Two women; both found on fire 50 minutes apart; the crime scenes separated by about six miles.
“We figured it was connected,” said Aiken County sheriff’s Lt. Billy Fleury. The odds of it being otherwise were “highly remote.”
But death was the only immediate link between the victims. One was Yana Schenker, a 75-year-old Czechoslovakian immigrant who settled in Aiken with her horse eight years ago; the other Shalamar Byrd, a 38-year-old Augusta woman described by neighbors as a prostitute.
Investigators eventually named Franklin Wright as the connection between the two women after days of around-the-clock investigation. Had Wright gone to trial instead of recently making a guilty plea, Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr. said he would have introduced 50 pieces of evidence and up to 60 witnesses. How state and county investigators collected evidence against Wright is revealed in interviews with Fleury and Thurmond, as well as a review of court documents.
Some aspects of the case remain a mystery, however, including, perhaps, the biggest question of all.
“He never said why he killed them,” Thurmond said.
On Aug. 11, 2010, an ADT fire alarm set off at 9:09 p.m. brought Aiken Public Safety officers to 105 Paddocks Bend Road, where they forced their way inside to extinguish the fire. It was contained to a bonus room beside the kitchen, where Schenker was found dead. The stink of gasoline fumes was almost overwhelming, Fleury said, but the arsonist failed to open any windows, so the fire didn’t spread far.
While investigators were searching for evidence, firefighters and deputies were dispatched at 9:50 p.m. to a brush fire in the area of Old Storm Branch Road, where they found the burning body of a white female. Schenker’s identification was almost immediately known because she died in her home, but it would take days before Byrd was identified.
The following day, investigators at Schenker’s house were approached by Wright, who identified himself as a handy man who worked odd jobs around the house, caring for her horse, driving her around town. He was also a convicted felon, with a criminal history including aggravated assault and armed robbery.
When investigators later searched his Beech Island home, they found it spotless and orderly, his shoes neatly pressed together. It was characteristic of a man who spent half his adult life in prison, Fleury said.
When questioned, Wright said Schenker drove herself to a doctor’s appointment. Investigation later revealed, however, that Schenker no longer drove and that her doctor did not take appointments on Wednesdays. Wright also claimed that he spent all day Aug. 11 at Schencker’s home, but cellphone tower signals placed him that day between North Augusta and Beech Island and near Petticoat Junction on U.S. Highway 278.
Evidence starts mounting
As Wright’s story continued to unravel, investigators matched blood found in the bed of Schenker’s pickup to Byrd. They also discovered that Wright had cashed three checks with forged signatures totaling $2,300 from Schenker’s bank account, and he was captured on camera pawning European coins and jewelry that belonged to Schenker.
Autopsy results returned around this point in the investigation showed that neither woman had soot in her airway. They were both dead when they were set on fire. Schenker died of “mechanical asphyxia by compression to the chest,” meaning Wright probably either squeezed her to death or sat on her, Thurmond said.
At 55, Wright has a strong physique. As Thurmond puts it: “He looks like he does a thousand pushups a day.”
Byrd had contusions around her neck, forehead and eyes; she was strangled, the autopsy concluded. While the two women have no connection, Byrd was wearing one of Schencker’s rings when Byrd died. Thurmond said it’s unknown what role, if any, Byrd played in Schenker’s death. The best theory, however, is that Byrd was killed at Schenker’s home, then taken to Old Storm Branch Road. The place where Byrd was taken is close to where Wright raped a woman in the 1970s, Thurmond said.
Wanted for more crimes
Warrants for Wright’s arrest went active Sept. 2 when he didn’t show up for a fourth interview at which investigators planned to confront him with their evidence.
“That set off a lot of alarms,” Thurmond said.
As Aiken County authorities began to search for Wright, Richmond County deputies wanted him for another crime. On Sept. 1, Wright beat the owner of Lotto Express on the corner of 13th and Broad streets so badly that the first deputy to arrive at the store thought she had been shot.
Just as Wright had gained the trust of Schenker, Thurmond said, he had presented himself as a homeless man down on his luck to gain the sympathy of this victim, Jennie Hope. The way he meticulously wiped down the counters and surfaces of the Lotto Express matched the way he got rid of fingerprints in Schenker’s truck, said Fleury, the Aiken County investigator.
Wright eluded a dragnet for four days until he was captured in Hephzibah. In January, he pleaded guilty to the Richmond County beating and received life in prison.
Two weeks ago, he pleaded guilty to murder in Aiken, receiving an additional 30 years to the life sentence.
It was the last chapter in the Wright case, but investigators won’t forget him any time soon. Fleury said in 21 years as an investigator he’d never seen someone with such violent mood swings Wright displayed during questioning. Wright’s personality, combined with his criminal record, has Fleury convinced that Wright is a dangerous man.
“I think he would have done it again,” Fleury said.