Sharron's Story

Date Published 03.28.08
Thirty years later, Yvonne Prior and her twin daughters, Moreen and Doreen, tracked the beekeeper down. He wasn’t a beekeeper anymore; he’d long since left behind the small field where he kept his beehives. But the Priors remembered enough vague details about him to find a possible email address. It took a while. Messages bounced back and were forwarded. Finally, a message appeared in their inbox.

“I’m your man,” it said.

He agreed to meet them at a restaurant. He brought his wife. What were the Priors hoping for? Recollections. Clues. He had always been “the beekeeper” to them, an essential but abstract figure in the most important event of their lives, and here he was, polite and solemn and real. He searched his memory and answered their many questions the best he could.

A couple of hours later the meeting was winding down, the silences between sentences growing longer.

“Would you take us there?” Yvonne asked suddenly. She had not been able to visit the place when it happened. Could not. Would not.

The man didn’t owe them anything. He’d already done more than most people would. Still, he didn’t hesitate.

“Of course,” he said.

The area was different. The woods were gone. A truck covers factory had gone up nearby. The small piece of land where the man had once kept his bees was now vacant.

He took them straight to the spot. Yvonne knew from newspaper photographs and maps she’d pored over that he was exactly right about the location. She marveled at his accuracy after all this time.

“It really affected him,” his wife said quietly.

A friend had called him that cold Tuesday morning. Did he know the gate to his beehives was open? That evening he walked over to check out the muddy field.

Yvonne stared at the spot. So many things had changed over the years. Suspects. Buildings. Faces. Memories.

One thing had not changed: the pain.

“Like an amputation of my soul,” Yvonne says.

Big Sister

Yvonne was born in England, but moved with her family to Montreal when she was nine. They settled in Point St. Charles, or "the Point," as locals call it, a neighborhood on the southwest side. The Point is one of Montreal's oldest neighborhoods, with roots in the Industrial Revolution. Working-class Irish, English and Scottish immigrants took over in the 20th century.

Yvonne was living in the Point when she met her husband, a private in the Canadian army; in 1959, the young couple had their first child, Sharron. The day before Sharron’s second birthday, the twins, Moreen and Doreen, arrived. Sharron was thrilled.

“She thought they were her birthday present,” Yvonne remembers.

Sharron Prior, 1962

Sharron was a gentle girl, caring and responsible, like “a little old lady,” her mother laughs. She loved animals, and would take in strays, tending to them and nursing them back to health.

The family was once given some turtles from the country, and Sharron decided they needed a proper place to thrive. Yvonne can still see her in the backyard, surrounded by turtles, building them a special turtle house.

In 1962, the army transferred Yvonne's husband to Manitoba. There, the couple had another child, a son named George, whom the family called "Jo-Jo." But by 1965 the marriage had fallen apart, and Yvonne moved with the children back to the Point.

The Point was the kind of neighborhood that doesn’t exist much anymore; single mothers like Yvonne could rent there cheaply, knowing their kids would grow up in a tight-knit community centered on Sunday school and sports. Big families spilled out of tiny row houses. People were tough, they didn’t have a lot, but there was very little crime.

For Sharron, who was a bit shy by nature, the best thing about living in the Point was the Boys and Girls Club down the street. She joined the floor hockey league, and took arts and crafts classes. She spent afternoons playing ping-pong. It wasn’t long before she had a tight circle of friends.

Sharron Prior

1975 --- Funny Lady starring Barbra Streisand was in theatres, and “The Best of My Love” by The Eagles climbed the charts. In February, Sharron turned sixteen. Pictures of her from this time show a striking teenager with blonde hair styled long and straight. She had a favorite brown suede jacket she loved to wear. Elton John songs like “Daniel” and “Rocket Man” played in heavy rotation in her bedroom. She had a boyfriend, John, whom she’d liked since Grade Four.

True to her easygoing nature, Sharron told Yvonne she didn’t want any special party for her sixteenth birthday. Yvonne surprised her anyway with a gathering of close friends at the house.

An excerpt from Sharron’s diary reveals typical teenage insecurities, but also that Sharron was thoughtful beyond her years.

They played and sang Sweet Sixteen & put mine and John's name into it. I was so embarrassed & John was really Embarrassed. I think my Mothers' so good to me.
Easter Weekend, 1975

Sharron spent the afternoon of Saturday, March 29 painting Easter eggs at the kitchen table. After dinner with her family she got ready to meet friends at Marina’s, a pizza place a few blocks away where her crowd hung out.

It started to drizzle, and Sharron hesitated. She didn't want to ruin her suede jacket. Yvonne reassured her the jacket would be fine. Marina’s was only a five-minute walk away.

“Goodbye, Mom!” Sharron yelled.

“Goodbye, Sharron! Be careful,” Yvonne called out, as she always did.

A friend of Sharron’s watched her cross the street in front of her house diagonally on her way to Marina’s, but didn’t see her turn the corner. It was 7:10 p.m.

At Marina’s, the big news among Sharron’s friends was the police commotion across the street. A young woman had been accosted by a man with a knife, but was able, with the help of a group of nearby kids, to fend him off.

“Where’s Sharon?” someone asked later.

They concluded she’d met up with her boyfriend, John, and then gone to his hockey game.

When Sharron didn’t come home that night, Yvonne began to worry. Sharron always called if she was going to be late. Yvonne reached Sharron’s friends, who told her Sharron never showed up at Marina’s. John hadn’t seen her either. Yvonne began to panic.

“I don’t mean to worry you, Mrs. Prior,” one of Sharron’s friends told her. “But a woman was attacked on Ash Avenue around 7 p.m.”

The man fled north through an alleyway. Sharron could have walked right into him.

One unfathomable day turned into two. Nothing like this had ever happened in the Point; as many as a hundred kids and adults took to the streets, searching for Sharron. Yvonne went on television and pleaded for the safe return of her daughter.

On Tuesday, a beekeeper in the small town of Longueuil, about 25 minutes from the Point, received a call from a friend.

Did he know the gate to his beehives was open?

No Closure

The beekeeper had put up the gate because the land was sometimes used as a dumping ground. Car doors. Hoods. Junk.

It was the same way with Sharron. Her killer drove up the narrow passageway and, about 75 feet from the gate, tossed her out of his car, like garbage.

Sharron vanished during a five-minute walk; her disappearance was a mystery. Not so her murder. It was blunt, ugly and without any need for interpretation.

She had been raped and beaten badly. She was found wearing only her suede jacket, a sweater, shoes and socks. Her jeans lay a few feet away. Her underwear hung from some nearby branches, as if her killer tossed them from the car as an afterthought.

The autopsy would pinpoint Sharron’s time of death as roughly 20 hours before her body was found.

Her killer had kept her captive for days.

Tape, likely used to gag her, was tangled in her hair. A man’s shirt was left behind; police believe he used it to bind her.

Some evidence wasn’t clear-cut. A man’s footprint, size 8 ½, was left at the scene, but the shirt was made for a bigger man. Were there two assailants? And the beekeeper remembered the gate as being padlocked; only a few people had the key. Later, police would say the padlock was most likely left hanging open.

The most haunting question of all: was Sharron still alive when she was dumped in the beekeeper's field? She was found with a clump of branches clutched in her hand.

At first, the case looked solvable. The police had a shirt, car cushion, tire track, footprint, and even the killer’s DNA. Yvonne remembers they questioned thirty-six people. They really liked three or four of them.

The woman who was attacked on the street around the same time Sharron disappeared picked a man out of a line-up, but police had to let him go when she said she couldn’t be absolutely sure.

For a while, Yvonne was not well. “It really put me off balance,” she says. She called the police all the time. They would confide in her about leads, sharing tantalizing pieces of information, then leave her hanging. Starts and stops.

Criminal cases, like a lot of things in life, are hot in the beginning, and slowly taper off. Years went by. Life went on --- for everyone else.

On March 20, 1981, twelve-year-old Tammy Leaky, who had been visiting her grandmother in the Point, disappeared just blocks from where Sharron went missing. Tammy’s mother found her glasses on the sidewalk and called police. Later that evening, a man discovered Tammy’s body in a deserted area 25 minutes away. She’d been strangled, stabbed and raped. Tammy’s case remains unsolved.

What does Yvonne think happened to her daughter? She doesn’t know for sure, but she thinks Sharron never got far from the house that night. A neighbor who knew the Priors was driving down the street at the same time Sharron left for Marina’s, and would have passed her, but she never saw Sharron.

Her daughter wasn’t physically tough, Yvonne says. If faced with an attacker on the street, Sharron probably would have "froze up with fear."

Yvonne began looking at her neighbors differently.

“I don’t know if I’m passing this person. Sitting near this person,” she says. “It makes you very suspicious.”

She had terrible dreams and became withdrawn.

The Profiler

Gregg O. McCrary is a well-known former Special Agent with the FBI. He’s been associated with the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) since its inception in 1985, and has provided expert testimony and analysis in hundreds of homicide and rape trials throughout the world. He appears frequently as a guest on Larry King Live and other shows, giving expert opinions on criminal cases.

In a phone interview, McCrary learns the details of Sharron’s case. Despite years of investigating sexual homicide, he is not coolly detached from its more heartbreaking details; when he hears Sharron was just sixteen, he sighs.

The first thing that strikes him is the knife attack in the neighborhood. He’s asked if an attacker fleeing a crime scene would really risk another abduction attempt. His answer is surprising.

“You’d think no, but when these guys are in that hunting mindset, they’re ‘good to go,’ so to speak,” McCrary says. “That very well could be the guy.”

He says the likelihood that two men intent on abducting women were operating in the same small, low crime area at the same time is statistically improbable.

The height and weight of the woman’s attacker --- 6’0, 200 lbs --- matches the measurements of the man’s shirt left near Sharron’s body, strengthening the possibility of a connection.

The woman estimated her attacker was about 29, which is about right, McCrary says. By that age there’s a level of independence.

“He had to have some place private he could keep her. He had a car.”

McCrary feels strongly that the suspect knew the “encounter” area well, in addition to the beekeeper’s field.

“Hunting grounds and disposal sites are high risk areas. You don’t want to be trapped someplace and not know how to get out. You go someplace familiar. Comfortable.”

Though he can’t say for sure without the autopsy report and other case files, McCrary guesses the killer is probably a sexual sadist type.

“The ones that hold their victims for a couple of days are a little more sadistic,” he says, pointing out that it’s not always physical abuse that arouses them, but their victim’s response to fear and trauma.

Sexual sadists follow a pattern, McCrary says, one that could help investigators find Sharron’s killer.

They begin by finding “compliant victims” among the people they know. This is the kind of guy who appears nice and charming at first, acting like a white knight to a vulnerable young woman in need of a rock in her life. Slowly, he becomes more demanding. He seeks to mold and control her. He enjoys degrading her and will eventually begin roughing her up.

These guys, McCrary says, usually run out of compliant victims at some point. They turn to prostitutes, and may develop a reputation as someone who is violent, or weird. When the prostitution angle runs out of steam, they turn to strangers.

“They work up to strangers,” McCrary says. He would look for men who have minor records for domestic violence or solicitation, or even a local reputation for trying to lure girls over to their place. Sometimes the behavior is “softer,” McCrary says, something that’s not being reported, but is still known locally.

Sharron’s killer will not be a smooth talker, or high-functioning member of society either, McCrary says. A guy who uses a knife on the street to abduct a girl doesn’t have strong interpersonal skills; he knows he can’t con her verbally with a sophisticated ruse, like Ted Bundy did with his victims.

The wounds on Sharron’s face support that theory. Some criminals can control their victims through an air of confidence or quick talking.

“When words fail, you use your fists,” McCrary says simply. Sharron’s killer lacked the skills to maintain and control his victim, so he beat her.

“What do we have left to work with?”

That’s the first question McCraray would ask if he were consulting on Sharron’s case. Do we still have the car cushion and the man’s shirt? Thirty-three years is a long time, and evidence can get lost, or degraded. But forensic testing has evolved spectacularly since 1975, and it’s worth a try.

Stranger-based abductors tend to be “serial guys,” as McCrary calls them, and they rarely stop on their own. Sharron’s killer may be responsible for Tammy Leaky’s murder; he may have felt Sharron, 16, was hard to control, so he sought a younger victim the next time.

“The police probably talked to this guy,” McCrary says. Two things can happen after that.

“His confidence grows because he left without handcuffs. Or he gets spooked and moves away.”

Sharron Prior

Remembering Sharron

In 2005, the Point Boys and Girls Club, now a YMCA, established an annual scholarship in Sharron’s name to a deserving young woman with the same hopes and dreams she once had.

In 2006, Sharron’s family set up a website to keep the case, and her memory, alive.

The guestbook is an amazing testament to Sharron’s enduring effect on people. Old friends and neighbors from the Point have left messages, many of them identifying themselves by their old addresses. Almost all of them recall Sharron’s “beautiful smile.” Nicknames, stores, schools, the way Sharron looked in her “cool” suede jacket --- the richness of detail is unusual for a message board, especially when you consider people are writing about a time in their lives over thirty years ago.

The passage of time doesn’t matter to Yvonne. The pain is fresh. She needs to know what happened to her daughter, the girl who dreamed of being a veterinarian one day.

In one of Yvonne’s terrible dreams, their house is on fire. She runs inside, calling out for Sharron. Where's Sharron? Where's Sharron? The firemen shake their heads. They show her a handful of ashes.

This is Sharron.

“We want to know the truth,” Yvonne says. “We have to know the truth.”

If you have any information about the murder of Sharron Prior, please call Info-Crime 800-711-1800 or send a private email here

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RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.