Brittany Locklear absolutely would have the same smile, the one full of kindness and light. Angelic, almost.
At least, that's what her mother, Connie Locklear-Chavis, thinks. Brittany would have turned 13 last week had she not been kidnapped from the end of her driveway and killed, her torn, drowned body found in a drainage ditch three miles from her home.
Locklear-Chavis wonders who Brittany's friends would be and how she would dress. Would she still love going to church? Would she still play with her dolls?
Any hope of answering those questions ended the morning of Jan. 7, 1998. Any hope of a family not overshadowed by the homicide ended that day, too.
Brittany's half sister, Brianna, was 18 months old when Brittany was killed. But the slaying affects her every day of her life. Now 9, Brianna has never waited for a school bus by herself, and a bus has never dropped her off without someone watching. Her uncle taught her to shoot a gun when she was 3.
The details of what happened that January day remain cloudy. Connie Locklear-Chavis awoke around 6:30 a.m. to help Brittany dress for kindergarten.
They picked out her outfit together: a green-and-white softball T-shirt, green denim coveralls, green and pink tennis shoes, white socks and a green tie for her hair. She helped Brittany shrug into her Little Red Riding Hood winter coat before they left their home to wait for the school bus.
Then Connie made what seemed like a harmless decision. She went back inside the house to use the bathroom.
Neighbors who lived about 500 feet away said they saw the kidnapping. A man in a pickup stopped in front of the driveway. Maybe he was white, maybe Indian, or maybe a light-skinned black man. The truck might have been brown, maybe tan. Maybe it had lights on the roof.
He took Brittany, they said. She didn't fight him.
Hundreds of people came out to search for the girl. County, state and federal lawmen set up roadblocks.
Then Hoke County Sheriff Wayne Byrd issued a warning: Anyone with a brown truck would be stopped and questioned. Residents from across the region flooded the office with tips, which started to pile up.
Jay Tilley, an agent for the State Bureau of Investigation, said that, in the early weeks, investigators took hundreds of calls each day. Tilley said the investigators had neither the manpower nor the equipment to handle all those calls.
They jotted notes on paper forms and tried to keep computer spreadsheets of all the leads, but some tips slipped through. Three months later, the FBI gave detectives on Brittany's case a computer program designed to manage crime tips.
By that time, though, the calls had tapered off.
"We know there was info that came in that we didn't follow up on," Tilley said in an interview earlier this month. "We were not prepared."
Eight years later, Tilley said, investigators think the truck could have been almost any color, almost any make or model.
Investigators followed leads and tracked tips full-time for about a year, he said. Slowly, detectives returned to their regular assignments.
Meanwhile, Brittany's family tried to cope. Her mother and stepfather, Charles Chavis, lived less than 100 yards from Charles' parents. A cousin lived around the corner. While they waited for investigators to find Brittany's killer, they fretted and fawned over Brianna.
A year passed without an arrest.
By January 1999, Byrd had been voted out of office. The new sheriff, Jim Davis, vowed to solve the case. Brittany's family now scowls at the mention of Davis' name. They say he tried to intimidate them into confessing to Brittany's death. They say he tried to pin her death on Charles' father, James "Candy Rose" Stevens.
They say Davis showed photographs of Brittany's half-naked body to Stevens.
In 2002 -- an election year for sheriff in Hoke County -- Davis called a news conference to talk about Brittany's death. He had no new information.
Connie Locklear-Chavis went to that news conference with a cousin but walked out halfway through, angrily accusing the sheriff of using Brittany's death to help his campaign. She still fumes when she talks about that day.
Davis said earlier this month that he did not want to talk about Brittany or the investigation because he is no longer in law enforcement.
In 2001, Hoke County voters elected Hubert Peterkin to replace Davis. When Peterkin took office in December 2001 he became the third sheriff in three years to handle the investigation into Brittany's death.
Investigators thought they got a break in the case less than a year into Peterkin's term. Carthage police in August 2002 arrested a Fort Bragg firefighter in a bank robbery. The firefighters who went through his locker found a photograph of Brittany.
Her family, the media and the public clamored for information: What kind of photograph was it? Why did the firefighter have it? Did he kill Brittany? Was the mystery finally solved?
Tilley, the SBI agent, said the photograph was clipped from a newspaper. He would not say why the man had the clipping in his locker. He said investigators tested the man's DNA, and it did not match the samples taken from Brittany's body.
In the end, investigators were no closer to knowing who kidnapped and killed Brittany Locklear.
"She loved everybody," Locklear-Chavis said earlier this month. "She didn't find no faults with anybody. And Lord, she loved going to church."
Connie and Charles Chavis separated last summer. Connie said they spent years trying to deal with Brittany's death, and, ultimately, the stress became too much.
Brittany's step-grandparents, who still live near where Brittany was kidnapped, watch over their grandchildren and wonder about the child they lost.
"Lord, I hope they find whoever killed that baby," said James Stevens, Brittany's step-grandfather whom Davis once accused of her death.
Tilley can look through the Brittany Locklear database and check each of the 17,600 leads investigators have followed. The SBI estimates that 92 agents have worked almost 9,100 hours to solve the mystery. Investigators have reviewed scores of accusations and have discounted them all.
"I'm not sure if I know of a magic bullet that will solve this case," Tilley said. "Time is our worst enemy."
But someone knows what happened to Brittany Locklear. So the investigators wait, holding onto the hope that that person, or someone who knows something about the killing, will come forward.
"This thing is eating at someone," Peterkin said. "Someone knows."
Memorials to Brittany stand in key spots near her family's homes. Ceramic angels and silk flowers cover her grave, which is hidden among the trees behind her step-grandparents' house.
Two wooden crosses carrying her name stand at the corner of U.S. 401 and Ryan McBryde Road, where searchers found her body eight years ago.
More ceramic angels surround a vase at the end of her family's driveway. They smile, hands folded in prayer, reminding Brittany's family of the angel they'll never see again.
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