‘Fearing the worst. Hoping for the best:’ Mom pleads for help in teen’s disappearance
Michelle Spencer-Ransom moves through her days now wondering if every person she meets knows what happened to her son.
She wonders if they could ease the pain that’s plagued her since Malik vanished.
The constant tension in her neck.
The confusion and worry.
The difficulty eating and sleeping.
The feeling of being stuck.
Is it someone at the gas station, filling their car next to her’s?
Is it someone behind her in the grocery store line?
Since her son disappeared, all those faces have blurred together to form a world she no longer trusts.
Someone knows what happened to the 18 year old, she believes. They know if he is alive or dead.
They know, she thinks, at least some of the missing pieces that could end the walking nightmare that informs every part of her life.
On the day before the one month anniversary of her son’s disappearance, Michelle sits on a couch in a house that feels “empty” without her only child.
“It tears me up to know we are living amongst these people who know what happened to Malik,” she says.
A rising panic
The pain was immediate. A slow rising of concern — a feeling many parents have felt — that began when he didn’t answer his phone.
It was a Tuesday, seven days before Christmas.
Michelle was driving to a nail salon in Beaufort ahead of the holiday, before the parties were in full swing. It was common for her to check in with Malik at the end of her work day.
“This is when I first knew something was wrong,” Michelle recalled while holding pictures of Malik in her lap.
In one of them, he is 3 or 4. Michelle remembers telling him to “bust a move.” He gives a confident smile.
In another, Michelle and Malik lean in to blow out candles on a birthday cake.
There are pictures of a school trip with his fourth grade Okatie Elementary School class.
And sport shots where he holds a basketball.
It wasn’t long ago that Michelle looked through the album with Malik and the two reminisced about their lives together.
But making new memories has been on hold since Dec. 18.
When he didn’t answer her call, she made a nervous excuse to herself.
“Maybe his phone died?” she said.
She called her husband to see if Malik was home.
Her gut turned more.
Malik’s stepdad, Heyward Ranson, thought it was odd but wasn’t concerned at that point.
Malik always called if he wasn’t coming straight home, the parents said to one another. On this day, he didn’t have to work his job at Wendy’s and was expected home directly after school.
Maybe it was just a dead phone.
Even now, there are reminders of their son everywhere.
A basketball sits in the grass, nuzzled against the house. Did Malik drop it there after a day of playing ball with friends?
It is one of the only items out of place on the property.
Inside the home, bookshelves are neatly stacked with novels. Recipe books have their own spot in the kitchen. Pictures of the family hang on the walls.
In a way, the basketball isn’t out of place.
Sports are a part Malik’s life. He played in local leagues growing up. He spent time with friends going to Whale Branch Early College High School games, where he is a senior. His favorite basketball team is the Golden State Warriors.
He enjoys football and is a Seattle Seahawks fan. He and Heyward sometimes went to high school football games together.
Heyward started to feel real fear that Tuesday evening, when he and Michelle got an automated call at 6 p.m. from the Beaufort County School District.
It said Malik was absent for all four of his classes that day.
It is the same call any parent in the district receives when their kid doesn’t make it to class.
But Malik’s parents knew he was headed to school that morning.
Michelle had talked to him and given him $10 for pizza.
They exchanged their “I love yous,” the way they did every morning.
Their son, the couple said, wasn’t the sort of kid who skips school.
Malik’s responsibility made him who he was, she said,.
He only missed four days of school since August, and two of them were tied to the Hurricane Florence evacuation.
And he didn’t need his parents’ help to stay on top of school work.
He set his phone alarm and made it out the door on time for school. He did the same thing for his summer jobs, his parents said.
Malik was awarded “Camp Leader of the Summer” while working at the Beaufort County Pals camp in 2018.
He worked the sound board at Love House Ministries Church every Sunday morning.
“Malik loved going to church,” Michelle said. “He went to church on Sundays. I didn’t go. You don’t have too many teenagers like that.”
That responsibility came up in one of Michelle’s last conversations with Malik. He reminded her about his senior class pictures, alerted her to the upcoming cost.
That’s why the school district’s call panicked his parents.
It was simply unlike Malik.
Michelle and Heyward began making calls of their own to family and friends. But no one had seen him.
They tried to push down the panic. They tried to remain hopeful.
There had to be some logical reason for Malik being gone, they told each other.
Respecting the rules
Michelle and Heyward lived in New York City, Michelle in the Bronx and Heyward in Brooklyn. They did not know one another there.
They moved to Beaufort County separately and have been together about five years.
Michelle moved to the region to be closer to her father in the Beaufort area after her mother died.
She moved to the area as a single mother. She and Malik initially lived in Okatie and Jasper County. Malik’s biological father, a New York City fireman, had succumbed to cancer, Michelle said.
Heyward came back to live on the land in Lobeco that had been passed down by his family.
They now live on that property.
While it might be easy to think moving to rural Beaufort County was safer for their child, they were realistic.
“Same crime happens here but the city has more people,” Heyward says.
But they both believed they had found a home. They built a network of community through family, neighbors and faith. He works in security and she works at a financial institution.
Their awareness of crime in the community is one reason why Michelle only wanted one child.
“It is a scary time to be raising kids in,” she said. “I didn’t want anymore kids because there are so much that kids are dealing with ....”
They focused their attention on Malik.
They insisted on a set of rules.
He couldn’t go to parties where trouble was likely to erupt.
He was told to be careful about who he let into his car.
“We let him have some freedom,” Michelle said. “You have to let them experience life. You have to let them go. We also were stern and he knew we had rules. He always respected those rules. He didn’t always like them, but he would respect them.”
‘Snitches get stiches’
As the sun set and the hours rolled by on that Tuesday, they knew something was terribly wrong.
They didn’t sleep.
Giving into the fear is still hard for Michelle and Heyward.
The couple tries to find normalcy as the days since they last saw Malik pass.
“There are things we need to do,” Michelle said. “Take our shower, brush our teeth. We still have to do these things.”
The couple stopped an interview with the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette to watch a 10-year-old sing a Patti Labelle song on the Steve Harvey Show. They had been waiting to see the performance.
It was an attempt at normalcy.
Yet in their minds, every thought shifts to Malik, Michelle said.
“I think about him all day long,” Michelle said. “Thinking where he is and what happened to him. So many questions.”
Since Malik vanished, the community has buzzed with different scenarios.
Some have focused on rumors that Malik was in a gang.
It angers the couple when people bring these rumors to them.
“He didn’t have time for a gang,” Heyward said. “He was at work, school or at home. If he was a kid giving us problems — but that was not him.”
The Sheriff’s Office also hasn’t released any information to support the rumor. In fact, they recently said just the opposite.
“There is no indication that Malik Spencer is involved in a gang,” said Capt. Bob Bromage on Wednesday.
Michelle believes someone took advantage of her son.
She also feels someone knows what happened and is afraid to talk.
“People know but they aren’t saying something because they are afraid of retaliation,” she said.
It has shaken the couple’s view of the community they live in. Each of them believes that community has to start facing the crime happening around them.
The area has experienced loss before.
In July, Sean Aiken’s body was found in a ditch a few miles from where the couple lives. Aiken’s death ratttled Beaufort County both north and south of the Broad River since many knew him from his job at the Bluffton Wich Which sandwich shop.
“If we don’t do the right thing — it is going to get worse,” Heyward said. “The people doing these crimes are getting away with them. People are afraid but when are you going to stop being afraid?”
Sometimes, someone in the community who offers information on a crime is called a “snitch”.
“Snitches get stitches and end up in ditches,” the saying goes.
It is hard for Michelle to continue living in the community, knowing that for some there, that is both a mantra and a way of life.
She has considered moving since Malik went missing.
“It is a bunch of kids saying, ‘We ain’t snitches’,” Michelle says. “This group is affecting so many families.”
A niece of hers with three small children recently talked to her her about the issue.
“She said, ‘This is our future,’” Michelle said. “She said, ‘Auntie, this is sad.”
Heyward believes the crime is going to become worse; that more families will be affected if a conversation doesn’t start on the issue.
“These crimes are going to happen more and more,” Heyward said.
A $4,000 reward has been offered by family and friends to help bring someone forward. Anyone wanting to help fund the reward can donate to the “Bring Malik Back” fund through the Federal Navy Credit Union.
An anonymous tip line also is offered through Crime Stoppers of the Lowcountry at 843-554-1111.
While Michelle and Heyward are disappointed by the lack of reaction from some in the community, they know that good people live there, too.
“... we have met so many good people who are concerned about Malik. There is a lot of generosity and caring from the community.”
‘We have a right to know’
After more than 10 hours that Tuesday, their fear overcame them.
It was 3 a.m., and, while the neighbors slept, Michelle and Heyward called Sheriff’s Office deputies to their home, the early morning quiet cut by squawking radios and the sound of heavy boots.
The Sheriff’s Office has released few details about Malik’s disappearance to his family or the public. That isn’t uncommon during active investigations.
What is known is that the Sheriff’s Office first sent out a missing person alert for Malik at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the day he was reported missing.
On Friday, Dec. 21, at 12:52 they sent out another notice that Spencer’s car had been found in a rural location in Beaufort County.
Christmas passed and then the New Year.
The Sheriff’s Office first mentioned that detectives suspected foul play in Malik’s disappearance in an alert on Jan. 4 at 2:34 p.m. The department processed the car for forensics but no other information has been released.
Nothing new has been released since.
Bromage said Wednesday that the investigation remains active.
Anyone with information about Spencer’s whereabouts is urged to contact Sheriff’s Office investigator Brian Abell at 843 255-3436.
Anonymous tips can be given by calling Crime Stoppers of the Lowcountry at 843 554-1111.
Michelle and Heyward remain suspended in the place where they were the morning they spoke to deputies the first time.
“It still doesn’t feel real,” Michelle said.
“Whatever it is, good or bad, we want to know,” Michelle says. “We want to process it, deal with it and move on at some point. We have a right to know. He is our son.”