TRAVELERS REST, SC (FOX Carolina) – The Travelers Rest police chief confirmed Wednesday a longstanding person of interest in the case of a woman who disappeared 20 years ago has died.
Chief Ben Ford said Ricky Shaun Shirley had been the main person of interest in Brooke Henson’s disappearance.
Henson has been missing since 1999. The 20-year-old had been last seen at a bonfire party in the River Falls area of Greenville County, investigators revealed back in 2016.
The Greenville County Coroner’s Office said Shirley died on Monday. Autopsy results to help determine a cause of death may take up to two months to get back, but Greenville County deputies said there were no immediate signs of foul play.
Lt. Ryan Flood said deputies were called to a home on Dacusville Road in Marietta just after 5 a.m. Monday and found Shirley dead.
“Once on scene deputies discovered the victim was discovered by a parent in the upstairs of the residence where the victim resided,” Flood said in an emailed statement.
Both Shirley's death and Henson's disappearance remain under investigation.
Winding the clock back to 1999
"There was a party at the residence of Brooke Henson," chief Ford said in an exclusive interview with FOX Carolina.
According to the original missing person's report, which has just been released for the first time, Henson's mom says Brooke and Shaun got into a "verbal dispute" in Brooke's bedroom. At that time, Brooke left the house and walked off in an unknown direction.
"And she was never seen again," Ford tells us. "That's the basic story we've been told."
So, what happened along Henderson Drive more than twenty years ago?
"There are conflicting statements on what happened after that," Ford says.
Yet without answers, Ford shared his own theory.
"I truly believe that...that night she didn't live through that night is what I believe. And we're trying to pin down exactly who was involved in that."
The boyfriend's name pops up
Ford says Shirley's name came up early in the investigation, information that is now public for the first time. Ford told us Shirley is a person of interest in the case courtesy of the investigation and statements TRPD has thus far.
"A lot of it pointed towards him being involved and what happened to her," Ford said, before emphasizing that Brooke is still listed as a missing person. "We can't confirm she's dead. However, a lot of people have shared information that he was involved in what happened to her. Now, we never had enough evidence to charge him with anything."
When asked if Shirley was still a person of interest even in death: "Yeah, he's a person of interest, he's still a person of interest even though he's deceased."
A call that changes the investigation
We confirmed with the Greenville County Coroner's Office that Shirley died on Tuesday, October 1, 2019, shocking Ford. But it wasn't Shirley's death alone that shocked the chief.
"Monday morning, we received a phone call of possible information in the Brooke Henson disappearance," Ford said. "It was Brooke Henson's childhood home."
The chief says Brooke Henson's brother and his wife still live at the house, and they spoke with investigators. A search of the property turned up nothing to break the case, but learning of Shirley's death the next day was what he thinks was their next big break.
"The next morning, Tuesday morning we got a call from Greenville County which they said Ricky Shaun Shirley was found dead. We were shocked at that...we were surprised. We don't think it's a coincidence."
Ford thinks someone tipped Shirley off to the new lead.
"When we start digging, people start talking," he said. "So, based on that theory, did somebody call him and say we were over at the house and asking questions...we don't know. We hope to find out soon."
Ford says Shirley has been interviewed before, and has denied any involvement in Henson's disappearance. He also says Shirley's death is tragic and he feels for them in their time of grief.
But at the end of the day, the chief says his job is to find out what happened to Brooke Henson.
A plea for help from the community
"People were afraid to talk. People are afraid to talk. I really, truly believe people were afraid of Shaun Shirley, or if it's someone else that's the suspect, they're afraid of that person," he said. "People are afraid of revenge, and I really believe that to be the case. I believe there were multiple people at that party that night. I believe at least one or more people know what happened to her more than just her walking away."
He then closed with a plea: "We need help from the community. We desperately need it. I'm begging for it. I'm really asking the community to step forward."
As of now, a cause of death for Shirley has not yet been released. The coroner's office says toxicology results will take 30 to 60 days.
Chief Ford asks anyone with information to call his office, or Crime Stoppers at 1-888-CRIME-SC.