The murder of New Jersey native Heather Stigliano has been featured in at least two different crime shows that focus on physical evidence collection. Forensic Files covered the story in 2008 in the episode titled “Pressed for Crime,” and “Secrets of the Morgue” aired “The Beast and the Beauty” in February of 2019. Each show discussed the brutal murder of the young woman out of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and the copious amounts of physical evidence left behind at the scene that helped investigators quickly narrow in and arrest a suspect.
Nineteen-year-old Heather Stigliano was originally from New Jersey, but after high school, she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming an actress and singer. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina appealed to her because of its location along the Atlantic Ocean and variety of entertainment venues. If you’ve never been to Myrtle Beach, you could take in a dinner theatre or show every night of your stay if you wanted to with shows paying tribute to people like Garth Brooks, Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys, Motown, the Pirates Voyage Dinner and Show and much more. Her family said she loved the energy of the city. Heather moved to Myrtle Beach in the fall of 1991, rented a small apartment near the beach, and took a job waitressing while she searched for opportunities involving singing and acting.
According to the Forensic Files episode, within a few months of moving, Heather was homesick and disappointed in her lack of finding progress finding work at a venue, and wanted her mother to make a visit. But before that could happen, Heather stopped communicating with her family. They grew so concerned that they called the Myrtle Beach Police Department and asked that they do a wellness check on the young woman. What the police found on November 4, 1991 was shocking.
Heather was found deceased, and investigators could tell she had been assaulted in a number of ways, including a beating and stabbing. During her autopsy, the forensic pathologist made note of at least 40 different injuries, including significant blunt force injuries. The killer had stuffed a rag down her throat. She had been stabbed after she died in a case of overkill. There was no evidence of sexual assault. She had been deceased for at least a week before she was discovered. Clues found in the apartment included several unidentifiable pieces of broken plastic next to Heather’s body and fingerprints that did not belong to her. There were bloody shoe prints from a size 11 athletic shoe on the t-shirt Heather was wearing. The killer had placed a pillow underneath Heather’s head.
In the midst of all the physical evidence, it was apparent robbery had been the motive for the murder. Heather’s wallet, 35-millimeter camera, TV, and car were all missing from the apartment. Investigators quickly narrowed down a list of possible suspects. First was a boyfriend, a military pilot from Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina that Heather had recently broken up with. But he had been deployed in Saudi Arabia during the time Heather was murdered. Next was another Air Force pilot Heather believed had sexually assaulted her at a party. She told her mother she had been heavily intoxicated when the alleged rape occurred, and the man was married. She had not notified the authorities about the possible assault, but when they questioned him, he willingly provided his fingerprints, which didn’t match those found at the crime scene. There was another male friend who had recently stayed at Heather’s apartment while in town on business, but he had an alibi for the time period of the murder. The police were growing frustrated with the dwindling leads when they received a promising tip from an antiques dealer in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina.
The dealer, who had seen a news report on Heather’s murder on TV, along with items missing from her apartment, said a man had come into the shop wanting to sell a 35-millimeter camera. The dealer recognized the camera from the news and refused to purchase it. The man grew aggravated and left the store flustered. The dealer then wrote down the license plate of the man’s car, a brown 1980 Chevy Monza. When he called the police in Myrtle Beach, they realized the car was the one had gone missing from Heather’s apartment and that the murder suspect was probably driving it. The antiques dealer described the man as a Caucasian male in his mid-30s with dark hair. The police put together composite sketch of the suspect, and soon, employees from a construction company in Myrtle Beach reached out to say they believed the man in the sketch was 38-year-old James Bernard Whipple. He had stopped going to work shortly after Heather’s death. Whipple had a record of burglary, grand larceny, unauthorized use of a vehicle, petty theft, a DUI, and resisting arrest. He had last lived in Florida.
On November 14, 1991, a Melbourne, Florida police officer stopped a suspicious vehicle on a local roadway. While checking the license plate, he realized the car had been stolen from South Carolina. The driver identified himself as James Bernard Whipple. He was arrested at the scene, and within a few days, extradited back to Myrtle Beach. The car he had stolen from Heather contained an abundance of evidence linking him to the crime. There was a serrated knife that matched the wounds on Heather, a broken clothes iron that matched the pieces of plastic from the crime scene, bloody clothing, and a pair of men’s sneakers that matched the footprints found on Heather’s clothing.
Whipple quickly confessed to the crime, admitting he was addicted to crack cocaine. He knew Heather through a mutual friend, and because she worked at a restaurant, assumed she would have a large amount of cash at her apartment. He pretended to be looking for their friend and knocked on her door, where she willingly let him in to give him the friend’s phone number. Then, without provocation, he attacked Heather, striking her with the clothes iron that was nearby and then stabbing her with the knife before robbing her. He said he then returned the next day to try and clean up the crime scene. That’s when he placed the pillow underneath Heather’s head. Members of Whipple’s family said his drug addiction and anger management issues had resulted in the loss of his marriage and everything he had owned.
His trial started in 1994, and on February 15, a jury found James Whipple of the rape and murder of Heather Stigliano. They deliberated for only 3 and a half hours. He was sentenced to death for the crime. I want to pause here and say I was confused when I read the news reports of the verdict, because the autopsy report had determined Heather had NOT been sexually assaulted. It sounds like the jury in the original case was unclear on that detail, and in 2003 James Whipple’s death sentence was commuted to life without parole. A judge at a post-conviction hearing determined that Whipple had not raped Heather, and rape was the aggravating factor used to justify the death penalty at his original sentencing.
To Heather Stigliano’s family, Whipple said, “I deserve the punishment I get, and I feel horrible for what I’ve done. I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you and your family.”
I also wanted to mention another case from Myrtle Beach involving a young woman named Heather. Because the disappearance of Heather Elvis has been covered on multiple true crime documentaries and podcasts, I’ll be brief. But if you want to learn more, I will include a list of additional resources on the page for this episode on my website, missinginthecarolinas.com. Here’s an overview.
In 2013, 20-year-old Heather Elvis was working at a restaurant called the Tilted Kilt in Myrtle Beach when she met a man named Sidney Moorer, who was 17 years her senior. The two began an affair, and when Sidney’s wife Tammy, who was 41 at the time, found out about it, she was livid. In October of that year, she confronted the two after finding text messages between them, and began a retaliation campaign against Heather, accusing her of stalking. Co-workers at the restaurant where they worked suspected Heather might have been pregnant, but she was moving on from Sidney and agreed to go on a date with someone else on the night of December 17, 2013. The man dropped her off at her apartment around 2 a.m. Heather called her roommate, who was out of town, to discuss how the date went. On December 19, police found Heather’s car at the Peachtree boat landing. The doors were locked, so they notified Heather’s father, who had the car registered in his name. Heather was nowhere to be found, nor were her purse or other belongings. In the following weeks, a social media campaign shared the news of the missing young woman. Community members donated funds for a reward for information and formed search parties to help look for Heather. The searches turned up no new leads.
Early on the authorities zeroed in on Sidney Moorer and his wife Tammy. They determined Sidney had placed a call to Heather from a payphone in the early morning hours she went missing, likely asking her to meet him at the boat ramp. He was filmed at a local Wal-Mart that night buying a home pregnancy test. Other video surveillance showed a truck that appeared to be his heading to the scene at the same time. The Moorers thoroughly detailed and cleaned the truck at their home in the days following Heather’s disappearance. In early 2014, police executed a search warrant at the couple’s home. They discovered the GPS Navigation system on Sidney’s truck had been disabled at the time Heather went missing, and that was the only time it had been disconnected. Sidney and Tammy Moorer were arrested and charged with kidnapping, murder, indecent exposure, and obstruction of justice. The indecent exposure and murder charges were eventually dropped.
Arrest warrants released by Horry County Police Department detailed the kidnapping and murder charges. The warrants stated that Tammy and Sidney Moorer “did unlawfully, without just or sufficient cause, murder Heather Elvis with malice forethought.” The kidnapping warrants stated that the couple “did unlawfully seize, confine, kidnap, abduct or carry away Heather Elvis by any means whatsoever without the authority of the law.” They were both denied bond.
On June 20, 2016, Sidney Moorer’s trial for the kidnapping of Heather Elvis began. After several hours of deliberation, a hung jury resulted in a mistrial. He was sentenced to five months in jail for breaking a gag order when he spoke to the media after the second day of trial. He had a separate trial in August of 2017 related to the obstruction of justice charges impending the investigation into Heather’s disappearance. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In October of 2018 a jury found Tammy Moorer guilty of kidnapping and conspiracy to commit kidnapping. She was sentenced to 30 years in prison for each of the charges. In late November of 2018, a parole board denied Sidney Moorer’s request for an early release from prison.
Meanwhile, the body of Heather Elvis has never been found. An article that ran in the July 19, 2022 edition of The Rock Hill Herald reported that a new documentary from Hacker Films about the Heather Elvis case is currently seeking a home. While the producers admit there has been a lot of media coverage about this specific case, they wanted to focus on the role social media played throughout the investigation. Because while social media helped spread awareness about Heather’s disappearance, it brought a lot of negative attention and threats to her family. Michael Bayer, an executive producer of the documentary, had this to say:
“These are human beings. This is a town that was extremely affected by a huge social media harassment campaign. And I think the story needs to be told.”
Producer Summer Dashe noted that a lot of Facebook groups that were created when Heather disappeared spread a lot of unsubstantiated rumors the police then had to wade through. She said, “This was one of those very first cases just took off with the story and I think that’s part of the reason it got so much attention nationwide.
Leila Bryan and Mary Rachel Bryan
One of North Carolina’s oldest missing persons cases involves a 36-year-old mother and her 4-year-old daughter who disappeared from Carolina Beach, and their extended family has been searching for answers for years. They thought the mystery might have been solved in 2008, but unfortunately, that also turned out to be a dead end.
Leila Lewis was working as a nurse in Wilmington when she met a man named Edis Bryan, also known as E.C. who had come into the emergency room while she was working. According to a column that ran in The Charlotte Observer, Leila’s family was against the relationship from the beginning. Probably because E.C. had come into the emergency room with gunshot wounds from what some rumors said were an “irate husband.” Nevertheless, they were married and had a daughter named Mary Rachel together. But on the night of May 10, 1941 Leila and Mary Rachel disappeared after leaving their home. Here is what E.C. said happened:
They had eaten E.C.’s favorite meal for dinner, roast beef and potatoes. Around 9 p.m. Leila left in their Black 1935 Model A Ford Coupe to run an errand in town. She took 4-year-old Mary Rachel with her, but they never returned. E.C. reported them missing. Police began an extensive search in New Hanover County with a private plane, and they dredged up inlets in the Cape Fear River. Police suspected E.C. Bryan was behind the disappearance of his wife and daughter. On the day they went missing, E.C. was building wooden forms that could hold concrete that were to become a new bedroom and bathroom addition on their house. Leila’s family suspected she and Mary Rachel had been buried beneath the house.
Because there was no concrete evidence linking him to it, police could not get a search warrant to search the property. The mother and daughter were declared legally dead in 1948. Their car was never located. E.C. remarried, moved to Florida, spent time working in real estate, and then passed away in the late 1970s. An article that ran in The Charlotte Observer back in 2008 stated that the police had heard a false confession a few decades ago, but the bones they found were not tied to Leila or Mary Rachel.
In 1971, Leila Bryan’s nephew, Lewis Smith, the son of her sister Bessie, took on the role of advocating for his aunt and cousin. What he hoped to do was find someone who would be willing to use a ground-penetrating radar at the former home of the Bryan’s on Raleigh Avenue in Carolina Beach. But the cost deterred him. In 2008, Ron Crowson of Geo Solutions in Raleigh, volunteered his time and equipment to the cause. A sweep of the ground beneath the house revealed three different suspicious places, one under the living room, kitchen, and under a bedroom. They appeared to be beneath a 4-inch slab of concrete, and 24 to 30 inches below the surface. Crowson said those irregularities could have been anything from construction debris beneath the home to layers of soil shifting from the sand. To explore further, they would have to remove floor tile in the home and cut into the concrete. The homeowner at the time, a man named Ken Florence, said he would be willing for investigators to explore further underneath the home. He said Carolina Beach residents had all grown up hearing the story of Leila and Mary Rachel’s mysterious disappearance and wanted to help the family find answers. According to information found on The Charley Project, a few months after the radar scan, investigators did cut away pieces of the from the home’s basement and dig underneath in search of human remains, but nothing was found, and the home was ruled out as a burial site.
At the time they went missing, Leila stood five feet seven or five feet eight inches tall and weighed around 120 pounds. She was a Caucasian female with black hair and gray eyes. She was reportedly wearing a summer print housedress, brown and white shoes, a green turban, and possibly a sweater. Rachel was a Caucasian female with brown hair and brown eyes. She stood three feet tall and weighed around 40 pounds. Her birthdate was May 10, 1941. Anyone with information on this case should contact the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation at 910-486-1262.
Gloria Kim Smith
And finally, I want to talk about a little girl named Gloria Kim Smith who went missing in 1988 and has never been found. I had never heard of this case but saw it mentioned in a Wilmington Star News article titled “At Least 24 missing persons cases remain open in Cape Fear Region.”
On June 25, 1988, 8-year-old Fayetteville resident Gloria Kim Smith was visiting Long Beach with her uncle Ki Chul Kim. They had made the trip to meet up with other family members so they could go fishing. She was last seen playing on the beach at the King’s Lynn area. Her 18-year-old female cousin was watching Gloria but fell asleep on the beach. When she woke up around 30 minutes later, Gloria was nowhere to be found. Boats and a helicopter scanned the beach looking for the young girl that day, and the next day, more than 200 volunteers, firefighters, rescue workers, and police officers searched the area for Gloria, but turned up no leads. Police began to wonder if they weren’t looking for a drowning victim but rather one of a kidnapping.
In July of 1988 The Charlotte Observer reported that a psychic from New Orleans had volunteered his services to assist in finding Gloria. Police took him to the site where she disappeared, and he said, “I feel the child is still alive.” He then asked to sit alone in the spot on the beach and meditate. This psychic had been recommended by a police sergeant from New Orleans, who told the local newspaper that he felt the psychic was authentic. However, based on the fact that Gloria was never located, the psychic, who said he believed his gifts were “God given,” and he considered himself “the next step down from a prophet,” was unable to provide details as to her possible whereabouts. The last newspaper article in 1988 I could find about Gloria ran in The News and Observer on November 9. The Associated Press ran a wire article that interviewed Gloria’s adoptive father, Lloyd Smith, who owned a diner in Fayetteville at the time. He said because Gloria couldn’t swim, the family believed at first she had drowned. But after watching the shoreline get dragged for three or four days with no sign of his daughter, or any of her clothing, he had second thoughts. The police detective assigned to the case at the time agreed. “My personal opinion is yes, she’s alive,” Detective Dan Holland told the press. “I haven’t found a body, and until I do find one, she’ll be alive. The child could have drowned, but something should have turned up.”
However, a man named John Goad, who worked on the case for the North Carolina Center for Missing Children, disagreed. He said, “She was last seen in water about shoulder deep in a fairly unsupervised area. We also determined that the current was such and the area was such that it would be very likely or possible that the body would not surface. There is a very good chance that she would have been carried out to sea.”
Gloria Kim Smith is half Korean and at the time of her disappearance, stood around four feet tall and weighed 60 pounds. She had short brown hair and brown eyes. She was wearing a white tank top and dark blue shorts. Anyone with information on this case can call the Oak Island Police Department at 910- 278-5595.
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Sun-News, November 13, 1991
Victim was beaten, autopsy shows
Sun-News, November 19, 1991
Suspect in Stigliano murder extradited to Myrtle Beach
Sun News, October 23, 1993
Another delay for Whipple trial
Sun News, February 14, 1994
Psychologist cites abuse in Whipple’s defense
Sun News, February 15, 1994
Jury finds Whipple guilty of murder, rape
Sun-News, July 17, 2003
Man trades death sentence for life
Leila Bryan and Mary Rachel Bryan
The Charlotte Observer, Nov. 17, 2008
“Maybe answers can help family heal”
Triangle & State, November 23, 2008
Geologist may help solve Carolina Beach mystery from 1945
Gloria Kim Smith
The News & Observer, November 9, 1988
Father awaits word of missing daughter
The Charlotte Observer, July 15, 1988
Missing 8-year-old is still alive, psychic says
Winston-Salem Journal, June 28, 1988
Search for Little Girl Continues