Missing person probe expected to become homicide investigation
The state crime lab verified last week that bones found in a septic tank near the Sharp/Izard County line are human.
Investigators suspect the remains are those of Bridgett Juanita Sellers, who has been missing since May 9, 2003, when she was last seen walking on Peace Valley Road near where the skeletal remains were discovered Nov. 25. She was 21when she disappeared.
Jerry Stevens, 47, who lives on the property where the human remains were found, is the "primary person of interest" in the investigation that led to the discovery, according to criminal investigator David Huffmaster of the Sharp County Sheriff's Office.
Stevens had been convicted Oct. 5, 1995, of sexual misconduct with a child for an incident involving Sellers when she was 11. Stevens pleaded guilty in Izard County Circuit Court to charges of sexual solicitation of a child, a class A misdemeanor, and 2nd degree assault, a class B misdemeanor. He was sentenced to one year in jail, suspended. He was also fined $600, ordered to pay court costs of $74.25 and a contribution of $5 to the victims' reparations fund, according to the Izard County Clerk's Office.
The bones were found the day after Thanksgiving when authorities executed a search warrant, draining the septic tank at the Stevens residence on Alderman Road in Izard County, about 100 yards from the Sharp County line. The sheriff's departments from both counties are cooperating in the investigation.
Izard County Sheriff Tate Lawrence confirmed Dec. 2 that the state crime lab had verified the bones were human but had not yet identified whose they are.
The case is still officially a missing person investigation. "It will definitely become a homicide investigation when the contents of the search are identified," Lawrence said.
The state crime lab is examining DNA samples from the bones and from Sellers' mother, Cynthia Wellman, to determine if there is a match, according to Sharp County Sheriff Dale Weaver.
Stevens' wife and Sellers' mother are sisters, Weaver said.
Lawrence said he expects the state crime lab to expedite this case. "We have asked that this case be given priority because of the nature of the suspected crime," he said.
Authorities obtained the search warrant after receiving a tip Nov. 22, Weaver said. It was the second time investigators searched the Stevens property.
A tip received in March 2005 led authorities to obtain the first search warrant at the site. "We received information that there may have been some foul play and her body might be found on Stevens' property," Sheriff Weaver said.
Authorities searched a pond and the buried shell of a motor home that Stevens had burned on the property, according to Weaver. The search required the use of a backhoe provided by the Izard County Road Department. Evidence collected at the site included "an item or two of interest," Weaver said, but incomplete results from the crime lab provided no significant clues in the investigation.
Weaver said Stevens cooperated in the searches on his property. "He had no choice but to cooperate; we had a search warrant," he added. He said officers read Stevens his Miranda rights but he refused to comment without his lawyer present.
Huffmaster, joined by criminal investigators James Humphrey of the Izard County Sheriff's Department and John Qualls with the Sharp County Sheriff's Department, are conducting interviews as they awaited the results from the state crime lab.
"We've worked every day since we got the search warrant," Huffmaster said. "We obtain new information every day." He declined to say whom he had interviewed or what information he had obtained.
At the time of her disappearance in 2003, Sellers lived in Checotah, Okla., with her boyfriend, Richard Johnston, and his mother, Marilyn Matthews, Weaver said. Sellers had been visiting in the area the days leading up to her disappearance, staying with her grandmother.
On the day she disappeared, she had argued with her aunt, Becky Jones Dement, who was caring for two of Sellers' three children. Dement had confronted Sellers about her use of foul language around the children, and Sellers stormed out of Dement's house in anger after learning Dement had recorded Sellers' abusive speech to play to a social worker, Weaver said.
From the Dement home, Sellers walked to the nearby home of her cousin, Savannah Stevens, daughter of Jerry Stevens, Weaver said. She left there, walking down Peace Valley Road toward Peace Valley Church. Both Savannah Stevens and her brother, Andrew Stevens, saw her leave, and that was the last time anyone saw her alive, Weaver said.
Dement and Wellman, Seller's aunt and mother, went to the Sharp County Sheriff's Office a few days later. "They were concerned that no one had heard from her, and they thought she had gone back to Oklahoma," Weaver said. "No one took it real serious because of the way her life was."
Sellers' lifestyle had already landed in her jail. "She may have had a drug problem," Weaver said. "There was a warrant for her arrest from Paragould, and they thought she might have been trying to dodge it."
Authorities began to grow more concerned in June 2003 when Cynthia Matthews called the sheriff's office from Oklahoma, concerned because Sellers had never returned home.
Then, in October 2003, Sellers did not show up for her father's funeral. "She had been close to her father," Weaver said. After Wellman informed the sheriff's department of this, she was officially classified as a missing person and her name and photograph were posted on the Arkansas and national crime information center networks.
The investigation remained at a standstill until March 2005 when a tip led to the first search of Stevens' property.
Although Stevens is not now a suspect, Sheriff Lawrence hinted that his location is being monitored. "I know where he is," Lawrence said.