Kidnapped teens back home after South Carolina wreck|[5/3/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 3, 2005

Two teens taken at knifepoint on a journey that ended with a car wreck in South Carolina were back home with their families in Vicksburg today, Sheriff Martin Pace said.

Heather Pritchard, 15, and James Shane Gilmore, 17, were picked up by their parents in Laurens, S.C., Monday after the 18-hour abduction that began just as the two headed to church Sunday morning.

“They are with their parents. They’re fine,” Pace said.

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletter

Receive daily headlines and obituaries

The Vicksburg teens were kidnapped at the Mississippi River overlook off Washington Street across from the Dixiana Motel, where they were held before being driven across at least four states in Heather’s car.

The suspects, Ronald Wayne Shugart, 39, of Coolidge, Texas, and Norma Lisa Thiem, 40, of Florence, S.C., were in custody in Laurens, and Warren County authorities believe they have found the pickup driven to Vicksburg by the two.

They are not, however, sure of Thiem’s identity because, Pace said, his department was notified by another person that the woman may not be who she says she is.

The wreck on Interstate 26 early Monday morning came after the two suspects argued, causing the 2000 silver Dodge Neon to swerve on and off the highway, Laurens County Chief Deputy Eddie Smith said.

A sudden brake and a car behind the Neon slammed into its tail, driving the bumper into the back seat, Smith said.

The wreck proved to be the salvation for the Vicksburg teens.

“This rear-end (wreck), certainly, was an answer to a prayer,” Pace said.

The two had been reported missing Sunday afternoon after they failed to show up for church or lunch. Missing persons reports were filed on a national crime information database Sunday afternoon while local law enforcement scoured Vicksburg looking for the teens.

A South Carolina paramedic called the parents several hours later to say the teens were in good condition after the wreck. A few minutes later, South Carolina state police arrested Shugart and Thiem.

On Monday afternoon, deputies recovered the pickup in which they believe the suspects traveled to Vicksburg. The broken-down Mazda was in a parking lot on South Washington Street about a mile from the Dixiana, where they checked in Saturday night after walking from the parking lot. However, the suspects might have been in Vicksburg a few days before Saturday night, Pace said.

The investigation is now being conducted jointly by the Warren County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI. Both state and federal charges will be filed against Shugart and Thiem, though they will be tried in only one jurisdiction, Pace said.

“We are going to let the prosecutors review the case and see which jurisdiction can put these thugs in jail for the longest amount of time,” Pace said.

Authorities have also found that Shugart has outstanding burglary charges against him in Texas.

Mississippi law allows a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for kidnapping. Federal law allows a maximum of 20 years to life imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the kidnapping.