When Connie Chavis and her 5-year-old daughter picked out clothes for kindergarten on a cold January morning back in 1998, they took great care to choose bright colors: lots of green, splashes of pink.
The outfit was as peppy and upbeat as little Brittany Locklear herself.
Neither of them could have guessed, as the kindergartener pulled on each leg of her green overalls, that within a few short hours those same overalls would turn up on the side of the road, discarded like trash. That their 5-year-old occupant would be nowhere to be found.
They couldn’t have known that those same pink-and-white Pocahontas shoes Brittany slipped her feet in that morning would soon be stuffed and sealed in a police evidence bag.
When Chavis last saw her daughter the morning of Jan. 7 just after 7 a.m., she was patiently waiting for her school bus outside the family’s home in Raeford, North Carolina, just like on any other morning. Her mother had waited with her, but, with the bus running late that day, she had to run back into the house to quickly use the bathroom.
And it was at that moment that someone plucked Brittany from the side of the road and forced the entire community to face what one family friend would later call “the evil in humanity.”
Nearly 25 years later, the hours and days that followed that one gut-wrenching moment prove too excruciating to talk about, the words too horrendous to utter out loud. Both Chavis’ mother and members of law enforcement interviewed for this story paused at times as they recalled Brittany’s final moments, as if briefly shell-shocked. They shook it off and then chose their words carefully, referring to the “thing” that was done to Brittany, as if not spelling it out might somehow keep the memories at bay.
The initial hours after the 5-year-old disappeared were still tinged with hope. After Chavis’ neighbor, Rose Johnson, rushed over to tell her that she and her husband had seen a man in a brown truck come speeding by on Gainey Road, off U.S. 401, and kidnap Brittany, Chavis thought it must be some kind of bizarre misunderstanding.
She dashed to West Hoke Elementary School to check if Brittany had been on the school bus. The answer was a gut-punch: No, the school said, the kindergartener had not been on board.
“I broke down,” Chavis later told The Fayetteville Observer of the harrowing revelation.
The alarm bells were immediately sounded: Chavis alerted police, and deputies with the Hoke County Sheriff’s Office quickly set up roadblocks in search of the brown pickup truck described by a handful of witnesses.
Hundreds threw themselves into the search efforts for the little girl who, her mother would later recount, “loved everybody.”
But within just a couple of hours, the search took an excruciating turn: Brittany’s purple backpack turned up on a road about two miles from her house, followed an hour later by her overalls, and then her sneakers.
“Right off the road as if someone was driving and threw them out the window,” Sheriff’s detective David Newton was quoted saying that day in the Observer.
Gregory Cecil Ard, a former Hoke County sheriff’s deputy, was among the members of law enforcement involved in the case from the get-go.
“I went out there early, it was 7:30-8:00 o’clock-ish, that morning when she disappeared,” he told The Daily Beast. “I went down to Ryan McBryde [Road] that morning and as we made a left we started seeing, I think it was a book bag and then a shoe in the ditch, and then more articles [of clothing] as we went down the road.”
Those same green overalls Brittany had climbed into just over an hour earlier were found a short time after the book bag, along with her Pocahontas shoes.
After that grim discovery, it was all-hands-on-deck for law enforcement. Then-Sheriff Wayne Byrd borrowed a small plane from a nearby airport to scour the back roads, and state police used a helicopter to join in the search, while deputies handed out flyers with Brittany’s photo on them and others concentrated efforts on where the girl’s belongings had been found.
With hundreds of volunteers and deputies searching for Brittany, the day ended on a hopeful note, against all odds: “We are assuming and hoping that she is alive,” Byrd said.
As the desperate search for Brittany continued into a second day, investigators gathered any clues they could to help lead them to the little girl. They knew only that her abductor was apparently a white or light-skinned man, that he drove a pickup truck described by witnesses as brown, and that Brittany did not appear to resist him.
But no one could fathom how such a brazen abduction of a child could happen so quickly—and how or why the culprit would target such a remote area, so far off the beaten path.
By the end of that day, the abduction itself would be eclipsed by something far worse.
“I stayed out there all night and blocked off the 401 that went into Ryan McBryde,” said Ard, who, with a baby daughter at home at that time, was distressed to think of 5-year-old Brittany out there somewhere alone in the cold.
Something he would soon come to realize—and a fact which he says still haunts him nearly 25 years later—is that Brittany had been right under the deputies’ noses the whole time.
They realized it only after it had finally stopped raining, allowing water along the roads to recede.
“There were a group of guys going up the ditch, and I was trailing behind them a bit, and the water had gone down and there was a culvert there and [the one guy] looked back and went, ‘Huh,’ and hopped off in the water and leaned over and looked down, and I watched every bit of color and life drain out of his face,” Ard recalled.
Brittany had been shoved inside the drainage pipe and left there in the rising water.
“I still, from time to time, can kind of see her feet coming out of the pipe,” Ard said, adding that he had turned away as soon as he “started seeing feet.”
“But from what I remember it looked like she was face down with no clothes on. Like she had been held in the water and then slid into the pipe when it was over, face down in the water.”
She was in the exact same spot where Ard said he’d stopped his car the morning the 5-year-old was reported missing. It was only about three miles from her home.
“That has always bothered me that she stayed out in the cold for 30-something hours and I was within a foot of her and didn’t know it,” he said, adding that even though he knows she already would have been beyond saving on that first morning, he’s haunted by her being “out there by herself in the cold, in the water.”
Investigators later concluded that the drainage pipe where Brittany was found was the primary crime scene, that the perpetrator had taken her straight there.
And, as Byrd would reveal at a press conference two days later, an autopsy revealed she’d been sexually assaulted.
“I think within a half an hour it was done. I think he went straight to that spot, he knew where he was going, he went straight there, he did what he was going to do, and was gone in no time,” Ard said.
Deputies were still reeling over what they’d seen that day when Sheriff Byrd called a press conference just after 4 p.m. to inform the rest of the town.
“It’s sad news that I bring,” Byrd said, per the Observer. “I was hoping it would be a live body, but it’s a lifeless body.”
In an attempt to console the hundreds of volunteer searchers who’d counted on bringing Brittany home alive, the sheriff said at least there could be closure, and “we will not be wondering the rest of our life what happened to such a lovely little girl.”
Brittany’s mother and her stepfather, Charles, had been notified separately. Surrounded by family and friends at home, all anxiously awaiting word on Brittany, police arrived and delivered the news. They both crumpled to the floor, wailing.
‘Everyone’s a Suspect’
With the discovery of Brittany’s body, the search operation immediately shifted to a manhunt for her killer. In archival news reports from that time, the white-hot rage of the community is palpable even through the page.
“We’d like to kill him real quick,” one man was quoted telling the Observer at a local diner, while another promised that “justice will be swift.”
The anger wasn’t limited to empty talk either. A week after Brittany was found, the sheriff pleaded for calm after a report of “armed citizens” prowling the street in search of a “burly man” with a beard who’d aroused their suspicions.
New details on Brittany’s murder only further stoked outrage. More than two months after she was found, the sheriff broke his silence on her final moments.
“I just believe that she was just held underwater until she was drowned,” Byrd said in March 1998, per the Observer. “I think she was drowned right there where we found her. … I wouldn’t think it would be a quick way to die.”
With help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the State Bureau of Investigation, authorities in Hoke County set up a command post they dubbed “the War Room.” No effort was spared in finding Brittany’s killer, and police said thousands of tips poured in.
But there has never been an arrest in the case, and despite a barrage of early leads, no clear suspect ever emerged.
“A lot of us are very frustrated that we just couldn’t find any more leads. We had lots and lots of leads, and we just couldn’t seem to get over the hump on that,” says Fred McKinney, a retired SBI agent who was involved in the case.
In the weeks and months that followed, Byrd routinely touted new, promising leads in the case, but they never panned out.
The investigation wound up in the hands of two more sheriffs in the years that followed, with the most high-profile new plot twist in the case happening in 2002, when news broke of a former Fort Bragg firefighter being questioned after his co-workers told investigators he had photos of Brittany in his locker. The man, Keith Londeree, was facing charges in connection with a bank robbery when the pictures came to light.
Police never explained why he had the photographs, and despite hope from the public that it was a break in the case, investigators said DNA testing cleared Londeree of any involvement in Brittany’s murder. It was never clear if he had been among the hundreds of Fort Bragg firefighters who joined search efforts for Brittany.
Londeree passed away in 2018 at the age of 59.
Chavis, Brittany’s mom, said she’s still hopeful for justice, but has come to terms that it may not happen in this lifetime.
“Her family will never give up hope. There will be justice, if not here, hereafter,” she told The Daily Beast. “If not here, he’ll pay for it in the hereafter.”
As for suspects, she said, “it’s been too much to even think about it.”
She still thinks about what kind of person Brittany would have grown to be, and there was a note of sorrow as she said, “Her birthday is the 14th of next month.”
She would’ve turned 29 on Thursday.
By all accounts, Brittany was the kind of child who could melt hearts just by walking into a room. At a mere 35 pounds, she was the tiniest kid in her class, which earned her the loving nickname of “Little Brittany.”
If her mother had not alerted school officials to her disappearance on that fateful day in 1998, they likely would’ve assumed she was late to class because she was doing what she was known for: giving out hugs in the hallway. Several teachers of West Hoke Elementary told the Observer it was a well-known fact among staff that the kindergartener would make a point to hug every single teacher she passed.
“She was the type of child who had no understanding of fear. She didn’t know there was any danger out there,” said her teacher at the time, Sandra Horne.
A member of the Lumbee Tribe, a non-federally recognized Native American tribe that resides primarily in North Carolina, Brittany had a fondness for Pocahontas.
“She loved the church, and she loved her family. She was really into Pocahontas and Barney, things like that,” her mother said, recalling that the 5-year-old had also set her sights on becoming a pilot some day.
“She told me one day she wanted to ‘drive’ airplanes.”
Ashleigh Craven, a Raeford native who said her family was close to Brittany’s, said the whole community struggled to come to terms with how a human being could hurt “such a sweet beautiful little girl.”
Craven said she was 14 at the time of Brittany’s murder and “had already seen the evil in humanity firsthand.”
“But that did not make it any easier. It was horrible how she was found, where she was found, and other details made it hard … like who would do this to a very small child?”
More than two decades later, there’s no more clarity to that question than there was in those nauseating early days after the killing.
The Hoke County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the case, and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation said it was no longer “actively investigating” Brittany’s murder, but it was prepared to assist if local investigators requested any help.
Brittany’s mother said two Hoke County investigators had been in touch with her earlier this year to offer assurances that the case was ongoing, but they offered no new information, she said.
Hoke County Sheriff Hubert Peterkin, the third sheriff to oversee the investigation, said the case was still ongoing in a 2019 interview with the Observer. He declined to say if there were any new leads.
“I don’t want to say anything. If anyone knew the things we knew or things we’ve done or going to be doing, you’d be surprised,” he said.
Byrd, the original sheriff on the case, passed away in 2016. For Ard, lingering questions about the case never stopped haunting him.
“That’s one that, it just kinda sticks,” he said, before adding: “It broke me.”
One of the biggest questions—which investigators have apparently never been able to answer definitively—is whether Brittany’s murder was a crime of opportunity or one thoroughly planned by someone who’d stalked her.
As Ard told it, “there were some things [about the case] that made you scratch your head,” like how Brittany’s killer seemed to have such perfect timing.
“But there was nothing that really said, ‘Okay this is it.’”
“Whoever did it knew where they were and they knew exactly where they were going. So he had some kind of association or he planned it out and went and searched the area to find a spot. ‘Cause you could not have found a better spot,” he said, noting that the killer managed to commit the entire heinous crime within three miles of Brittany’s home and then dispose of the evidence in the culvert.
“He was able to hold her in the water and dispose of her right there and leave her right there and leave every trace of everything right there. People who do things hastily make a lot of mistakes, but there were none,” he said.
“It was planned, well planned, because it happened bam bam bam.”
McKinney, the former SBI agent, said he’s still not sure about the circumstances of the killing.
“It could’ve gone either way. It may have just been a crime of opportunity, quickly, or he may have been planning it,” he said.
The one thing that’s clear is that any chance of solving the case is fading faster every year.
“As far as it being solved, I’m afraid. I’m thinking I probably won’t see it in my lifetime,” said Ard. “They may get lucky and get a DNA hit, that’s what would have to do it. It’s possible somebody could walk up and go, ‘I’ve been living with this for years, I did it.’ But that’s not likely.”
And with the case never narrowing down to a single suspect, it’s even harder to know if Brittany was the killer’s only victim.
“Unfortunately I’m wondering if they haven’t gone elsewhere and done it elsewhere,” said Ard. “[I think they] definitely would have done it again.”