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Murdered 13 years apart, deaths of two young women still unsolved

A photo of Monique Marlowe (center) and friends rests on a bookshelf in a room she used for studying at her parents’ Barrow County home. That room and the 24-year-old’s bedroom have been mostly untouched since her murder last September. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

A photo of Monique Marlowe (center) and friends rests on a bookshelf in a room she used for studying at her parents’ Barrow County home. That room and the 24-year-old’s bedroom have been mostly untouched since her murder last September. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

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The remains of Monique Marlowe rest on the dresser in her childhood bedroom. Marlowe, 24, was shot and killed while working outside a Duluth rental car facility last September. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

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The grave of Elaine Nix decorated during an annual ceremony remembering her death. Nix, 18, was abducted and killed in Sept. 1999, and her case is still unsolved. (Special photo)

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An aging reward poster pleads with the public for help solving the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Elaine Nix, whose body was found in a wooded area near a Buford industrial park. (Special photo)

The Public's Help

Anyone with information regarding the murders of Elaine Nix or Monique Marlowe — or any homicide — should call Gwinnett County police detectives at 770-513-5300. Rewards are offered in both cases.

Grief — like the crime of murder — has no statute of limitations. It does not expire.

Elaine Nix’s last known action was an hour-long payphone conversation with her boyfriend from a Hall County gas station. That was Sept. 20, 1999. After nine days, her naked body was found near an industrial park near Buford. Authorities still don’t know how the 18-year-old died.

Thirteen years and one day later, on Sept. 21, 2012, Monique Marlowe’s last documented words were a generic description of the man who shot her as she cleaned a rental car in Duluth. Twenty-four years old, she died at Gwinnett Medical Center — a single bullet ruptured a vein carrying blood to her heart.

Even now, there are no real leads in either young woman’s murder; no real leads, few clues and no suspects. A blind, painful hope is all that’s left — that and distress and sleeplessness and an endless desire to know. Dreams of justice and, sometimes, well thought out, vengeful fantasies, too.

But above all, there is grief. The Nixes mourn like it’s been a day. The Marlowes mourn like it’s been an hour.

“You still don’t know the who, the how, the why, who to be mad at,” Becky Nix says.

“It’s like we’re dead,” Maria Marlowe says. “We’re dead. It’s just different. There’s no enjoyment anymore.”

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David Nix doesn’t talk much, especially not about this, and he certainly has no interest in speaking with a reporter. He politely asks if anyone wants a drink before beginning the search for a bucket, the tool for some unnamed chore.

It’s been 14 years since his daughter was killed. Not much, if anything, has changed.

“He does just like he’s doing,” his wife says. “He goes. He’s always doing something. He’s done that since Day 1.”

All that time ago, Elaine Nix was at Zack’s Food Rack, a gas station and convenience store, on Gainesville’s Candler Road. From shortly after midnight to shortly after 1 a.m. on Sept. 20, she used the payphone — tucked far to the closed store’s left — to chat with boyfriend Billy Millwood.

Billy was living with his mother in Cleveland, about 30 miles north, and the “long distance” at the Nix home was blocked. This was 1999, the Pager Era.

“You know how they get on the phone and talk for hours,” Becky Nix says. “She did that probably a couple times a week.”

When Elaine didn’t come home that night, her parents worried but didn’t panic. Parents and teenager had had their fair share disagreements, and it wasn’t terribly uncommon for her to leave and stay with a cousin or a friend for a night or two. She had dropped out of East Hall High School, but wanted to get her GED and study nursing.

“She was a little firecracker,” friend Jennifer Boyd says.

The next day, anxieties would rise.

At about 5 p.m., Becky Nix spotted her daughter’s Toyota Corolla outside Zack’s, now known to be precisely 2.3 miles from home. The keys were in the ignition, and there were cigarettes in the passenger seat. Smokers don’t intentionally leave cigarettes behind, she thought.

She got whiter as she drove the car home, sensing the gravity of what might be at play.

For eight days, search teams scoured the woods and highways and bodies of water. On Sept. 29, 1999, someone cutting the grass behind a Buford industrial park — some 17 miles away, a few hundred feet inside the Gwinnett County line — saw a body.

Elaine was just inside the woodline, dead, naked but still wearing jewelry. After more than a week in the late summer sun, it was impossible to determine a cause of death.

“She thought she was invincible,” Becky Nix says. “There wasn’t nothing that could hurt her.”

Since the discovery, nothing substantial has been unturned.

Surveillance cameras at Zack’s shot only the front of the store. A few passersby reported vagaries about seeing a pickup truck pulling into the parking lot or a nondescript man walking around. Nothing specific to Elaine.

Gwinnett County police Sgt. John Richter has worked the case hard for about four years — a flow chart weeding through the investigation covers part of his cubicle wall, just like on TV. He said tips still come in once or twice a month, mostly rumor mill products or folks pitching their own unsubstantiated theories.

Ideas, or at least the bases for them, abound: The abduction spot and body location are both easy drives off Interstate 985; Zack’s was a popular spot for truckers to pull over and get some rest; the employee rosters of warehouses and factories in Buford back then were saturated with Gainesville residents. A controversial psychic named Sylvia Browne told the Nixes, on “The Montell Williams Show,” that Elaine’s killer had done it before and would do it again.

As the last person to talk to Elaine, some pointed fingers at Billy Millwood. They did have a typical, tempestuous teenage relationship, with more than one fight and a couple break-ups, but he was 30 miles away.

In the years since Elaine’s murder, Billy has been arrested multiple times on drug charges. Attempts to reach him for this story were unsuccessful.

“He was thoroughly investigated, as well as all of her close friends,” Richter says. “Obviously nothing solid has ever led to him.”

There was nothing that would suggest Elaine’s cause of death, and no obvious signs of drugs.

“There’s absolutely no way to tell because the scenario, it could fit anything,” Richter says. “It could fit someone she knew, just a passing contact or a friend. It could be completely random. There’s just no way to tell.”

In 2010, identical letters were sent to Gainesville women named Becky Nix and Jennifer Boyd. Eventually those women — unintentional recipients with popular names — got in contact with the correct people, the ones actually connected to the decade-old murder of an 18-year-old girl.

The dispatches were jarring. In great detail, they described what happened to Elaine Nix on Sept. 20, 1999. They were the supposed confession of a prominent local businessman.

“They said that three people were at a trailer and they were out drinking beer, and they saw a girl at the payphone, so they went up to her and offered her money,” Becky Nix says. “She didn’t want their money, then they took her anyway and were driving around with her. Just step-by-step. They said where they put some of the evidence.”

Nix says the Hall County Sheriff’s Office told her it was a hoax. Richter plays coy when asked about it.

“We’re still following up on all leads,” he says. “Wherever it takes us.”

A week from today, on the anniversary of Elaine Nix’s body being found, friends and family will gather at the cemetery. As they have every year since her death, they will speak and pray and remember, and release balloons in her memory.

Like every year before, they’ll have no answers.

This past Valentine’s Day, Billy Millwood left a handwritten note at the same grave they’ll circle around. Becky Nix saved it.

“You mean more than life itself. I miss you very much,” Billy wrote. “It’s been 14 years since I placed my promise ring on your finger. It still holds true. To this day no one will ever have my heart the way you have. Elaine I love you forever. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

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There are roughly 150 homicides in the files of the Gwinnett County Police Department’s cold case unit, a squad currently comprised of three men: Sgt. John Richter, Cpl. Dennis Hennelly and Det. Andrew Whaley. Though they assist on major homicide investigations — like last week’s triple murder outside Snellville — their primary, daunting task is the long-unsolved ones.

Some of them date back to the 1960s.

“Cases generally go cold for a reason, and to generate new leads is not always easy, especially as time passes,” Richter says. “The longer they’re cold, the fewer and farther between the leads come in.”

That doesn’t mean they’re not worked. Every would-be tipster is spoken to, every tidbit is examined. All files are perpetually open. The work can be, in a word, frustrating. But they push on.

“We’re confident that every case is solvable, and that’s how we go into each case,” Richter says. “We approach them all the same way — we’re going to solve them one day.”

That includes the decades-old investigations and the ones not even technically in the unit’s hands yet.

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“If I could just get my hands on the guy that did this,” Dan Marlowe begins. He outlines, graphically, what he would like to do to his daughter’s killer. Pain — his own — oozes from every word.

“She suffered. She suffered a lot. And I would like to make that person suffer. That’s cruel, I know. You shouldn’t. I guess I’m not a very religious person. I don’t believe that a person can do something like this and you should forgive that person.”

Dan Marlowe has leukemia, has for 10 years. Skin cancer, too. The prognosis for the former is a shoulder shrug and a “we’ll see,” as far as he’s concerned. For a year now, his life has been another thing.

On Sept. 21, 2012, 24-year-old Monique Marlowe was cleaning out a car behind Hertz Rent-A-Car on Satellite Boulevard in Duluth. First a victim of the economy, the University of Georgia international business graduate — an all-state musician, swimmer and student while at Barrow County’s Apalachee High School — had taken the gig out of necessity and boredom.

The post-graduate, post-internship months at her parents house, no job and nothing productive to do, had been tough. So for nearly two years, Monique Marlowe had built a reputation at Hertz: Hard-working and beloved, if underemployed.

When co-workers didn’t hear from her for 15, 20, 30 minutes that day, they didn’t think anything of it. Maria Marlowe, her mother, was out running when she got the call.

Monique had been shot. No one saw or heard anything.

“A lot of people get shot and survive, you know,” Dan Marlowe says. “It entered my mind, I guess, but I thought surely she’d survive.”

The bullet entered through her abdomen, leaving a bump where it tried to exit near her right shoulder. It only knicked her kidney and liver but ruptured the inferior vena cava, the largest vein in the human body. Several hours of surgery couldn’t fix the latter.

As she was being loaded into an ambulance, Monique had given police a vague description of her assailant: A black male in a blue shirt. That, basically, is all authorities have to go on.

Detective P.J. Roberson has ceaselessly worked the case, but to no avail.

“There was a lot of legwork in this case,” Hennelly, one of the cold case detectives, says. “… He did everything from new-age stuff to old school investigative stuff, and there was nothing.”

Says Richter: “It’s a very important case. Along with all of them, but it gets a lot of attention.”

The spot where Monique was shot is the primary problem. Down several stairs from the Hertz office and lightly shrouded by pines, anyone from the outside wouldn’t see much. Gwinnett Place Mall rests across a long parking lot, a potential haven for the shooter to escape and blend in.

The nearby Gwinnett County transit station would conceivably be a treasure trove of witnesses, but the fact that arriving and departing busses circle the actual waiting area, leaving riders blocked off from the outside world, may have been more of a hindrance.

Some of the buses themselves have cameras, but they’re mostly motion-sensitive (to capture accidents) or focused solely on the driver. No potential suspects, fleeing on a bus, would be spotted on recordings. You also “can’t hear a damn thing” when the buses are running, Hennelly says. That means riders and waiters wouldn’t have been on the lookout for anything unusual.

Any expression of a possible motive would be little more than guess at this point. Monique had nothing with her, no phone or purse. Her parents have not been able to find a Mickey Mouse necklace she often wore — little more than costume jewelry — but no one’s sure if it graced her neck that day.

“Anything’s possible,” Richter says. “Until we get a solid lead that tells us exactly what it is, any motive is possible.”

For the last year, the Marlowes have tried everything to help churn up those leads. They and Adam Pitts, a lifelong friend of Monique’s, still keep reward posters up in bus stops. A billboard went up near I-85 in January, broadcasting their pleas for about two months.

Dan Marlowe says he’s working with Hertz to up the $25,000 reward to $50K, offering to split the difference with the rental car corporation. He’s contemplating sending direct mail flyers to key addresses.

A few tips come in a month, Richter says, but the investigation is unique even among cold cases. There’s never been much to go on.

“I will go to no end trying to do something to keep this in the public view,” Dan Marlowe says. “I will always do something to keep reminding people that this has happened. We have to have justice.”

A few courses away from earning a long-coveted bachelor’s degree, Maria Marlowe works full-time in Gainesville. She runs marathons, and is her husband’s rock.

Long since retired and in ill health, Dan Marlowe spends his days in the Auburn home that his parents built, tending to 40-plus acres when he’s able and admiring the horses he’s never ridden. September 26 is his birthday.

Fifty-one weeks ago, both were anxiously awaiting a weekend dinner date with their only child.

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Grief is not something that goes away, especially with no answers. Days, months and years have no place in the equation.

“Crime victims, particularly in homicide cases, they often view the conclusion, the disposition of a case as bringing some sense of finality,” says Candice Pitman, the director of the Gwinnett County district attorney’s victim-witness program. “When it’s a cold case or a case that’s unsolved, they have no way of seeking that closure. And there’s no way to provide that for them from a justice perspective.”

Dr. Ashley Wellman is an assistant criminal justice professor at the University of Central Missouri. While serving in a similar role at The Citadel, she spent months interviewing family members left behind in 18 different unsolved homicides.

“Not having all the answers and the puzzle pieces leave them always wanting more,” Wellman says. “There’s no good explanation that would ease any of their pain … From two years out to 48 years out, time didn’t necessarily matter.”

The Nixes and the Marlowes know all this. They deal with their grief the best they can, and they tell themselves that, one day, somehow, they’ll have answers.

Above all, there is hope.