Story by Janet Blackmon Morgan / The Sun News
Jennifer Warner fantasized her mother would turn up somewhere with amnesia, “just like a soap opera.” But faced with a guilty plea and confessions 18 months later, she knows Alice Donovan is dead.
A pair of escapees from a Kentucky jail, Chadrick Fulks and Branden Basham, are charged with Alice Donovan’s death. Prosecutors say the pair took her from the Conway Wal-Mart in the middle of the afternoon Nov. 14, 2002, and killed her in Brunswick County, N.C.
Sitting on the back porch with her family as she takes a drag from a Newport, Jennifer Warner squints in the afternoon sun. She points to a dogwood tree her mother had surrounded with a brick wall. A pair of hummingbird feeders hang in the shade the leaves.
“She loved nature and everything about it,” she said.”She used to take my little boy, Anthony, out here and tell him about the birds and insects and bugs and trees. We were sitting out here the other night and he said, ‘I want a (telescope), so I can look through the stars. I have a feeling MeeMaw’s a star and God put her up there.”
Alice Donovan loved to garden, and she was so organized that even her junk drawer was tidy. Today, there are weeds growing beneath her dogwood.
She hammered so many nails for the home she and her husband, Barry Donovan, were building, she joked her right arm looked like Popeye. Today, the front porch posts haven’t been painted, and it is missing its railings. The windows in the dormers still display the stickers from the manufacturer.
Seeking solace, justice
Jennifer Warner’s sister Angie Warner and their step-father Barry Donovan look past the dusty, barren yard to the tree.
They talk quietly about revenge, raw pain and swells of emotions they say no one can understand.
“Everybody says, ‘I don’t know what to say.’ Hell, I don’t know what to say,” Barry Donovan says.
But Barry Donovan knows what will help him heal – “just 10 minutes alone with those guys,” he said of the Kentucky pair. “All I want is 10 minutes and well, let’s just say I do a lot of shooting.”
Healing is coming slowly, they all agree. But, time and circumstances keep picking at the scab.
Friday would have been Alice Donovan’s 46th birthday. Her daughters eyes well with tears when thinking of the date.
This week marks the beginning of the sentencing hearing for Fulks, who pleaded guilty last week in her abduction and death. But he blamed her slaying on his co-defendant, whose trial will follow.
“As the trial comes up, it’s almost like we’re having to relive everything,” Jennifer Warner said. “I want it to be over, but I don’t want to have to deal with it.”
Two time zones to the west, Judy Ezell is finding a way to deal with her sister’s death and the resurgence of emotions from her home in Wiley, Yolo.
“Right now, I’ve had to focus my mind on other things, so the grief doesn’t set in. I’ve had to put all of that, her, aside,” Ezell said, her voice cracked and then stopped. “I’ve had to put her aside. I’m focusing on my gardening. That was something we shared. I think I can keep the connection with her that way, and it’s not so painful.”
Two of five sisters, Ezell said they matched up and remained close throughout their lives. She described being in the delivery room for the birth of Alice Donovan’s daughters. She described playing cards on Sundays when they both had young families in New England.
It wasn’t unusual for the sisters to talk on the telephone for five hours at a time.
As she talked by phone about her sister, Ezell said she was looking at a framed photograph of Barry and Alice Donovan on the porch of their new home after the roof had been put up. She’d found it after her sister was reported missing. Digging through letters and old pictures, Ezell said, she is making a box full of memories.
“I’ve got one letter here,” she said reading words Alice Donovan had sent her from her Horry County home. “It says, ‘I wish you were here. I just want to hug and hold you. I miss you so much.’”
Missing Alice Donovan is the worst part for her, Ezell said. “I don’t have a big sense of bitterness,” she said. “They were a couple of jerks, yes, but the whole thing was so random. It’s not like they targeted Alice. The whole thing was so impersonal.”
But, Ezell said, the circumstances surrounding her sister’s death have become personal for thousands who know the story. She’s heard from strangers who say they are more careful in public.
“I still shop at Wal-Mart,” Ezell said. “But, I don’t shop anywhere unless I see cameras, security cameras.”
Echoing her aunt, Jennifer Warner said she always parks on the same aisle and is hyper-aware of everyone around her.
“I know how many feet it is to the door and back to my car. I’m always looking around and making sure I know everything that’s going on around me,” she said. “It’s not the store’s fault, but parking is the worst part.”
The last day
Barry Donovan listens as Jennifer Warner talks about Wal-Mart. He adjusts his sunglasses and leans uneasily in his chair. The last conversation he’d had with his wife was about War-Mart.
About noon Nov. 14, 2002, Barry Donovan said Alice Donovan told him she was going shopping at Wal-Mart. They kissed and told each other, “I love you,” as they always did.
Around 4 p.m. Alice Donovan called home and her daughter Angie Warner answered the telephone. Her mother told her she was shopping and would be home late.
The evening passed. Barry slept.
By 2 a.m., Barry Donovan said he woke and realized his wife wasn’t home. He began to worry. He called Horry County police and was told he had to wait at least a day before filing a missing persons report. But they did check accident reports and area hospitals; no record of Alice Donovan.
Before the sun rose Nov. 15, Barry Donovan was cruising area shopping centers looking for his wife’s blue 1994 BMW 318i.
At the time, both worked for Precision Southeast. He said a friend at Precision had a son who worked at Wal-Mart. He was told if he brought in a photograph of his wife, a store employee would review the tapes to see if they could spot her.
But none of the photographs he had at home showed his wife with her new, short haircut. So that morning, Jennifer Warner took her camera to Wal-Mart to get more recent photographs of her mother processed. That film turned out to be double-exposed: they couldn’t tell what Alice Donovan looked like.
Barry Donovan went to his bank, Carolina Trust, and requested a report of the couple’s bank card activity. It showed charges from Little River, Cherry Grove, Shallotte, N.C., and Raleigh, N.C.
The Little River bank reviewed the tape from the walk-up ATM. It was not Alice Donovan.
“You couldn’t tell who it was,” he said making a quick motion with his hands framing from under his chin to just below his belly. “It didn’t show a face, but you could tell it wasn’t Alice. All you could tell
was it was a man.”
All the information he’d gathered was turned over to the Horry County police, and Alice Donovan was registered as a missing person by 5 p.m. Nov. 15.
The search begins
The Wal-Mart security tape records her being abducted at 2:45 p.m. Nov. 14, 2002. Just more than an hour later, she made the call to her daughter saying she’d be home late.
About an hour earlier, two men had shot at Carl Jordan when he interrupted a robbery at his son’s mobile home in the Forney community just southwest of Conway. Five guns were reported stolen.
Police now think the Basham-Fulks trail began when the pair escaped from the Hopkins County Jail in Madisonville, Ky., on Nov. 4, 2002. Within a 10-day span, the pair are alleged to have: stolen cars, trucks and minivans; kidnapped a man in Kentucky, who they later left taped to a tree in Indiana; and abducted and killed 19-year-old Samantha Burns in West Virginia.
By Nov. 17, the Brunswick County, N.C., Sheriff’s Office was notified. Sheriff Ronald Hewett said Marine Corps helicopters were called in, private planes were put to the air to search, rescue units from around the county were activated including the N.C. Highway Patrol and about 100 volunteers.
For nearly a week, the dirt roads, swamps and fields in Brunswick County were combed, hoping to rescue Alice Donovan. As temperatures dropped and no sign of evidence was found, the effort turned to searching for remains.
In the weeks immediately after his wife’s disappearance, Barry Donovan joined police and others in the search.
“I searched when there was a possibility she might be found alive, but when it became clear she might not be found alive, I stopped,” he said. “I didn’t want to be the one to find her dead.”
He thinks his wife would have escaped her kidnappers if she had a chance, he said. She was a fighter. But he saw the Wal-Mart video tape.
“It was the middle of the day, but she didn’t have a chance,” he said. “They followed her into the parking lot; and before she could get out of the car, Basham jumped out of the truck and got in on her passenger side.”
Hewett said witnesses came forward who had seen the BMW, Alice Donovan with Basham and Fulks in the Beetree Farm area about 35 miles into Brunswick County from the state line.
“There is no doubt Alice Donovan was brought to the Beetree Farms area with Basham and Fulks,” Hewett said. “Our best evidence is Alice Donovan was killed there.”
Lingering search, emotions
On Nov. 17, Basham was captured in Ashland, Ky. Three days later, Fulks was arrested in Indiana.
On Thanksgiving that year, Hewett said he and Basham drove around Brunswick County from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Basham did not provide any information that helped in the search.
Hewett and Capt. George Caison of the sheriff’s office continue to search for Alice Donovan.
Her story has touched the two men and their families. Each said they’ve told their wives and children to be aware in parking lots, no matter the time of day.
“I’ve told them, ‘Do not become a hostage,’” Hewett said. “We’re in this business, and we see things happen, but you never get used to this. This is the worst story I’ve ever seen with such a random act of violence.”
After meeting with about 25 hunting clubs in the county, Hewett said two hunting seasons have passed, and they still haven’t found any sign of her, but they’ve received about one report a month from searches uncovering bones in the woods.
Those have all proven to be animal remains, but the two hold out hope Alice Donovan’s remains will be found to help her family find some comfort.
Even though both men now face trial, the search continues and will, Caison said.
When they do find her, her family says, they are going to bring her home up the dirt roads just east of Aynor near the Dog Bluff community to the two-story beige home with green trim she and Barry Donovan built.
Although sh was raised and lived most of her life in New England from New Hampshire to Maine, her family has settled in the sandy soil of the southern coast. “Her heart belonged down here,” Jennifer Warner said. “She loved the south.”
Barry Donovan nodded in agreement. His wife, he said, joked she was a “reincarnated Southern belle.” The couple, together for a dozen years and married for 10, moved south about seven years ago.
They began building their dream home in 2000 and moved in a few weeks before Sept. 11, 2001.
When Alice Donovan is found, they will have her cremated and spread her ashes around the house she and her husband built together.
“Over there, by the maypops, Alice always wanted a gazebo,” Barry Donovan said pointing to a corner of his sandy yard. “We’ll get an urn or something and spread her ashes out there by the maypops.”