By Sean Bailey / Staff Writer
The Sheltons spent much of Friday, May 21, 1971, visiting grandparents in Williamsburg before heading back to their home in Gerry’s Trailer Park on 18th Street.
It was a normal enough day.
By all accounts, parents Claude and Sue Shelton loved their children. Claude had been steadily employed for 10 years, and family life seemed fine. So when they tucked their three children into bed that night, there was no reason for any of the children, or anyone in the community, to think twice.
As Sheila started to get ready for bed, she heard her father, Claude, say to her mother, Sue, “Are you going with me or are you going to stay here?”
The couple walked out the door.
That was the last time Sheila, 11 years old at the time, heard her father’s voice.
Thirty-eight years have passed with almost no more information for police or family members to go on. No one has ever heard from Sue or Claude Shelton. For years the case has been handed from detective to detective, and almost no leads have popped up.
But 38 years to the day of the Sheltons’ disappearance, DNA technology may have caught up with Shelia and her sister Debbie (Shelton) Nicely’s need for closure.
On Thursday, Sheila and Debbie had DNA samples taken by Kentucky State Police Detective Colan Harrell, to be analyzed and placed in a nation-wide identification network.
Debbie and Sheila are hoping the simple DNA swab and a single lead in the case will help bring closure to a painful, life-long mystery.
Just two months after Claude and Sue went missing, a body was found in Oregon matching Sue’s description. But in 1971, there was no national system of identifying remains, nor DNA technology.
“I hate to say it, and it’s hard to say, but I hope that is my momma,” Debbie Nicely said about the possible lead. “I just want closure.”
Det. Harrell said the DNA samples from Debbie and Sheila have been sent to a lab in Texas, where they could take several months to be analyzed. The technology just wasn’t around to make the positive identification when the Sheltons went missing, Harrell said.
“The physical description of the woman found in Oregon is pretty close,” Harrell said, “and it needs to be checked.”
After 38 years of essentially no leads, the possibility of some answers comes at the tail-end of another family loss. On May 10, Mother’s Day, Sheila and Debbie’s maternal grandmother passed away. After their parents went missing, Shelia and Debbie moved to Knoxville, Tenn. to live with their maternal grandmother.
Growing up wasn’t easy for the Sheltons. Both Sheila and Debbie say they remember falling asleep in tears, wondering where mom and dad went. Debbie said she remembers sitting at a window at their grandparents’ house quietly watching for her parents to come home.
“It’s a constant grieving process,” Sheila said. “It’s not something you can really ever get over. In the back of my mind, though, I’ve always thought it was foul play. Maybe that’s a coping mechanism, but I don’t think they’d just walk out.”
As Sheila and Debbie’s grandparents raised them in Knoxville, the family rarely talked about their missing parents.
Sheila said it was just too hard on their grandmother, who desperately wanted to see her daughter Sue again.
“She never stopped thinking they would come up alive,” Sheila said of her grandmother. “It was always like it happened yesterday to her. She would break down and sob.”
When their grandmother got sick recently and the end appeared to be near, the sisters had one request for their grandmother.
“Before she died, we asked her to please say hello to our parents in heaven,” Sheila said. “We asked her to let us know if they were there with her.”
A few days after their grandmother’s death, Sheila and Debbie received a letter from Det. Harrell about the possible break.
“I hate to say it, I do, but I hope that it was my mother they found,” Debbie said. “Because I hope we can bring her back here and put her beside mamaw.”
While the family waits for the test results, they hold on to a photograph of their mother and father.
Debbie said they don’t have much from their home in Corbin — the day after their parents went missing they were brought to their grandparents, and police had to look through their trailer for any evidence.
“My daughter got to see a picture of her grandmother for the first time at 8 (years-old),” Debbie said.
With almost four decades passed, Debbie and Sheila believe there still may be someone who knows something about their parents’ disappearance. Police believe the couple drove their 1967 Ford Galaxie, and may have been going to King’s truck stop near exit 29 in North Corbin — though no employees there saw the couple.
“Maybe someone knows if they were killed,” Sheila said. “Maybe the person that killed them is deceased now, or is getting older and wants to make right with the Lord.
“Anything. We need some closure.”
If you know anything about the disappearance of the Sheltons, contact KSP post at (606) 878-6622 or visit www.kentuckystatepolice.org/post/post11.htm.