STAR CITY, W.Va. -- For nearly nine months, the people of this small West Virginia town saw the face of missing 16-year-old honors student Skylar Neese everywhere – beaming at them from fliers on utility poles, in gas stations, even at the local tattoo parlor.
She had been missing since she slipped out of her bedroom window one night last summer, but some in this town of fewer than 2,000 people never believed she had run away.
Police chased numerous leads with no luck. The break finally came when one of Neese's friends admitted plotting with another girl to kill her – shocking even the investigators working the case.
The two girls were charged with luring the straight-A student at University High School out of her family's apartment in the middle of the night, stabbing her to death at an agreed-upon moment and hiding her body under branches in a Pennsylvania township about 30 miles away from her house, according to court documents.
The pair – one of whom has now pleaded guilty – had spent time with Neese's mother after the slaying and even helped with the search.
The cold calculation and brutality of the plot shocked a community already frustrated by the slow pace and secrecy surrounding the case. Investigators have said little since announcing the charges three weeks ago. Court documents offer no insight into the motive.
People sit in the chairs at John's Barber Shop, gaze at Neese's photo on a bulletin board and wonder: How could anyone so young plot to kill a classmate and friend?
"They look as normal as any other kid that you could ever see," said barber BJ McClead. "Not kids you would think would have anything to do with anything like this."
A newly released transcript of a secret plea hearing reveals that 16-year-old Rachel Shoaf said she and the second girl carried out a plan to kill Neese.
Shoaf, a red-haired student actress and singer with sparkling blue eyes, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Monongalia County Circuit Court on May 1 and awaits sentencing in a juvenile detention center.
The other girl's identity is, for now, shrouded by the confidentiality of juvenile court. Though McClead says most people in town have figured out who it is, it's unclear how long the three girls had been friends or just how close they were.
It's also unclear whether prosecutors will try to have the second suspect charged as an adult, as Shoaf was.
"People are confused. They're like, `What is taking so long?'" said McClead, whose daughter Hayden had been friends with Neese since junior high.
"It's ridiculous. Who's protecting these girls?" said the barber, who still hands out red-and-yellow bracelets bearing the victim's name. "Three families' lives are now ruined because of this heinous crime that these girls committed."
Monongalia County Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown has refused to return repeated calls seeking comment.
The mystery began July 6, 2012, when Neese climbed out of her bedroom window. Surveillance video showed her getting into a car at the end of her street in a quiet residential neighborhood near West Virginia University. With no sign of fear, no money and no contact lenses, she apparently expected to return.
When she didn't, Dave and Mary Neese worried. Police initially suspected their daughter was a runaway, but they knew better. They walked up and down Crawford Street with Neese's photo, then plastered fliers everywhere.
"You couldn't go 5 feet without seeing her," said 24-year-old Brittany Crouse, who moved in around the time of the disappearance. "Everybody really, really wanted her to come home."
For months, police chased down tips to no avail. The transcript from Shoaf's hearing shows the break came Jan. 3, when she finally told investigators the truth – and where to find the body.
But it wasn't until March that authorities confirmed it was Neese, and silence followed until the day of the plea hearing.
"I think police who were involved in the front lines of that interview and that part of the investigation were stunned at Rachel Shoaf's confession," Ashdown told Judge Russell Clawges that day. "She confessed to a plan and conspiracy with another juvenile to kill Skylar Neese. A plan carried out."
The three girls drove to Wayne Township, Pa., got out of the car and the suspects pretended to socialize with Neese.
"And, at a planned and agreed upon moment," Ashdown said, the girls "attacked and stabbed Skylar to death, and they left her there."
They tried to bury Neese, she said, but covered her with branches when they couldn't.
Crouse, who lives a block from the Neeses' apartment, was horrified by the revelation.
"I can't imagine my friends deceiving me like that," she said. "Tragedies happen. Accidents, things like that. But not predetermined murder of a 16- or 17-year-old.
"It baffles me that somebody so young could do something like that," Crouse said. "All of their lives were just starting out."
In the five-page court file on Shoaf, prosecutors say they plan to recommend a 20-year prison sentence. But she could get as many as 40 years under the law.
Shoaf's family issued a public apology through a lawyer but has made no further statements.
"There is no way to describe the pain that we, too, are feeling," they said. "We are truly sorry for the pain that she has caused the Neese family, and we know her actions are unforgivable and inexcusable. Our daughter has admitted her involvement and she has accepted responsibility for her actions.
"Our hearts are broken for your loss," they told the Neese family, "and we are still trying to come to terms with this event."
Mary Neese has declined interview requests.
But the family has tried to spare others their agony, persuading legislators to pass "Skylar's Law" earlier this year.
Under the law, Amber Alerts are no longer limited to kidnappings in West Virginia. Even when authorities suspect a child is a runaway, information is turned over to Amber Alert officials.
But BJ McClead says his family knew the girl they'd taken to amusement parks and had in their home for sleepovers hadn't run away.
"When school went back in session and she wasn't there, we knew something was wrong because she wouldn't miss school," he said. "She was a really, really smart kid."
The transcript of Shoaf's hearing shows other students also had suspicions, chattering on social media about all three girls.
A few overheard a conversation between the suspects about the plot but waited to report it. The teenagers thought it was a joke, Ashdown told the judge, "but only later decided and believed it was all too true and all too prophetic."
McClead marvels that two teenage girls could maintain their deception from July to January.
"Some of the criminals that are locked up for life aren't that hard."
Also on HuffPost:
"Young L.A. Girl Slain; Body Slashed in Two" -L.A.'s Daily News
On January 15, 1947, the remains of Elizabeth Short, were found in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. What made this discovery the stuff of tabloid sensation, however, was the Glasgow smile left on the aspiring actress' face--made with 3-inch slashes on each side. This, coupled with Short's dark hair, fair complexion and reputation for sporting a dahlia in her hair, dubbed her "The Black Dahlia" in headlines. What followed was a media circus filled with rumors and speculation about the promiscuous 22-year-old's checkered past. What haunts theorists to this day, apart from the victim's uniquely nightmarish visage, is that the case remains unsolved after some 200 suspects were interviewed and ultimately released--making it one of Hollywood's most lurid legends.
"I Am Not Guilty - Thus Lizzie Borden Pleads Before Judge Hammond at New Bedford." -Boston Journal
<em>"Lizzie Borden took an axe And gave her mother forty whacks. And when she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one."</em> So goes the lurid nursery rhyme to one of the most mystifying crimes of the century. The nature of the deaths of Andrew J. Borden and his wife, Abby, are trumped only by the identity of the alleged perpetrator: their daughter, Lizzie. Inexplicably found "not guilty" in contrast to the era's zeitgeist of swift justice, Lizzie's legacy--guilty or not--has become immortalized as one of the most perplexing cases of parricide in history.
"Texas Mother Charged with Killing Her 5 Children" -CNN
In a case of mother-gone-mad that startled a nation, Andrea Yates, to her few friends and neighbors, was known as a mere recluse suffering from postpartum depression leading up to the birth of her fifth child. That all changed on June 20, 2001, when she snapped, drowning five of her children in their home's bathtub. She was convicted in 2002 of capital murder, carrying a sentence of life in prison with possible parole. As of July 2006, however, a Texas jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity.
"Buttafuoco Admits to Sex with Amy Fisher" -New York Times
Known as the "Long Island Lolita," Fisher became involved with Joey Buttafuoco in May of 1991. Shortly after the two began a sexual relationship (she, 16, while he, 35, was married with two children), his presence and influence in her life became all she cared for. In what he's since denied to this day, Buttafuoco would go on to help an obsessive Fisher plan the murder of his wife, culminating in Fisher putting a bullet in Mary Jo Buttafuoco's head, but failing to kill her. In the highly publicized trial that ensued, Fisher accepted a plea deal for 15 years in prison in exchange for a testimony against Joey, who faced and served out charges of statutory rape.
"Murder of a Little Beauty" -People Magazine
With a face that graced the covers of nearly every news and gossip rag during the winter of '96, it's hard to suggest the death of child beauty pageant queen JonBenét Ramsey had little effect outside the city of Boulder, Colorado. Found dead from a blow to the head and strangulation in the family's basement, coupled with a ransom note left on the staircase asking for $118,000 (conveniently or coincidentally, nearly the same amount Mr. Ramsey received as a bonus that year), as well as no obvious signs of forced entry into the house, the evidence was overwhelmingly stacked against parents John and Patsy, who managed to maintain their innocence throughout the investigation. The case reopened in 2010, but critics cite poor handling of the crime scene as obstructing what remains a mystery regarding the events of that Christmas day.
"F.B.I. Joins Probe in Slaughter of 8 Nurses" -Nashua Telegraph
Tattooed with "Born to Raise Hell" on his arm, Richard Speck made good on his mantra through a history of violence, theft, alcoholism, and spousal abuse, but made his infamy known to all when, on July 13, 1966, he walked into a dormitory armed with a knife. After leaving 8 student nurses dead in his wake, only one, Cora Amurao, was spared--hiding under a bed until 6 a.m. Speck was found guilty of murder and died of a heart attack in prison. As one of the most press-worthy crimes of the decade, the grim events were used most recently as the backdrop for an episode of <em>Mad Men</em>.
"Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered" -Los Angeles Times
Perhaps the most terrifying figure in American crime to have never actually killed anyone himself, Charles Manson founded a "family" of wayward individuals who hailed him as a prophet. So strong was his manipulation, he ordered, on the night of Aug. 8, 1969, four of his followers to kill everyone at the residence of 10050 Cielo Drive--including Roman Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, and her unborn child. Tate was stabbed 16 times, and her blood was used to write "pig" on the house's front door. The next night, Manson accompanied six of his family to the residence of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca and his wife, only to help bind them before ordering their deaths. In 1971, Manson and three of his fellow defendants were found guilty of murder in the first-degree and several other crimes. At the time, it was the longest murder trial in American history, spanning nine and a half months, as well as the most expensive, estimating $1 million. Manson was denied parole for the 12th time in April 2012.
"Lindbergh Baby Kidnapped from Home of Parents on Farm Near Princeton; Taken from His Crib; Wide Search on" -The New York Times
Used as the basis for an Agatha Christie novel (<em>Murder on the Orient Express</em>) and dubbed "the biggest story since the Resurrection" by famed journalist H.L. Mencken, the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son continues to fascinate theorists today. Charles Jr. was discovered missing from his second-floor bedroom on March 1, 1932, along with a note demanding a then-unimaginable $50,000, igniting a media frenzy like no other. The tabloid pandemonium prompted many tips and leads, but none as concrete as a package containing the boy's pajamas and another message demanding the ransom. After some misdirection from the presumed kidnapper, Lindbergh's child was soon after discovered in the woods along a road near the family residence. Notwithstanding the evidence stockpiled against the easily vilified illegal German immigrant Bruno Hauptmann (who was sentenced), speculation prevails as to the true identity of the caper responsible in this tragic tale of one of America's greatest heroes.
"Not Guilty as Sin" -NY Post
Still fresh in the minds of many and not to easily be forgotten, the trial of Casey Anthony turned Orlando, Florida into anything but the "happiest place on earth." Following a series of lies, misdirection and manipulation by then-22 year old Casey, Caylee's skeletal remains were found five months into the investigation, setting the stage for what could only be described as the most incessantly publicized and shocking trial in recent memory. The media had a field day that went on for months: Highlighting the young, pretty, party girl image used against her in court as the prosecution tore apart an aimless defense--or so it seemed. After resorting to throwing her family under the bus, incriminating people entirely made-up ("Zanny the Nanny"), and fabricating elaborate stories for the police, Casey was found not guilty of murder due to evidence deemed mostly circumstantial and not meeting the burden of "beyond reasonable doubt," inciting much debate regarding whether true justice was served.
"An American Tragedy" -TIME
Known and heralded as the "trial of the century," former football star and actor O.J. Simpson found himself in the middle of the nation's biggest, most-televised trial following the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, but not before fleeing an all-points bulletin in his Ford Bronco with 20 units in tow, interrupting game 5 of the NBA Finals. By enlisting a dream team including Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, and Robert Kardashian, the defense claimed Simpson was merely a victim of police fraud with regard to contaminated DNA evidence, while famously quipping "If it [the glove] doesn't fit, you must acquit." On October 3, 1995, an estimated 100 million people from around the world tuned in to watch the jury hand down a verdict of not guilty, consequently resulting in an estimated loss of $480 million in productivity and inciting an ongoing discussion of race in the judicial system that continues to this day.