Teens tell saga of weekend kidnapping |[5/5/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 5, 2005

After 18 hours in a Dodge Neon with kidnappers, the wreck was salvation.

Shane Gilmore wasn’t going to waste his opportunity.

Though exhausted and suffering from whiplash, Shane worked to free himself from the busted back end of the compact car.

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“The first thing I did was run to the highway patrol and tell him what was going on,” he said.

“What was going on” was that Vicksburg teens Shane, 17, and girlfriend Heather Pritchard, 15, had been kidnapped at knifepoint while eating breakfast in their car Sunday morning at the Mississippi River overlook across from the Dixiana Motel.

The abduction ended with a rear-end wreck at about 4:30 Eastern time on Interstate 26 near Laurens, S.C.

Ronald Wayne Shugart, 39, of Coolidge, Texas, and a woman whose identity has not been confirmed, have been charged with kidnapping and were in jail in Laurens.

The teens were not reported robbed or otherwise harmed. Their abductors apparently just wanted the car, but decided to take them, too.

The abduction took place at 9:30 Sunday. The teens were meeting friends at the overlook before going to services at Highland Baptist Church and had stopped by a fast-food restaurant to pick up breakfast.

As their friends left, Heather and Shane stayed behind. After they finished eating, they were approached by Shugart.

“He looked real inconspicuous,” Shane said. But Shugart used a knife to force the teens across the street to the Dixiana, he said, where Shugart and the woman had checked in Saturday night. The teens were kept in the closet for a few minutes while Shugart and his companion packed. They took off in Heather’s silver Dodge Neon.

The Pritchards became suspicious when Heather didn’t show to take her sister to a birthday party early that afternoon. When the teens also missed an appointment to pick up Heather’s mother, Lisa Pritchard, from work, the Pritchards and the Gilmores contacted the Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

“That is not like either one of them,” Lisa Pritchard said.

The journey to South Carolina was broken up by only a few bathroom breaks. All Shugart and his companion said to the teens about their motive is that “they wanted to go home,” Heather said.

Shane said they stopped at a few convenience stores along the route, but “one of them was around the whole time. They’d walk us in there, check to see if we’d written anything on the mirrors,” he said.

He also said the abductors tried to make the long car trip palatable.

“They were trying to make small talk, I guess, trying to keep us comfortable … Keep us from trying anything, I suppose,” Shane said.

But “they always reminded us that they were willing to do whatever they had to do,” he said.

By the time they’d arrived, via Interstate 26, in Laurens, a city in west South Carolina, everyone was exhausted and the kidnappers were testy.

“We had gotten lost,” Shane said. “They were real upset about that … (Shugart) pulled over on the side of the road. He tried to get someone else to drive. It was anybody at that point. He would’ve let one of us drive, I’m sure.”

Finding no takers, Shugart tried to pull back on the highway.

“He got really upset, then he just shot out. Out of nowhere, a car behind us hit us,” Heather said.

Laurens County Chief Deputy Eddie Smith said the Neon’s bumper “was in the back seat.” Nevertheless, Shane jumped out of the car and ran to a South Carolina state trooper.

“It is by the grace of God that the car hit us,” Heather said

The kidnapping suspects were quickly arrested, and the teens’ parents were soon on their way to South Carolina.

“I was just relieved to know that they were OK,” mother Loree Gilmore said.

Heather and Shane, sophomores at Vicksburg and Warren Central high schools, respectively, went back to school Wednesday.

Although a couple for slightly more than an year, the two had gone on their first “official” date the night before the kidnapping because Heather was not supposed to date until she was 16, which she will be Monday.

The teens say they depended upon each other to get through the ordeal.

“We weren’t by ourselves. I have someone to talk to that was there firsthand,” Heather said.

Federal and local law enforcement are now trying to piece together the motives behind the kidnapping.

Warren County deputies later found a broken-down Toyota pickup that they believe was used by Shugart and his companion to travel to Vicksburg. It was parked in a parking lot about a mile from the Dixiana. Although they checked in at the Dixiana on Saturday night, Sheriff Martin Pace believes Shugart and his companion were in Vicksburg at least one additional night. He declined to release further details.

The female suspect has multiple aliases, Pace said. South Carolina authorities were trying to discern which is her actual identity, which is delaying the extradition process.

Shugart has waived an extradition hearing, Pace said. The opportunity for the woman to do that will most likely take place today, he said.

It has not been decided whether the suspects will be tried on state or federal kidnapping charges. The abduction took place from federal property, part of the Vicksburg National Military Park. Federal jurisdiction could also be claimed because the teens were taken across state lines. Depending upon the circumstances of the kidnapping, either state or federal charges could carry a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The teens’ parents are just grateful their children are home.

“We lived every parent’s nightmare, except that this had a happy ending,” Wiley Pritchard Jr. said. “It brought the Gilmores and the Pritchards together … When we left to pick them up, we weren’t just picking up one child. We were picking up two,” he said.