Inside the 13-Year Search for Brittanee Drexel: A Family's Nightmare, Grim Twists and a Suspect Charged
Brittanee Drexel was just another kid in town for spring break.
Myrtle Beach, S.C., was packed with revelers in April 2009, and the 17-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., had been determined to join the fun, even though her mom had said no to the trip.
"I didn't know she was going," Dawn Drexel told People later that year. "The day she left she was angry with me because she asked me if she could go and I told her no. I said, 'There's no adults going and I have no idea who these kids are and I don't feel comfortable with it.'"
"I told her I just felt something was going to happen to her," she recalled. "I just felt it."
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Brittanee had been allowed to go spend the night with a friend to give everyone a chance to cool off after some heated arguing. Dawn said she called on the night of April 22 "and apologized for the whole day."
But the high school soccer player, who had recently told her mom she wanted to be a maternity nurse and find "Mr. Right" to have kids with, took off for South Carolina that night with a few friends. For the next few days, neither of Brittanee's parents, who had separated in 2008, had any idea she was in Myrtle Beach.
She last talked to her mom on April 25, a Saturday. "She said she was at the beach," Dawn said. "I didn't think anything of it because it was 80 degrees in Rochester that day and they call the lake the beach here."
Dawn told ABCNews.com in 2009 of that last conversation, "I told her I loved her and she said, 'I love you, too, mom. I'll see you tomorrow.'"
Brittanee Drexel Disappears
On the night of April 25, 2009, according to investigators, Brittanee went to meet a friend from her hometown and a few of his buddies at the Blue Water Resort on Ocean Boulevard, the main drag of downtown Myrtle Beach. The group she'd traveled with said they last had contact with Brittanee at approximately 8 p.m.
Security camera images released later showed her leaving the Blue Water Resort alone at 8:45 p.m. She texted her boyfriend, 19-year-old John Grieco, who was back in Rochester, that she was walking back to where she and her pals were staying, the Bar Harbor Motel, about a mile and a half away.
And then Brittanee stopped texting back.
After checking in with some of the people Brittanee was on vacation with, John—who later told CBS News he had known Brittanee was going on the trip and "never thought anything could happen in three days"—texted Dawn, informing her that her daughter was in Myrtle Beach and that neither he nor her friends there could get a hold of her.
"I said, 'What do you mean, they can't find her?'" Dawn, talking to ABCNews.com, remembered asking him. "He said he was texting her and all of a sudden, nothing."
She and Brittanee's dad, Chad Drexel, both tried to call and text. Their messages remaining unanswered, Dawn told People she first called the Rochester police, at a loss for what to do.
According to the Myrtle Beach Police Department's incident report from April 26, Dawn then had a family friend stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina drive down to Myrtle Beach and, after touching base with Brittanee's friends, called the cops at around 5 a.m. She was entered into the National Crime Information Center as missing at 6:30 a.m.
Investigators later shared that the last known ping from Brittanee's cell phone was at around midnight from a tower near the South Santee River, between McClellanville and Georgetown, S.C.
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The Long Search for Brittanee Drexel Begins
When Brittanee was first reported missing April 26, police weren't yet sure what they were dealing with.
"We can't really get a handle on it," Myrtle Beach Police Capt. David Knipes told ABCNews.com. "It could go either way."
As yet there was "no evidence of foul play," he said. "Could there be? Sure...It could range the whole gamut from 'I'm a runaway' to 'I've been abducted and killed.'"
A Myrtle Beach Police report stated that two of the five guys Brittanee met at the Blue Water Resort that night told investigators she only stayed for about 10 minutes, then left to return some clothing to another friend. The whole group checked out of their room sometime between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. later that night and drove back to Rochester, Knipe also told ABCNews.com.
"Sinister? I don't know," the captain said, noting that they could also have merely wanted to get an early start on their 16-hour drive home before work or school the next day.
But, Knipes added, "Nobody's been cleared. You don't clear anybody until the case is closed."
Dawn Drexel, meanwhile, did not think her daughter would just take off without saying anything, especially leaving all her luggage behind.
"I think something has happened to her," she told ABCNews.com. "I just have a funny feeling. It's not like her to not call her family."
Brittanee took her parents' divorce hard and had recently been prescribed antidepressants, Dawn said, adding, "I really don't know what state of mind she's in right now."
If her daughter was able to call her, she hoped she would. "I want her to know she's not in any kind of trouble," Dawn said. "We just want her to come home."
In the days immediately following the teen's disappearance, Dawn and Chad Drexel—who had adopted Brittanee as a toddler when he married Dawn—went down to Myrtle Beach to pass out missing fliers and look for her themselves.
"I did everything I could to try to find her," Chad recalled to People in 2016. "I'm the only father she has ever known. We were very close."
John Grieco, who also went to Myrtle Beach during that first week, told ABCNews.com, that he had taken a break from work and school to focus on the search for his girlfriend.
"My whole life in Rochester had Brittanee involved with it," he said, noting that they had been dating off and on for two and a half years. "It's kind of hard to be in Rochester without Brittanee." He described her as "a really strong-headed person," and he didn't think she had run away or harmed herself.
The family had set up a website, HelpFindBrittanee.com, through which people could donate. But already there were scammers trying to make a buck from the family's ordeal, John said, people knocking on doors asking for donations, claiming it was for the search. Police were aware, he said.
On May 5, awash in tips and alleged reported sightings of Brittanee, police released surveillance images of her entering and leaving the Blue Water Resort on the night of April 26, the teen wearing black shorts, a printed tank-top and silver flipflops, her purse over her shoulder.
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Police Captain Knipes expressed confidence that between his department, her family and assistance from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, they should be able to find her.
On CBS News' Early Show May 7, Grieco said he really wanted to stress that Brittanee had not run away. "She definitely met with foul play," he said. "I think somebody saw her walking and offered her a ride and she got in the car with the wrong person."
He said on behalf of himself, his family and her family, they all loved her and were going to do "everything in our power" to bring her home. "I can't stand to be in Rochester without her," Grieco added. "It is more like a marriage. I miss her. I was going through my voicemails, and there was one of her yelling at me, and I even miss her yelling at me."
Dawn, though she remained hopeful, was already steeling herself for the worst. Talking to Rochester's WHEC News 10 on May 5, she said, "I seriously think someone took my daughter or she may not be alive."
As the one-month mark approached in June, Myrtle Beach Police Detective Vincent Dorio told local publication The Sun News that those first critical hours after Brittanee disappeared had been "overwhelming" as they worked on interviewing everyone she'd come into contact with. But, he added, investigators had quickly ruled out the idea of Brittanee being a runaway.
After learning she had been treated for depression, "It only took a few hours to change from 'This is a missing persons case and we have to hunt her down pretty quick' to 'This is serious,'" Dorio said. "This is not a kid hiding at the beach to stay away from mom. She just stopped all communication immediately, which wasn't the norm for her."
Dawn also told The Sun News she felt that the police had been on the ball with the search.
"They had police looking on Ocean Boulevard right away," she said. "In Brittanee's case, they had quite a few people working on it." She added, "We talk to the police every day, or every other day."
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New Leads and People of Interest as Investigators Suspect Foul Play
In early April 2010, Myrtle Beach police first told their local ABC 15 News station, WPDE, that they had identified a few people of interest, as well as a location of interest they were investigating further.
"It's just a matter of time now before everything gets put together, and we can say yes, here's a solid arrest," Detective Dorio told the station.
Talking to WACH Fox 57 on April 9, 2010, Georgetown County Investigator Chris Bailey, part of a multi-jurisdictional task force with Dorio and others, said he'd received a tip in December 2009 that set their current course in motion. He couldn't go into too much detail, but said new evidence allowed for more search warrants and polygraph tests.
Three, and possibly four, people of interest were "suspected of being present with Brittanee, knowing her whereabouts or possible whereabouts," Bailey said.
Still, Dorio added, "We could use that one person—or that one piece of evidence—that comes forward and ties everything together to make a solid arrest which leads to a solid conviction."
But, they acknowledged, the nature of their investigation had changed.
"In the beginning, it was a missing persons case," Dorio said, "but everything we've looked at, I'm confident foul play was involved, and this is probably going to be a homicide investigation."
A Sad Year Goes By
As the winter holidays approached in 2009, Dawn told WMBF News, "Christmas was one of Brittanee's most favorite holidays. You know just decorating, making cookies, and things like that, you know, she enjoyed that. Right now, as it looks, she's not gonna be here for that, and it's gonna be very hard."
She hoped that a recent People magazine cover, featuring Brittanee and several other missing young people, would help keep awareness of her case high. "Anything that can put her name and her face out there, it can bring in more leads," Dawn said.
Talking to ABC 15 News as the one-year anniversary approached, she remembered the eldest of her three children as a sunny, outgoing girl who'd sing and impersonate Lion King characters, and who, when she got older, loved makeup and clothes and "wanted to be more with her friends," like most teens.
Whatever had happened to Brittanee, Dawn said, "For her to go through something like that just kills. I mean as a parent, you'd rather have it done to yourself than your child. Nobody, I mean nobody wishes that on anybody."
She of course wished her daughter was still alive, but "I don't want to give myself false hope either. I mean, this has been an emotional roller coaster." Dawn planned to attend a vigil being held in Myrtle Beach in Brittanee's honor "It's going to be difficult, but we'll work through it," she said. "There's nothing wrong with tears."
FBI Says Brittanee Drexel Was Killed
Despite the investigation heating up in 2010, no arrests were made in connection with Brittanee's case and it was a number of years before it was officially declared a homicide investigation.
On June 8, 2016, the FBI announced that they believed Brittanee had been held against her will and killed.
"Brittanee Drexel did leave the Myrtle Beach area," South Carolina FBI Special Agent in Charge David Thomas said at a news conference in McClellanville, S.C. "We believe she traveled to this area, around McClellanville and the North Charleston, South Georgetown area, and we believe she was killed after that."
Thomas didn't go into detail, but said their evidence was "exhaustive." They had suspected Brittanee had been dead for some time, he said, but held off on publicizing their findings "in the interest of trying to protect the parents and maintain hope that we could bring her back alive."
A $25,000 reward was offered for information that led to whomever was responsible being brought to justice.
Also speaking at the news conference, Dawn Drexel said, "After seven long years of waiting and praying for the return of my daughter, we know she isn't coming home alive. Brittanee's life was stolen from her in a brutal and senseless fashion."
Chad Drexel posted on Facebook that the news had "in a small way given us some horrible closure and also something to focus on over the next few months. One of the things i CAN SAY is that I BEG ANY AND OR ALL OF YOU to help us bring our daughters remains back home to us in New York. This is ALL ABOUT JUSTICE FOR BRITTANEE. As her father I CAN NOT UNTIL THE DAY I DIE LET ONE OR MORE of these people who murdered our baby GET AWAY WITH THIS."
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A Grim—and False—Lead
A couple months later, multiple media outlets obtained a federal court transcript of testimony given Aug. 15, 2016, by FBI Agent Gerrick Munoz during a bond hearing for Timothy Da'Shaun Taylor, who was in jail awaiting trial on federal robbery charges stemming from 2011.
Munoz testified that Taquan Brown, an inmate serving 25 years for voluntary manslaughter, had claimed in a jailhouse confession that he saw Taylor, who was 16 when Brittanee disappeared, sexually assaulting the girl at what he described as a "stash house."
"They ended up tricking her out with some of their friends," Munoz testified about Brown's allegations, "offering her to them and getting a human trafficking situation."
Also according to Munoz's testimony, Brown said that Brittanee tried to run away but was "pistol-whipped" and he later heard two gunshots. He concluded that Taylor had shot her, after which her body was wrapped up and dumped in an alligator pit.
The so-called stash house and 40 nearby alligator pits were searched, but there were no traces of Brittanee, Munoz also testified.
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During the hearing, David Aylor, Taylor's lawyer, told the court there was no hard evidence or other witnesses linking his client to Brittanee and alleged that the government was trying to pressure Taylor into cooperating with them.
Taylor, who was never arrested or charged in connection with Brittanee's case, was only officially cleared by the FBI earlier this month, after someone else was arrested. (Having already served prison time for the same robbery at the state level, Taylor was sentenced in 2019 to time served and probation for the federal charges.)
"We are not relieved," his mother, Joan Taylor—who had adamantly denied the accusations against her son from the beginning—said at a May 19 press conference, per the Myrtle Beach Sun News. "We are enraged it took this long...I call for law enforcement to halt the practice of disclosing unfounded leads and names of potential suspects without credible evidence. Doing this has real life consequences and a lasting effect on so many, particularly us Black families."
Their hearts went out to the Drexel family, Joan said, adding, "We understand the tragic loss of Brittanee, of her life, and it has changed her family forever. As a mother of three, I truly understand. It pains me to even think about losing a child."
An FBI spokesperson told E! News in a statement, "Throughout the investigation law enforcement followed multiple leads to wherever they led us, all in effort to find Brittanee. We have an obligation to follow leads to their conclusion. To that end, the person we believe is responsible for Brittanee's murder has been arrested and charged."
Meanwhile, the Search Continues
In March 2017, investigators conducted a new three-day search of some woods and an open field in Georgetown, S.C., with a K-9 unit and excavating equipment. FBI supervisory agent Don Wood told Charleston's Post and Courier, "We're not going to discuss what we found and what we didn't find. But I'm confident in telling you that the investigation was advanced. We made strides in bringing those responsible for Brittanee's death to justice."
Dawn Drexel told People that they'd been informed of the search and were "awaiting any news that may come in the near future. I am just emotionally drained. I am tired because I haven't slept much."
"Right now, we are waiting for a resolution on Brittanee's case. Eight years is too long."
"It Was Hours": Brittanee's Remains Found, Suspect Charged With Murder
After a 13-year investigation, authorities announced on May 16 that they had recovered Brittanee Drexel's remains and 62-year-old Raymond Douglas Moody of Georgetown, S.C., had been charged with murder, criminal sexual conduct and kidnapping in her death.
The warrant for Moody's arrest obtained by E! News alleges that he caused her death by manual strangulation on or about the night of April 25, 2009. The suspect had been jailed in lieu of $100,000 bail since May 4 on an obstruction of justice charge, but after being charged with murder was remanded without bail.
Officials said during a press conference that they were first led to the spot on May 4, the remains were excavated May 7 and positively identified on May 11 through dental records and DNA testing. A postmortem was conducted by the Georgetown County Coroner and the remains were released to the Drexel family.
"It was really quick," Georgetown County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said, "and it was hours, it wasn't days, the entire process was a series of hours, from the time that she went missing to the time that she was buried."
As for the suspect, Georgetown County Sheriff Carter Weaver described Moody as a man with an "extensive sex offender criminal history."
Moody is on the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division's sex offender registry for convictions in 1983 in California for rape by force, kidnapping, and lewd or lascivious acts and sodomy with a child under 14. He was released from prison in 2004 after serving 20 1/2 years of a 40-year sentence, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirmed to WMBF News, after which he moved to South Carolina. His supervised parole ended in 2007. On the sex offender registry site, there's also a citation for failure to register in South Carolina from 2010.
E! News has reached out to Moody's attorney, Scott Bellamy.
"In the coming months, we will move to seek justice for Brittanee and we'll be talking about arraignments and indictments and hearings," Richardson said during the May 16 presser. "We're going to do our very best to see that Raymond Moody pays for what he's done, but that is not going to replace Brittanee."
"Already the skeleton of the trial is in my mind," he also told WMBF on Wednesday, noting that there were hundreds of boxes of discovery to go through. "And I've lived it for awhile, but Mr. Bellamy hasn't, so it'll take him a lot longer to catch up than it would me, but we could prepare our witness list for the most part today."
"Brittanee lost her life in a tragic way at the hands of a horrible criminal who was walking our streets," Susan Ferensic, lead agent at the FBI's Columbia field office, told reporters Monday. Acknowledging the many law enforcement agencies represented around her and the people who worked the case at every level, she said, "No one ever wavered over this time. And we wish we could have come to these results sooner."
Moody was first by identified by Myrtle Beach police as a person of interest in February 2012, six months after authorities searched a Georgetown motel room he had stayed in around the time Brittanee disappeared. Georgetown County Sheriff's Office Detective Phillip Hanna told WMBF News at the time that Moody was also a person of interest in a 2005 missing-person case, and he was not cooperating with either investigation.
Addressing the time that went by since Moody was first on their radar, Richardson said at the press conference, "There was a lot of investigation going on in the beginning. I think they named him as quickly as they could at that time, but what you'll see as this unfolds is that there are all kinds of tentacles coming off of this. It took a while to really narrow down leads and we chased down every one of those."
Chad and Dawn Drexler, who'd gone back and forth between New York and South Carolina countless times over the years, joined officials at the announcement of Moody's arrest.
Dawn, reading from prepared notes, said, "This is truly a mother's worst nightmare. I am mourning my beautiful daughter today, as I have been for 13 years, but today it's bittersweet. We are much closer to the closure and the peace that we have been desperately hoping for. I am slowly processing everything that has come to light. I have not hidden from commenting or discussing Brittanee's case publicly."
Ultimately, she concluded, "today marks the beginning of a new chapter. The search for Brittanee is now a pursuit of Brittanee's justice."