18 Years Later: The Haunting Case of Teresa Dean
At first glance, Teresa Dean is a striking woman. A flat, static photo of the 29-year-old in no way diminishes the glow of good health that fairly radiates from her lovely heart-shaped face, offset by wide-set crystal blue eyes, hair the color of Tupelo honey, a radiant smile, and cheekbones any woman in her right mind would kill for.
But, of course, the picture isn’t real.
The image of Teresa is as make-believe as the fairytales the 11-year-old no doubt still believed in when she seemingly vanished into thin air 18 years ago. Unlike the kinds of stories where the misbegotten waif is transformed into a princess with the flick of a wand, however, there seems to be no happily-ever-after in sight for Teresa Melissa Dean. There are no fairy godmothers to be found. No spun-from-magic ball gowns or glass slippers. No pumpkin (poof!) carriage to bring her safely back home.
The only “sorcery” in this story is the kind that has allowed investigators to artificially age the Macon grade-school student as she would appear now, more than 6,463 days after she was last seen near her Twiggs County home. And even this technological sleight-of-hand seems more hopeful than realistic.
Speculation and the facts surrounding the case have long pointed toward a darker ending for the young girl with the slight lisp and sunny smile, who classmates at Alexander IV Elementary School in Macon would later describe as “quiet.” Just days after Teresa Dean first went missing on Aug. 15, 1999, local, state, and Federal lawmen working the case publicly acknowledged the chances of finding her alive were slim, and rescue efforts quickly became a recovery mission dedicated to finding her presumptive remains.
Not that anyone can say for sure, even now, what in the world became of little Teresa Dean.
The case can’t be ruled a homicide, accidental death, or anything other than “cold.” No credible accounts have ever surfaced to suggest Teresa lived to see her 12th birthday. Yet her body has never been found. Which is to say, the forever 11-year-old remains suspended in the murky amber of time, preserved only in pictures and in the flashes of memories of those who knew her.
It’s those memories, investigators say, that may hold the vital clues they need to crack the ice-cold case, and spell out the whole story of what exactly what became of Teresa Melissa Dean on that dog-days-of-summer evening so long ago.
Suffer the Little Children
According to news reports at the time, Teresa was wearing a short-sleeved blue and white-striped button-down shirt, pink or orange knit pants and clear Jelly sandals the day she went missing.
Though accounts vary, it’s believed Teresa was last spotted, possibly as late as 8 p.m., playing beside a dense ridge of pine trees planted along the Macon-Bibb county line near the mobile home she shared with her mother, older siblings, her mom’s fiancé, 20 cats, five grown dogs and four puppies.
Had fate not twisted so cruelly against the 4-foot-10, 75-pound wisp of a girl, the number of family pets would likely have increased that sweltering Sunday, at least by one.
“She was going to see a puppy,” Twiggs County Sheriff Darren Mitchum says. A neighbor in the country community of single-story houses and mobile homes had a litter of new puppies on hand and told Teresa if she could catch one she could keep it.
Though not the county’s top cop or even a local investigator at the time, the Teresa Dean case was one of the first ones Mitchum zeroed in on after becoming sheriff in 2005. Working with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, “we started compiling a large case file – interviewing and re-interviewing witnesses and neighbors.” What seemed like a tangible lead in 2006, and which incurred an extensive search with trained cadaver dogs, in the end, turned up little more than the earth Mitchum and his team mined for evidence.
It quickly became apparent the growing case file was yielding more questions than answers, Sheriff Mitchum says, offering “nothing solid I could hang my hat on.” By then, though at least three significant events in the Teresa Dean Missing Persons case timeline had occurred. The first was Cody Landers, Dorothy Dean’s fiancé living in the home at the time the case broke, had subsequently been indicted – and was ultimately incarcerated – on multiple child molestation charges. Though never formally named or charged by investigators, Landers had outed himself as a suspect to the media, claiming to have failed a polygraph test, but maintaining his innocence.
The second and third events occurred in Alabama. First in August of 2001, then again in August of 2003, two 11-year-old girls went missing, and like Teresa Dean, both seemed to simply fall off the face of the earth without so much as a squeak or a peep from either one of them to indicate they were being snatched by a stranger. But abducted they were. Unlike the Macon student, both of those girls were eventually found. And both had been murdered.
The Three Angels
Shannon Paulk disappeared on Aug. 16, 2001 from Candlestick Trailer Park, where she lived with her mother in Prattville, Alabama.
Last seen around 2:30 p.m., Shannon was spotted by at least two friends with a man they didn’t recognize, but who they later described to police as being 35 to 45 years old and 5’11” to 6’0″ tall, with a noticeably large mole underneath his right eye, a pronounced beer belly, muscular arms, and blond hair streaked with gray. News reports at the time added the witnesses had also noticed a white, four-door car nearby, noting they saw red clay mud on the back.
Though a massive communitywide manhunt failed to find Shannon Paulk, rabbit hunters discovered her body less than two months later, 17 miles from her home.
Two years later, less than 100 miles away in Northport, Heaven LaShae Ross, also 11, was waylaid by persons unknown in the early-morning hours as she made her way to the bus stop for school. From what investigators could piece together, Shae (as she was known to friends and family) had left the family’s mobile home about 6:55. By 7:01, with the bus stop less than 100 yards away, she was gone.
Shae’s skeletal remains were discovered three years later under an abandoned house on a dirt road just a few miles away. She was found by the owner of a dog who had darted into the crawl space of the house while on a daily walk together. Shae’s school backpack lay beside her, still intact, along with at least one telling clue investigators have declined to reveal ever since, saying only, “We have collected some trace evidence from around the body that we have not been able to match to any source.” As in Shannon’s case, investigators have steadfastly declined to reveal how the girls were killed.
But the means of death for Shannon and Shae had to have been similar enough to raise red flags somewhere, because it didn’t take long for lawmen in Alabama and Georgia to find out about each other’s unsolved cases and team up. “We got to looking at the similarities, both in the cases and in the girls’ backgrounds, and there were enough similarities that it piqued our interest,” Sheriff Mitchum says. “We shared all the information we had.”
By 2006, the mutual interest had become public and the girls were dubbed “The Three Angels” on Internet sympathy sites and in blog posts. Conjecture in the media pondered the possibility of an “anniversary killer,” or more simply put, a serial killer who preyed on children.
Though no hard evidence could be sustained to link the three cases, the similarities are eerie to say the least.
All three girls weren’t only the same age, they were also similar in build – just under 5’0”, each weighing about 75 pounds. All three looked alike – similar facial features and hair color. Put their pictures side by side and one might convincingly argue they were related. And each of the three girls possessed similar habits, not to mention life circumstances.
All three lived in low-income areas located in or near remote or heavily wooded areas. Investigators have noted that each girl also lived within shouting distance of major construction projects – the road near where Shannon Paulk was found was scheduled to be paved over the following day according to a newspaper account published after her body was discovered.
Teresa, Shannon and Shae all lived in homes with working mothers as their primary caretakers and from which the biological father was absent. More tragically, each girl, in one way or another, came across as somewhat starved for attention by neighbors and members of the community quoted in the media after they went missing. All were known to habitually visit neighbors’ homes after school and on weekends, and to roam freely through their neighborhoods, either on foot or on bicycles.
Witness accounts in both the Shae Ross and Shannon Paulk cases specifically mentioned frequent sightings of both girls zipping around their respective communities on bicycles. While that’s not true in Teresa Dean’s case, a news story written just days after her disappearance mentions the pink Barbie bike she kept protectively placed under cover of a “falling-down shed.”
All three appear to have ridden the bus to school as well – or at a minimum, been ferried to and from by means other than carpooling or with her parents. Shae Ross was headed to the bus stop when she disappeared, and though no mention of a school bus pops up in a cursory search of stories about Shannon Paulk, in at least one 2001 news story, her mother, Marie, was quoted as saying, “Last time I seen her was 5:30 yesterday morning when I went out to work and she was asleep here on the couch.”
In a 2010, online memorial guestbook for Teresa Dean, a woman identifying herself as Jessica writes, “I knew Teresa, lived on the same street as her, rode the bus with her every day. I remember the day after she went missing. I remember getting on the bus that morning and thinking ‘Teresa didn’t get on the bus, wonder why?’ Never gave it another thought until I got home and found out why. I have been haunted by it ever since.”
We’re Still Hunting Every Day
Clearly, the investigators who have never given up on finding justice for their angel-faced victims feel the same way.
Just this past February, a special investigative grand jury in Alabama was empaneled to investigate the Shannon Paulk case. Though prohibited by state law from revealing anything put before an ongoing grand jury investigation, Prattville Police investigator Tom Allen’s cell phone voice message specifically asks anyone calling with information “about Shannon Paulk” to please leave a message and contact information.
In a telephone interview, Det. Allen points out he is prohibited from commenting at length on any case before a grand jury, but says new leads and information is continuing to come in. He adds the composite drawing of the man described by Shannon’s friends in 2001 has been dismissed by the grand jury. While he is unable to comment on the record about whether there is a possible connection to the Shae Ross and Teresa Dean cases, he says he has not been in contact with Georgia investigators as of the time of the interview on April 24.
Sheriff Mitchum continues to entertain the idea the cases could be connected, while maintaining his department need leads or evidence based on fact, not supposition. “There’s been a lot of information blowing in the wind on this case – just nothing you can hang your hat on.”
The Twiggs County Sheriff says he never stops thinking “about that youngin’,” admitting he is “haunted by it. We don’t have the resources to devote a single officer to the case – I wish we did – but we’re hunting every day.” Hunting, he says for even a scrap of information that could help them find the long-lost Teresa Dean, wherever she may be.
“I need information from people who lived in the neighborhood, that knew this family – information that people can back up to me as to how they know what they’re telling me. We can’t go off hearsay,” he says. “We would like to get ahold of information that would turn this thing around.”
Anyone with information in the Teresa Dean case is asked to contact the Twiggs County Sheriff’s Department at (478) 945-3357. Reward money remains in place for information that leads to an arrest.