U.S. News

12.19.13

West Virginia Heathers: Was Skylar Neese Murdered by Her Best Friends?

Skylar, Rachel, and Shelia were the best of friends—until one of them went missing and the other two were implicated in a grisly murder case that has upended their idyllic town.

Mary Earl Neese posts nearly every night on Facebook a goodnight message to her daughter, Skylar, who died at the age of 16 last year. “Spend the weekend spreading the word about you, little one,” she wrote on December 9. “It makes us happy and sad at the same time. We will never stop spreading the word. G’night babe! Love you to heaven and back always! <3 <3 <3”

The death of a child is always traumatic, but Neese and her husband, Dave, have endured a grief few of us can imagine. For Skylar was murdered—and her two best friends now stand accused of the crime.

Skylar was found stabbed to death last year, six months after she went missing. Her body was only discovered after one of her closest girlfriends, Rachel Shoaf, confessed to the killing and told investigators where to look for the corpse. Rachel also implicated another girl as the ringleader in the stabbing—Shelia Eddy, Skylar’s longtime best friend. Rachel pleaded guilty in May to second-degree murder, while Shelia has insisted that she is innocent. Her trial is due to begin on January 28.

How did these teenagers go from being best pals to alleged murderers? Nobody seems to know, but the case has certainly rocked the tiny West Virginia community were all three girls lived. Star City (population 1,825) is a tiny hamlet nestled in the state’s northern hill country, located on the Monongahela River. To give an idea of how small Star City is, the 2010 census listed only 363 families in town—although it borders Morgantown, home to the big West Virginia University. Skylar attended Morgantown’s University High School, where the 16-year-old was an honors student. She was active in the school newspaper and aspired to be a lawyer.

The cherubic brunette was close with her parents, although she’d recently been getting into trouble—“one mess after another,” her mother told the Associated Press in June. In particular, Skylar had been caught frequently sneaking out of her first-floor bedroom window at night. “I tried to give her freedom, so we weren’t on top of her all the time,” Neese told the Associated Press. “Now, in hindsight, those parents who do that? More power to them. They should be.” Still, Skylar struck people as sweet and committed to those she loved. Her guidance counselor, Tom Bloom—who is now the Monongalia County Commissioner—described her as a “nice girl” who “just cared about her community, cared about life—a typical girl.”

Like a typical girl, she had her best friends—including Shelia Eddy, whom she’d known for years. The Neeses have described Shelia as their daughter’s “bestie,” a friend so close she could let herself into their house. A few years ago, Shelia had moved from Blacksville to Morgantown, and she and Skylar had become tight with Rachel Shoaf, a Morgantown cheerleader who was active in her local church.

The girls were inseparable. They frequently posted goofy selfies of themselves hanging out at school, after school, and on the weekends on Twitter and Facebook. They were together so frequently that when Skylar later went missing, her parents used a cropped photo on her missing poster that had originally included Rachel in it. Skylar’s Twitter avatar featured Shelia and another girl, and all three frequently exchanged messages via Twitter—ones fairly typical for teenage girls, about rapper Honey Cocaine, cats, and Law and Order: SVU.

Skylar was last seen by her parents on July 6, 2012. Her father, Dave, only realized Skylar was missing the next day around lunchtime. Mary Neese told him to call Skylar’s “bestie,” Shelia, since Skylar was probably “shopping or swimming with her friends.” Shelia said she had not seen Skylar, and so the Neeses initially didn’t panic. They assumed Skylar would return in time to work her 4 p.m. shift at Wendy’s, since she never missed work. But that afternoon, her work called and said that Skylar had not come in that day. According to a Facebook post by Mary Neese, “at this time, I started to panic and called her bestie again and again we were told she had not seen or heard from Skylar.”

The Neeses contacted their apartment complex for surveillance video from the night before. The tapes revealed Skylar had apparently snuck out of her room, and was filmed getting into a car, apparently willingly. But the Neeses later said the video was blurry and they couldn’t identify the make or the license plate of the vehicle. Because of this detail, the police initially classified Skylar as a runaway, rather than an abduction case, and did not issue an Amber Alert over her disappearance.

Over the next few weeks, the Neeses searched for Skylar, often with Shelia at their side. They held fundraisers for their daughter in Morgantown and began lobbying for a change to the state’s Amber Alert guidelines. Meanwhile, Shelia posted frequently on both Facebook and Twitter about her missing friend. On August 10, she wrote, “all i want is for my bestfriend to come home. i wish i knew something to give the police a lead or so she can come home, but i don’t know ANYTHING. id do anything to have her home right now and  I wish i knew something like everybody thinks i do. come home skylar, it’s been five weeks too long. i miss you and love you.”

Skylar’s father was the first to comment on the post: “hang tough babe. Do not let things get you down. Love you!”

Shelia replied: “it’s hard but im trying, love you!”

At another point, Shelia retweeted a classsmate’s Twitter message : “anytime I hear about Skylar, my heart breaks a little.”

But police could find no clues as to Skylar’s fate. The dead end went on for months. “Nothing was a fruitful lead during that period of time from the summer through July, August, September, October, and even into the later months of 2012,” said Monongalia County prosecutor Marcia Ashdown at Rachel’s plea hearing. “There were suspects. There were leads that didn’t go anywhere. There were rumors. There was speculation, but nothing that led to any concrete information or the finding of Skylar Neese or what happened to Skylar.”

“They got out of the car along the way on a road there and were socializing in some degree, at a planned and agreed upon moment, [Rachel] and [Shelia] attacked and stabbed Skylar to death and they left her there.”

Throughout it all, Shelia remained a constant presence in the search. On the first day back to school for her junior year, she posted on the Facebook page dedicated to the search for Skylar: “skylar come back. i seriously can’t deal with school without you. it’s been way too long, i miss you too much! i love youu, can’t wait to see you.”

Again, the first comment on her post came from Dave Neese:  “she WILL be home soon honey. Love ya.”

As the fall wore on, those close to case had their suspicions about Rachel and Shelia’s stories, and thought they might be covering for others. Shelia’s story, in particular, had been a source of concern to police and the family. When Shelia had first talked to the Neese’s, she told them that she hadn’t seen Skylar. But later that same day, she said that she and Rachel had indeed snuck out with Skylar, but that they had dropped her off at midnight, just around the block so that she wouldn’t get caught sneaking back in.

Meanwhile, Skylar’s social media trail indicated that there may have been a falling out between her and some of her friends. Two days before she went missing, Skylar tweeted “sick of being fucking home. thanks “friends,” love hanging out with all you too.” Then, the night before the disappearance, she followed up with an angry tweet: “you doing shit like that is why I will NEVER completely trust you.”

Rumors reportedly started to circulate around University High School about the two girls’ involvement in their friend’s disappearance. According to Ashdown, the county prosecutor, Shelia and Rachel were allegedly overheard discussing a murder, and reportedly made veiled comments about a crime on social media. Still, at least at first, the girls appeared defiant and presented a unified front. On November 5, Shelia tweeted “no one on this earth can handle me and rachel and if you think you can, you’re wrong.” Although there were some fun times in there: on October 30, Shelia tweeted a goofy photo with Rachel with the hashtag #tweetapicturethatdescribesyourfriendship.

But Rachel’s nerves were apparently starting to fray—perhaps because, in October, the FBI had gotten involved in the case. On December 16, Mary Neese posted on Facebook that Shelia had failed a lie detector test about Skylar’s disappearance and Rachel had refused to take one. Twelve days later,  Shelia tweeted at Rachel, “i actually can’t take this fight seriously anymore im sorry rach.” Later that same night, she tweeted  “wow literally the worst night of my life.” Early the next morning, she tweeted at Raachel again: “ugh hope my girl @_racchh is okay <3 loveee youuu.”

Around Christmas, Rachel was reportedly hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. Then, on January 3, according to court documents, Rachel came to police with a shocking break in the cold case.

According to court transcripts, Rachel confessed to killing Skylar on the evening of July 6. She said that she and Shelia had driven Skylar to a remote location and stabbed her repeatedly. The only motive Rachel gave was that the girls didn’t like Skylar anymore.

According to Ashdown, Rachel said that the girls had planned Skylar’s murder ahead of time. They allegedly picked Skylar up in the car of another juvenile, and drove one hour north to Morris Run Road, a rural stretch of road in Green County, Pennsylvania, just across the border from Blacksville. That vehicle in question has since been tested and showed to have a small amount of blood that investigators later matched to Skylar’s DNA, according to court records.

“They got out of the car along the way on a road there and were socializing in some degree, at a planned and agreed upon moment, [Rachel] and [Shelia] attacked and stabbed Skylar to death and they left her there,” Ashdown said. “They attempted to bury her or thought they would be able to bury her. They were unable to do that and left her along the road, covered in branches.”

Rachel told investigators where they could find Skylar’s remains. Her remains were found on January 16, but was allegedly so decomposed that it took investigators more than two months to identify her. The Neeses were aware that a body had been found, and that it was likely Skylar—but they kept up appearances, even holding a “birthday vigil” for Skylar on February 10.

Rachel also told investigators of Shelia’s alleged involvement, although it’s unclear whether Shelia knew that her friend had talked to the cops. On January 3—the same day as Rachel’s confession—Shelia tweeted  a smiling photo with Rachel, with the caption, “FINALLLLLY TO SEE @_racchh <3.” But after Rachel’s confession, she did not reappear in Shelia’s Twitter feed again, and before long, Shelia started referring to another girl—identified only by her Twitter handle @_slexy—as her new “best friend.” (Rachel’s Twitter feed has since been shut down, although Shelia’s is still active.)

When Skylar’s body was found in March, Shelia took to Twitter to lament, “worst day of my whole life” and “the pain is real” She also  tweeted out some old photos of her and Skylar and wrote “rest easy skylar, you’ll ALWAYS be my bestfriend. i miss you more than you could ever know.”

In Rachel’s statement to police, she reportedly fingered Shelia as the mastermind in the stabbing and told them that they’d attacked Skylar after counting to three. On April 1, Shelia tweeted cryptically,“we really did go on three” and, it’s crazy how pretty much your whole future depends on how successful you are as a teenager.” Some of her other tweets from April include: “i hate it when people blame their own actions and choices on others. deal with it”;  “we don’t speak anymore for a reason, so stop trying”; and “idk why girls complain about guys being douchebags, girls are just as bad or probably worse lol we all suck.”

Shelia was arrested on May 1. Her last tweet before she was arrested, on April 30, was “ugh y.”

It’s unclear why the girls were not charged immediately, although Rachel was working with prosecutors the whole time. Prosecutors said they had already worked out the second-degree plea agreement with Rachel upon her court date on May 1, when Shelia was arrested. Judge Russell Clawges noted at the trial that Rachel could have been charged with first-degree murder, but she was allowed to plea guilty to second-degree murder given her cooperation in the case.

Shelia, meanwhile, was arrested on May 1 and charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and pleaded not guilty on Sept. 17. Her lawyer, Michael Benninger argued for bail for Shelia and a change of venue for her trial in a court appearance on October 15. “The defendant asserts that she cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial in Monongalia County due to the existence of substantial publicity and prejudice existing against the defendant,” Benninger said. He also claimed that Rachel was “suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness at the time she made incriminating statements” against Shelia.  Clawges has denied both requests and ruled on November 27 for the trial to be moved up to January 28, and to be held in Morgantown. If convicted, Shelia faces life in prison.

Benninger has not returned numerous calls from The Daily Beast for comment on the case.

Rachel’s lawyer also shunned interview requests, simply releasing a statement from the Shoaf family to The Daily Beast. “We are truly sorry for the pain that [Rachel] has caused the Neese family, and we know her actions are unforgiveable and inexcusable” it read. “Our daughter has admitted her involvement and she has accepted responsibility for her actions. Our hearts are broken for your loss and we are still trying to come to terms with this event.”

Rachel pled guilty to second-degree murder on May 1, and prosecutors are recommending a 20-year sentence, although she could face up to 40 years if a judge decides that a longer sentence is appropriate. At Rachel’s plea hearing, Ashdown said that witnesses came forward to testify that they’d overheard the girls conspiratorially discussing Skylar’s disappearance—conversations that turned out to be “all too true and all too prophetic.

Both Rachel and Shelia's cases were transferred from juvenile to adult court, and their names were released to the public.

“Even the best friends of the girls who did it, they didn’t even know about it until the day the girls got arrested,” said Bloom, the former guidance counselor. “It was just a shock—nobody could believe it.” Even the police were “stunned” when Rachel confessed, said Ashdown.

Sam Wilkinson, who runs a blog about Morgantown, said the feeling around town was “I can’t believe that went through my community.”

“I have a 12-year-old daughter, and I look at these things and say ‘oh my god, this is not something I was prepared to deal with in parenting or locally,” Wilkinson said.

“I just don’t think the students [at University High School] have dealt with it yet,” Bloom said. “But the trial is going to bring back a lot of situations.”

“I don’t understand it—nobody does,” said Bloom. “To put the parents through that—it’s horrific.”

Meanwhile, Skylar’s Law was signed into law in April, just weeks after Skylar’s body was found, and went into effect in July, one year after she disappeared. Local police are now required to notify state police at the start of any missing person investigation, regardless if the person is a runaway. The Amber Alert system will then decide whether to issue an alert.

The Neeses were in court on October 15 for Shelia’s arraignment, watching as the girl they once considered another daughter was led into court on charges of murdering their own daughter.

“Throughout all this nightmare, the girls have withheld information,” Mary Neese wrote on Facebook in December 2012. “In the beginning her best friend would come to the house and cry with us and say that she wanted Skylar home. I loved these girls unconditionally and would have never dreamed they could be capable of things such as this. I felt about them as my daughters. This is truly the ultimate betrayal.”

“I don’t want to hear the grisly details of how Skylar was murdered,” Dave Neese said after the October court hearing. “I don’t want to hear about how she screamed and she cried. But I do want these girls to get what they deserve.”

In the meantime, the Neeses are now facing their second holiday season without Skylar. In addition to the photos and messages Mary Neese posts to Facebook, she also always reposts Amber Alerts about missing children.

On December 11, she posted “Merry Christmas to all the angels in heaven. Never forgotten.”

Timeline of the Neese Case