Missing woman murdered
by The Press and Standard | August 30, 2018 5:00 am
Last Updated: August 28, 2018 at 2:11 pm
The twist and turns of a missing person investigation ultimately led Colleton County Sheriff’s Office investigators to a wooded area, adjacent to the last place Ashley Murdaugh was seen alive.
Murdaugh’s family had reported her missing to the sheriff’s office on Aug. 6. They feared the worst — Murdaugh had never picked up her paycheck at her place of employment and failed to celebrate the birthday of one of her three children, who lived with Murdaugh’s mother.
For approximately two weeks, Murdaugh had been staying at a home at 46 Cumberland Road. Cynthia Caron, 53, owned the home and resided there with her daughter, Martina F. Wolf, 30.
On the afternoon of Aug. 23 Caron, Wolf and Wolf’s boyfriend Alfred L. Taylor Jr., 23, were arrested on murder charges in connection with Murdaugh’s death. A fourth person, John Dunigan, 53, of Walterboro, was also in custody and charged with accessory after the fact in the murder.
Colleton County Sheriff R.A. “Andy” Strickland called a press conference on Aug. 23 to have Capt. Jason Chapman, the head of the sheriff office’s Criminal Investigations Division, announce the arrests and offer some insight into how the investigation progressed. They believed a press conference was necessary because of all the interest in the missing person case.
Sgt. Kelly Padgett of the sheriff’s office was assigned to investigation the missing person report. But, Chapman said, as the case unfolded, almost all of the members of the Criminal Investigation Division played a role in the investigation.
That was because wealth of information investigators had to pour through. “Usually we are begging for tips,” Chapman said. In this case “we received a flood of tips.” He estimated that the investigators were receiving about a dozen tips a day. They were receiving information that Murdaugh had been seen in Cottageville, in Green Pond, in North Charleston. Chasing down those tips “stretched out CID,” Chapman said.
Some of the information coming to the sheriff office, he added, were attempts by some to derail the investigation.
As the probing of the information and misinformation coming to the sheriff’s investigators continued, they were able to isolate a group of individuals they considered persons of interest.
Chapman said in an interview, investigators were able to “break one.” That person allegedly confessed to murdering Murdaugh in the early morning hours of Aug. 5.
Chapman said at the press conference that a cause of death had not been established. That determination came on Aug. 24 after Murdaugh’s body underwent an autopsy at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
Colleton County Chief Deputy Coroner Richard Carter, who worked the death investigation with Deputy Coroner Wayne Walker, reported the autopsy showed Murdaugh’s cause of death was strangulation.
Murdaugh’s body was found the afternoon of Aug. 22, buried about 250 feet into the wood line located on the left side of the Cumberland Road residence.
Two canine units from Foothills Search and Rescue arrived on Cumberland Road on the morning of Aug. 22 at the request of the sheriff’s office.
Chapman said the searchers had the proper paperwork to search the Caron property, but needed to obtain consent to search authorization or search warrants for the neighboring properties if the search led over the property lines.
The paperwork in hand, the dogs were put to work in the woods and led searchers to the burial site. Murdaugh’s body was uncovered and turned over to the Colleton County Coroner’s Office.
The arrest warrants for Caron, Wolf and Taylor explained that the charges were based on physical evidence, statements obtained during the investigation and the recovery of the victim.
Dunigan’s arrest warrant on a charge of accessory after the fact in the murder stated that he had aided and assisted in the removal and disposal of Murdaugh’s body.
A few hours after the press conference Wayne Andrew Moore, 55, of Cottageville and Tammy Ann Lott, 40, of Moncks Corner were also taken into custody on similar accessory after the fact charges. They too allegedly helped remove and dispose of the body. According to the arrest documents, the probable cause for their arrests came from evidence and statements obtained during the investigation.
In addition to the murder charge, Caron and Taylor was also charged with unlawful neglect of a child or helpless person. The arrest warrant alleged that Taylor had placed a juvenile boy “in unreasonable risk that affected the child’s mental health and safety.”
Wolf, Caron and Taylor were quickly arrested and moved to a bond hearing, because they were already being held in the Colleton County Detention Center.
The three were arrested on Aug. 7 in connection with an unrelated incident and were facing charges of armed robbery and assault and battery. They were in the detention center in lieu of $50,000 bond.
Those charges stemmed from an incident at Wolf and Caron’s home in the early morning hours of Aug. 2.
A Colleton County Sheriff’s Office deputy was sent to the Emergency Department of Colleton Medical Center to interview a man being treated for head and facial injuries.
The victim said he was hit on the head, tied up with a rope and robbed by gunpoint at the Cumberland Road home.
The victim explained that he had gone to the residence to take Taylor (his cousin) some cigars.
Once in the house, the victim said Taylor allegedly hit him on the head with something and tied his hands behind his back.
After he was tied up, the victim said Taylor allegedly gave Wolf a pistol and Wolf then allegedly handed the gun to Caron, who held the gun on the victim while his cell phone and identity cards were taken. A handgun was also reportedly taken from the glove compartment of the victim’s car.
An ambulance was called to the residence after the victim began having a seizure and he was transported to the medical center.
A member of the sheriff’s office sent to the residence was told by a female at the home that the victim had been assaulted outside the county and had arrived at the home injured.
Investigators allege that Murdaugh was murdered inside the residence three days after that incident.
Caron, Wolf and Taylor appeared before a Colleton County Magistrate on the afternoon of Aug. 23 on the murder charges and were ordered held without bond. State law requires that only a Circuit Court Judge can set bond on a murder charge.
When Dunigan, Lott and Moore appeared in bond court on the accessory after the fact charges, they too were ordered held without bond because the charge was linked to a murder.
The morning of Aug. 24 saw the sheriff’s office announcing a seventh arrest in the investigation of the murder.
The seventh person wasn’t taken into custody because she had participated in the killing — her criminal charges stemmed from her alleged actions during the sheriff office’s investigation.
Chapman, during the Aug. 23 press conference said he was wary of releasing more information because of a “very sensitive twist” that was hindering the investigation.
Later in the day that twist was untangling.
On Aug. 19, an unidentified female began calling multiple persons involved in the investigation, identifying herself as either a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division agent or a law enforcement officer.
The calls, made to Murdaugh’s family members and potential witnesses, allegedly attempted to convince them that Colleton County Sheriff’s Office did not have the family’s best interest in mind.
The suspect also allegedly called the Colleton Medical Center in an attempt to obtain sensitive case details such as the victim’s blood type, injuries and manner of death. The calls to the medical center began before Murdaugh’s remains were located.
On the afternoon of Aug. 23, Colleton County Sheriff’s Office investigations and agents from SLED’s Walterboro-based Lowcountry Division identified the suspect.
Members of the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office, with the assistance of the members of the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office, went to the home of Shannon Fisk Steinbronn, 49, of Dorchester, the morning of Aug. 24 and took her into custody on charges of impersonating a law enforcement officer and obstruction of justice. She had bond set at $75,000 on the charges.
Investigators said they have not discovered a motive for Steinbronn’s alleged interference in the investigation.
“The Colleton County Sheriff’s Office would like to thank everyone that came forward with information throughout Ashley Murdaugh’s investigation,” said CCSO’s Public Information Officer Tony Jones, as he announced Steinbronn’s arrest. “Despite Steinbronn’s alleged actions, information from the community is what led to the recovery of Murdaugh and the arrest of all the associated suspects.”
Strickland said at the Aug. 23 press conference that the community coming together encouraged him. He also said he was “very proud of our guys. They worked countless hours, spending 15-20 hours a day on the investigation.”