Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk was last seen April 5th, 2014, as she walked into a bar in downtown Wilmington, NC. She was reported missing the next day by family members when she failed to turn up for brunch. Extensive searches have yet to yield any trace of the 53-year-old.
James Opelton Bradley was first flagged as suspicious when investigators discovered he had exchanged seventeen phonecalls with Van Newkirk between April 1st and April 5th when the calls abruptly ceased, the same day she disappeared.
Police interest in Bradley piqued even further on the discovery he’d been released from prison just 14 months earlier after serving 25 years of a life sentence for killing his 8-year-old stepdaughter, Ivy Gipson, in Fayetteville.
The FBI lends a hand
Bradley had initially insisted to investigators that he hadn’t seen Van Newkirk on the night she vanished. However, FBI agents stepped in with some fancy geolocating technology that was able to track the movements of both Bradley and Van Newkirk through their cellphones. This, coupled with footage from traffic cameras, meant police could tell the pair had been together on that night.
On being presented with this information, Bradley changed his story. He claimed they had gone for a drive, which turned into a heated argument that culminated in Van Newkirk jumping from his truck and running off. He claimed not to have seen her again.
A body is found
Police alerted by some unusual soil disturbance on some farmland, where Bradley and Van Newkirk had both occasionally been employed, discovered a shallow grave. A body was found bound in duct tape in some trash bags.
In a horrible twist to the investigation, the police quickly realized the remains did not belong to Van Newkirk but were, in fact, those of 33-year-old Elisha Tucker. Tucker had been missing since August 2013, just five months after Bradley was released from prison.
After an autopsy, Tucker’s death was ruled as being caused by blunt-force trauma. She had multiple injuries, which included lacerations to her scalp, four broken ribs and bleeding on the brain, and bruising to her muscles that indicated she was alive when these injuries occurred.
Bradley was convicted of second-degree murder for Shannon Van Newkirk and was sentenced to between 30 – 37 years in prison. He was tried separately for the killing of Elisha Tucker; convicted, this time, of first-degree murder, he was handed a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He narrowly escaped the death penalty.
Catch the details with On The Case With Paula Zahn at 10/9c on Investigation Discovery.