Cops seek leads on mystery torso from 1971
By Scott E. Williams
The Daily News
Published January 28, 2008
GALVESTON — In 1971, the disappearance of two Webster girls last seen on 61st Street in Galveston launched an investigation that ended in an arrest and the discovery of a skeletal torso in a Pasadena bayou.
More than 36 years later, investigators say they believe the wrong man was convicted, and the torso did not belong to the missing kid police had identified.
Sharon Shaw and Rhonda Johnson, both 14, had come from Webster to Galveston in summer 1971 to surf. The pair was last seen alive Aug. 4, 1971, waiting for a friend to pick them up on 61st Street. The friend later told investigators the girls were gone when she arrived.
In early 1972, police found the girls’ skulls in Turner Bayou, a month apart. However, months earlier, in the same area, a torso had turned up. Police ascribed the remains as belonging to Phillip Manning, a 13-year-old boy from Pasadena who had gone missing weeks earlier.
A few months ago, police learned that Manning, now 49, was alive and well. At 13, he had left home with a trucker, who had offered to make him an apprentice, of sorts. However, months later, Manning abandoned the truck driver, who was abusive.
At 14, Manning joined the U.S. Army, even though he was four years below the age requirement. When his true age was discovered more than a year later, he was discharged and sent home, although he ended up in Louisiana. After a lifetime of moves and brushes with the law, Manning now lives in Austin.
Galveston police detective Fred Paige said that Manning’s life prompts the question, “Whose bones were those?”
Paige said he and other investigators with a variety of agencies believed that the torso likely belonged to Sharon Shaw or Rhonda Johnson. However, he also said detectives wanted to be certain. He asked that anyone with information on the remains call the police at 409-765-3702.
Webster resident Michael Self ultimately received a life sentence in the girls’ killings, but police now believe he was innocent. Self died in prison more than 20 years ago.
The Webster investigator in the case that led to Self’s conviction was Tommy Deal, who would later be sentenced to federal prison for bank robbery.
Mysteries along I-45
Anniversaries of disappearances and unsolved killings can be trying times, not only for the families of the victims, but for others who lost loved ones similarly. Among the unsolved cases of missing and murdered girls and women in Galveston County are:
• July 1, 1971 — Brenda Jones, 14, was last seen in Galveston, saying she was on her way to visit a relative in the hospital. She never made it there. Brenda’s body was later found floating in Galveston Bay, about 500 yards west of the Pelican Island Bridge, with a head wound and a piece of cloth stuffed into her mouth.
• Nov. 9, 1971 — Allison Craven, 12, vanished from her Galveston home. About three months later, her dismembered remains were found buried in two separate places — in a field near her family’s home and in another field in Pearland, about 13 miles southeast of Houston.
• Nov. 19, 1971 — The half-nude bodies of Ball High School students Debbie Ackerman and Maria Johnson, both 15, were found in Turner’s Bayou in Texas City four days after they had gone missing. Both had been shot to death.
• Sept. 6, 1974 — Brooks Bracewell, 12, and Georgia Geer, 14, were last seen at a payphone outside a Dickinson convenience store. Their remains were later found in an Alvin marsh.
• Oct. 10, 1983 — Sondra Romber, 14, left her Santa Fe home for school but never arrived there. Her father reported her missing the day after he returned home to find his daughter gone and his house unlocked.
• Oct. 26, 1985 — Michelle Doherty Thomas, 17, disappeared after leaving her Alta Loma home with a group of friends. Investigators believe she may have been kidnapped and killed because she had served as a police informant in a drug bust.
• May 1986 — Shelley Sikes, 19, left her summer job at Gaido’s restaurant for her Texas City home but never made it. Her car was found on Interstate 45’s northbound feeder road about a mile north of the causeway. Her body was never recovered, but Bayview resident John Robert King and El Lago resident Gerald Peter Zwarst were later convicted of aggravated kidnapping, the most severe charge prosecutors could pursue without a body.
• Oct. 1988 — Suzanne Rene Richerson, 22, disappeared from the lobby of the Casa Del Mar Condominiums on Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard. One of her shoes was found, but no one has been able to turn up any other trace of her.
• Sept. 1991 — The remains of an unidentified woman, known as “Janet Doe,” were found in a Calder Road field, just east of Interstate 45. Her body was the fourth found in the field since 1984. Heidi Villareal Fye, 25, disappeared in 1983 and Laura Miller, 16, disappeared in 1984, both from the same convenience store. The bodies of Fye and Miller later turned up in the field, as did another unidentified woman, known only as “Jane Doe.”
• March 5, 1996 — Krystal Jean Baker, 13, was reported missing after being seen last walking in the 4500 block of FM 1765. Her body was later found near Interstate 10 and the Trinity River in Chambers County.
• April 1997 — Laura Kate Smither, 12, disappeared while jogging near her Friendswood home. Her body was found weeks later in a Pasadena retention pond. Friendswood Crime Stoppers, at 281-480-8477, is offering a reward of up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and indictment of anyone involved in the child’s death.
• Aug. 17 1997 — Jessica Lee Cain, 17, disappeared on her way home from a Bennigan’s restaurant in Webster. Her father found her tan 1992 Ford extended-cab pickup on the shoulder of southbound Interstate 45 between exits 7 and 8 in La Marque. Her wallet and keys were inside. The Cains have established a $50,000 reward for information leading to her whereabouts, or to the arrest and indictment of anyone involved in her disappearance. Anyone with information can call the Laura Recovery Center at 281-482-5723.
• July 12, 2001 — Tot “Totsy” Harriman, 57, was visiting family in League City when she left for a planned trip up state Highway 35 looking for property to buy. Neither she nor her 1995 Lincoln Continental have been seen since.
• July 12, 2002 — Sarah Trusty, 23, was last seen riding her bicycle near Algoa Baptist Church. Fifteen days later, two fishermen found her decomposed body on the Texas City Dike. Her death was ruled a homicide, and doctors determined she had been dead more than a week when her body was found.
• Nov. 3 — A man on a motorcycle found the body of Terresa Vanegas, 16, at the edge of a Dickinson High School practice field. Vanegas had last been seen three days earlier at a Halloween party on California Avenue. Her death was ruled a homicide, with police saying she had suffered various types of injuries.
• Nov. 10 — A passerby found the body of Amanda Nicole Kellum, 27, lying facedown at the eastern edge of Omega Bay, just north of the neighborhood bearing the same name. She had been beaten and stabbed to death.
• July 15 — Beach campers found the body of Bridgette Gearen, 28, on Crystal Beach. Gearen, a single mother who worked at a Beaumont law firm, had been raped, beaten and strangled. Gearen vanished one Saturday night from outside a beach house at the corner of Redfish and Crystal Beach roads that she was renting along with a dozen friends.
How To Help
Anyone with information in any of these cases can call his or her respective law-enforcement agency:
• Dickinson Police Department: 281-337-4700
• Friendswood Police Department: 281-996-3300
• Galveston County Sheriff’s Office tip line: 866-248-8477
• Galveston Police Department: 409-765-3760
• Hitchcock Police Department: 409-986-5559
• Jamaica Beach Police Department: 409-737-1143
• Kemah Police Department: 281-334-5414
• La Marque Police Department: 409-938-9269
• League City Police Department: 281-332-2566
• Santa Fe Police Department: 409-925-2000
• Texas City Police Department: 409-643-5760
• Texas Department of Public Safety, Galveston County office: 409-933-1125