Search for leads in local girl’s 1989 abduction, murder never ended

Shelia Renae Finch. (File)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) A 10-year-old South Waco girl preparing to register for school was whisked off the street within blocks of her home 29 years ago Wednesday, and police say detectives are still looking for leads in hope of solving the baffling abduction and murder.

Shelia Renae Finch left her house at 2812 Ross Avenue at about 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday Oct. 17, 1989, on the way to a neighborhood grocery store about three blocks away at South 26th Street and Dutton Avenue.

She went to the store to use a pay telephone to call her aunt, hoping to get a ride later that morning to Sul Ross Elementary School, several blocks away, where she needed to register for classes.

She was late enrolling that semester because she’d just returned to Waco from Fort Worth to live with her grandmother.

Her aunt drove to the home on Ross Avenue to wait for Sheila, but the little girl never showed up.

Shelia’s grandmother called police to report her granddaughter missing.

Waco police began searching for Shelia that afternoon, and then showed up in force the next day.

Sgt. Roy Halsell, the police public information officer at the time, said there were some 20 officers working the neighborhood house-to-house trying to find anyone who might have seen the child.

The grandmother reported the girl was wearing a red long-sleeved sweatshirt and red “pedal-pusher” pants when she rode her pink-and-white bicycle away from the house to the store to use the telephone.

“We’re making progress through the process of elimination,” Halsell told reporters during the search.

The Texas Department of Public Safety assigned a helicopter to join in the search, both in the neighborhood and in other parts of the city, but the effort didn’t turn up anything new.

A grim discovery

Then two days later at about 3 p.m., almost 10 miles away, on the shore of Lake Waco at Speegleville Park, a sister and brother who went to the area to fish found her body.

Police found her pink-and-white bicycle nearby.

Then Justice of the Peace Alan Mayfield pronounced Shelia dead and ordered her body taken to the Southwest Institute of Forensic Science, in Dallas, for autopsy.

Mayfield confirmed the body was fully clothed but also noted the crime scene was “bloody.”

“We are getting numerous leads and we are checking each one of them out,” Halsell said at the time.

Six weeks after the body was found, on Dec. 1, 1989, Waco police issued a Crime Stoppers alert to local media regarding the child’s death, asking that anyone with knowledge of the incident call police, but nothing probative surfaced.

When the report of autopsy returned the results didn’t help investigators very much, either.

Eighteen sharp-force trauma wounds were identified on her body by the medical examiner, Dr. Charles B. Odom.

In the initial examination the medical examiner reported she was dressed exactly as her grandmother had reported, but oddly, none of her clothing showed evidence of cuts or rips, just some small tears along the waistline of the shirt.

Mayfield, who later served as a state district judge and is now retired, would have received the final report of autopsy, “but I’d already made the determination that it was a homicide because that was obvious,” he said in a telephone interview.

Though he said he didn’t remember a lot of details about the case, Mayfield pointed out that since she was dressed when she was found and her clothing showed no signs of cuts or tears, “it’s likely she was killed, then re-dressed by her killer.”

Of that number 18, any one or any combination of nine wounds could have caused her death because those wound tracks intersected the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys or a combination of those internal organs, the other nine “involved only the skin and sub-cutaneous layer,” the report said.

Oddly in his report Odom pointed out while the injuries were a result of sharp-force trauma, the weapon, or instrument used to create the wounds likely was dull, not sharpened to a fine edge.

The wound track in the liver “suggests that the instrument was more dull than sharp,” and “the track in the liver is not characteristic of a sharp instrument,” the report of autopsy reads.

Stab wound No.14, Dr. Odom said, caused the most damage because after passing into the abdomen, the knife blade “nicks the lateral aspect of the left kidney,” which causes hemorrhage into the girl’s abdomen.

Wound No. 3 “perforates the ascending portion of the thoracic aorta just above the base of the heart,” which given no other wounds could have caused her death.

Externally the girl’s genitalia, “reveals an area of contusion,” but also the report notes: “No actual laceration or tears.”

The only other wound on her body was a contusion, a scrape or abrasion, on her right calf.

Among the items sent from autopsy to the state crime lab were a sexual assault kit, a hair, possibly a fiber recovered from the child’s body and samples of her blood, the report of autopsy states.

The attack, put simply, was brutal: 18 stab wounds on the front of her body, from just below the right collar bone to one just above her navel, some of them slight and very superficial, other that produced knife tracks that pierced all the way to her spine, but there were no cuts in her clothes.

Investigators haven’t given up

Over the years the case has gone cold and recent attempts to identify and contact family members were fruitless.

Waco police files on the case still are not closed, though, nor is the investigation suspended.

Now, 29 years later, police still won’t release any additional information about the case, Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said.

“The case still is under investigation and we don’t talk about ongoing investigations,” Swanton said.

The report of autopsy says there was a rape kit tested, but the results of that test still aren’t being disclosed, nor have the results of testing on hair samples, fibers and other evidence recovered from Shelia’s body and there’s no mention of DNA samples at all.

But if a DNA sample can be recovered and profiled, it could lead to a viable suspect, even at this late date, investigators say.

Sir Alec Jeffreys, a geneticist, in 1984 developed DNA profiling as a way to positively identify, and compare samples taken from, subjects or surfaces as a crime-solving tool and since its inception the science has grown exponentially in its use.

Swanton says Waco detectives don’t give up, so for Shelia’s sake, they’ll keep working the leads, looking for more in hope of finally solving the case, and obtaining a measure of justice for Shelia Renea Finch.