham die.
“An eye for an eye,” said Gilchrist, 32. “You don’t go around killing people and expect your consequences are going to change because you told us where the body is.”
Donovan’s daughters have been out on the dirt road for some of the search, and a police technician swabbed their cheeks for DNA to compare with the remains.
They started planning their mother’s funeral as soon as the first bone fragments were found. Gilchrist, who dealt with years of addiction and struggles stemming from her mother’s disappearance, said her emotions have run the gamut over the past few days, from angry to sad to relieved.
“I’m exhausted,” she said. “I’m emotionally exhausted. It’s been six years. I’m looking forward to getting the DNA test back and having the answers about whether this is my mother.”