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June 10, 2016
Outside Tiger Express/Exxon gas station
Corner of Hogarth and Boundary streets
By the Polk Village light
John Dortch heard the shot.
More importantly, he felt it.
The bullet had gone in through his neck and then right back out again.
He stumbled and fell onto a patch of grass at the side of the road, leaving a small puddle of blood on the asphalt.
The wounds weren’t all that big, but they were gushing.
Bystanders gathered to help.
A woman appeared with a bath towel. She pressed it to Dortch’s neck.
He was breathing.
He was alert.
Minutes earlier, Dortch had run into a former roommate at the Tiger Express.
The roommate, a man in his 60s, was at a gas pump. When he saw Dortch, he got out of the car and started yelling at him.
The argument was this: The two had lived together in a trailer in Burton. They didn’t anymore. The roommate’s tools were missing. The roommate was convinced Dortch had taken them.
It was the first time they had seen each other in at least three months.
Dortch, who was 55 at the time and has a long history of homelessness and petty theft in Beaufort, fussed back at the man and walked toward the convenience store.
The clerk, having seen and heard the argument from the counter, went outside and yelled at the two men to knock it off.
Dortch assured the clerk that everything was fine.
He went inside the store and bought a beer.
Then he left — walking in the direction of the roommate’s SUV as it was driving off.
The roommate saw Dortch and stopped behind the convenience store.
Dortch walked over to the vehicle’s window.
The two exchanged more words.
The roommate pulled a gun, blasted Dortch, then sped off.
A customer at the Exxon, who had been standing about 50 feet away, heard the shot and called 911.
“Did you get a license plate or anything?,” the operator asked the caller.
“No, ma’am. No, ma’am. No, ma’am,” the caller responded.
“OK. Do you know who was in the white SUV? Was it a male subject? Black, white or Hispanic?,” she asked.
The caller didn’t know. He consulted a man standing nearby.
The operator waited.
“It was a white SUV?,” the caller asked the man. “Do you know who—”
“Tell her Isaiah Gadson did it,” the man in the background told the caller.
“You know the guy’s name?,” the caller asked him.
“Isaiah Gadson,” the man repeated.
“Who?,” the caller asked.
“Isaiah Gadson,” the man in the background said again.
“Isaiah Gadson?,” the caller repeated to be sure.
The operator overheard the conversation.
“Isaiah Gadson was the suspect?,” she asked. “OK.”
“Isaiah Gadson,” the caller confirmed.
“All righty,” the operator could be heard typing.
“Yeah. Yeah—,” the caller said.
A medic could be heard asking Dortch how old he was and whether he had any health problems.
And the caller said the name of the shooter one last time.
A name that meant nothing and that would soon mean everything.
Just outside Beaufort
Susan Weed circled the house.
She inspected each window and each door from the lawn.
If even a sliver of light could be seen through the glass, she had to go back inside to do some rearranging.
Each lined panel needed to be fully pressed against the other, sealed as tightly as possible.
At daylight, they could be reopened.
But not until then.
Not if Susan was in the room.
Every night, she made her rounds.
“They had to be exactly right,” she said of the curtains her parents had hung so she could walk around in their lit house after dark.
Generally speaking, and all things considered, Susan was doing well.
She had returned to school — on the first day back, her best friends had met her in the parking lot to walk in together; teachers had greeted her with hugs and checked in with her regularly; classmates were supportive, patient and understanding.
She was getting back to the routine of a small-town teenager.
“People would tell me that it was a miracle (he didn’t kill me), and I knew that,” Susan said, remembering how her survival instinct had kicked in that night. “You know you’ve got to do this or you’re going to die. I was more confident in myself after that. I felt like I could make it through anything.”
But safety was no longer an assumption.
The Weeds were never a family that left their doors unlocked as many in Beaufort did in a proclamation of bucolic faith, but after Jan. 5, 1980, a locked door wasn’t enough.
Not after an unknown man had shot and killed Susan’s boyfriend, 18-year-old David Krulewicz, before raping her on Old Salem Road, just seven-tenths of a mile from her home, when she was 15 and the couple had been parked in his van.
Susan didn’t sit with her back to windows anymore.
She wouldn’t wait in parked cars.
She jumped at noises.
She had great trepidation about going out at night.
And for months, she slept with her older sister, Deborah, in Deborah’s double bed.
The phrase “everything is going to be all right” was neither truthful nor soothing to Susan.
Because she now knew otherwise.
“It’s just really hard to protect somebody like that,” her mother, Marie Ashley, said recently.
In the two years after the crime, detectives with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department had developed 34 possible suspects.
Time and again, Susan had been brought in to look over stacks of mugshots.
Time and again, investigators had questioned her, even sending her to a hypnotist to dislodge memories.
Once, they drove Susan to Columbia to look at an inmate. Once, they drove her to North Carolina to look at another.
But Susan could never say for sure whether any of these men were her assailant.
Neither could deputies.
So the case went cold.
And life went on.
Susan graduated from Beaufort Academy and joined her sister and brother-in-law in running her parents’ business, Carolina Moving and Storage, off Robert Smalls Parkway.
In 1987, she married Rob Neal, a handsome, kindhearted Marine from North Carolina.
They had two children, Kevin and Katherine, both delivered by Dr. John Fontana, the same attentive doctor who had examined Susan the night she was raped.
Occasionally a tip about a suspect would come in. Occasionally a new detective would get a bee in his bonnet and charge ahead.
Around 1996, a rookie investigator with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department, who appeared not to have read the case file first, resurrected Susan’s hopes — and fears — by telling her he had received information that could possibly lead to a break in the case.
The Neals became hopeful.
For months, Susan checked in with him, but the deputy had little to share and treated the Neals coldly, dismissively and haphazardly.
“At this point,” they remember him saying, “everyone is a suspect.”
He gave them confusing explanations for his delays in communication and told them about a blood sample from a possible suspect that had never been tested by SLED because of sheriff’s department budget constraints at the time.
“We would’ve paid for the test,” Rob said recently.
Eventually they were told the possible suspect was not a match.
The sheriff’s office recently confirmed that the case had been briefly looked at around that time but said the deputy who met with the Neals had never created a written record of the meeting nor any report of his investigation, as is protocol.
To the deputy, it was just another tip that turned out to be nothing.
To the Neals, it was disruptive and regressive.
They recoil at the memory of the experience to this day.
David’s murder and her rape were always on Susan’s mind.
“I thought of it,” she said. “Every single day, I thought of it.”
But the deputy’s inelegant handling of the case had resharpened the edges of those thoughts and reignited her hypervigilance.
Susan was getting spooked by small sounds again. Any time Rob went outside for a second, even just to run out to the car, he had to make sure the doors to the house were locked.
“Don’t walk up behind me,” she’d say to any family member who came into the room without announcing their presence.
By this time, she had lived 16 years with the same unanswered question on her mind: “Where is this guy?”
She would be in grocery stores and at gas stations in Beaufort and see a man who seemed familiar to her.
Is that him?
Is that the man?
She would see a man walk past her office.
Could that be him?
What if it is?
There were only so many options as to what could have happened to the unknown man.
He could be dead.
He could be in jail.
He could be in another town.
He could be in Beaufort County, breathing the air he had stolen from David.
He could be waiting for his next teenage victims.
Because that man was still out there.
Which is why, when her kids reached driving age, Susan sat them down for an important talk.
The same mother who had tucked her babies in at night and who had hugged and kissed away their fears of the dark now had to tell them the disheartening truth.
Monsters actually do exist.
They always have.
They can murder.
They can rape.
And you might not see them coming.
So don’t ever, ever go parking in the dark.
“This happened to me.”
April 20, 1999
Carolina Moving and Storage
Sgt. Chris Sankowski watched Susan Neal closely.
She went over the details of what happened to her and David on the night of Jan. 5, 1980.
She talked about David’s stomach problem.
She talked about cigarettes.
Sankowski took notes.
“Sgt. did notice Susan to be anxious,” he later wrote in his report of the meeting, “and several times having to swallow her saliva as she spoke.”
More than a month earlier, Susan had learned through a story in The Beaufort Gazette that the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department was going to take another look at David’s murder and her rape.
Sheriff P.J. Tanner, then 38, had been in office for just 10 weeks.
In that time, he had changed the department’s compensation plan, effectively raising deputies’ salaries.
He had made such a big dent in reducing a years-long backlog of hundreds of unserved warrants that The Island Packet wrote about the effect the effort was having on the court system.
And he had just announced to the public that his detectives were reopening seven old murder cases.
All were promises he had made leading up to his election in 1998, which he had won by only 106 votes.
“There were too many cases that were cold that were not being reviewed on a regular basis,” Tanner, who started with the sheriff’s office as a patrol deputy in 1981 on his 21st birthday, said recently.
The new sheriff put Staff Sgt. Bob Bromage, who was lead investigator for major crimes, in charge of the initiative.
The county’s cold case investigations would no longer sit one to a silo, gathering dust from apathy, turnover or retirement.
They would get a fresh look under one initiative, through the eyes of experience and the rigors of new technology, and would be handled with consistency. No more one-offs from myopic investigators.
Mike Ramsey, a reporter at the Packet back then, wrote about David and Susan’s case in a story that also appeared in The Beaufort Gazette on March 14, 1999: “At the time, Sheriff Morgan McCutcheon said, ‘We’ll overturn every rock in the county until we find the worm.’ Although McCutcheon’s men never arrested anyone, they didn’t have the aid of DNA testing and other advances in forensic science. They also had fewer men to work on the cases.”
It was this renewal in energy that brought Sankowski and Bromage to Susan’s office.
Sankowski noted in his report that Susan was glad they were doing this and that she’d cooperate with them 100 percent.
He also noted her displeasure with past investigations.
“Sgt. was advised by Susan that she felt sheriff department [SIC] did not do a very good job.”
Looking back, Susan said, she knew this time would be different.
“He was sincere and passionate. I wanted to tell him everything,” she said recently of Bromage. “I really liked him. I felt immediate confidence. He just seemed like he was so dead-set on finding this guy. “
As she had done in 1980 and in the years after, Susan racked her brain constantly, replaying every moment again and again, thinking maybe some important detail would shake loose or make sense to an investigator now.
And, though she was hopeful, she kept her expectations measured.
In the immediate days, weeks and months of her rape and David’s murder, Susan had been certain the man would be caught.
“I was just like, we’ve got to find this guy. I just know we’re going to find him. This guy can’t just walk away. This is unreal. This is like something you see on TV.”
For a long time, Susan didn’t know that people in town — and even a few in the sheriff’s department — believed she was lying, that her father, Johnny Weed, had killed David and that Sheriff McCutcheon was covering it up.
When Susan ran to her parents for help the night of Jan. 5, 1980, Johnny had rushed to the van with a shotgun in hand. He was enraged and hostile to a deputy, who ended up arresting him because he was afraid Johnny would hurt himself or someone else that night.
The arrest was likely the seed from which the grapevine grew.
It wasn’t until Susan’s husband came home from work one day around 1987 that Susan learned of the rumor.
An older man at Rob’s work found out that Rob had married the Weed girl.
“You better watch out,” the man told him. “Her daddy killed the last boyfriend.”
Susan was deeply hurt.
“How sad that makes me,” she said, “that people were saying that. It’s just sickening.”
In his report, Sankowski wrote that Susan had asked her mother, “Do you think there’s any way Dad was involved with David’s murder?”
If he was told how Marie Ashley answered that question — “no” — he did not include it in his report.
A month earlier, Sankowski had met with David’s mother, now Betty Whisnant, and with one of David’s sisters, Diane Larsen.
They said they hadn’t heard a single unprompted word about the case from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department since 1980.
Betty told Sankowski that she had never gotten much information at all about her son’s death, in fact.
But she was able to tell Sankowski this: “Someone overheard Johnny Weed saying he was going to kill David because David was worthless, being that he was Polish and a shrimper.”
Two weeks before Sankowski and Bromage met with Susan, Diane had sent a letter to Sankowski.
There was a Beaufort police officer named Jim Palmer who was friends with the Krulewicz family, she said.
Betty had run into him one day years ago and asked him about the case.
“His response,” Diane wrote, “was, ‘Betty, we all know who did it. You need to just let it go.’”
Aug. 2, 2016
DNA Database Unit
South Carolina Law Enforcement Division
Analyst Katie Corley picked up the phone.
She read the name on the case file.
She saw the year.
He probably doesn’t work there anymore.
She called the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
“Bob? He’s still here.”
Corley left a message.
“He called me back right away,” she said, laughing.
It was then that Corley got to deliver the news.
“Really?,” Bromage said. “Do me a favor. Can you put that on letterhead and email it to me?”
To some investigators, the findings might have been the final piece of the puzzle — the only thing they’d need to close the case, to check the box “solved.”
But for Bromage, even though the evidence was unassailable, the real work had just begun.
He was going to look around every corner before handing the case over to the prosecutor’s office. He was going to give them as close to a conviction-ready investigation as he could. He was going to do everything possible to make sure this ended the way it should have in 1980.
“If I ever get murdered,” Corley told him during one of their ensuing conversations, “I want you on the case.”
Bromage joined the sheriff’s office in 1990, when he was 23.
He has two speeds: intense and also intense.
It’s the word his mother uses to describe him as a child.
It’s the level at which he approaches most things in his life.
“That’s why he’s good at what he does,” Tanner said. “He lives, he eats, sleeps and drinks this work.”
As a young deputy, when Bromage could still run a six-minute mile, he was given a nickname by the troublemakers he’d sprint after. Walk around with him on Hilton Head Island today and you’re likely to hear someone he arrested back in the day or a relative of theirs yell out “Hey Flash!”
Bromage rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a detective in 1992.
His Connecticut accent — ardent, emphatic, impatient — and his energy — even when seated he seems to be in a constant state of about to lunge — stood out among the drawl, and his ambition could irritate those in the department who were more tolerant of a slower pace or who preferred conversations to include at least some form of pleasantry or small talk.
But his ambition left a positive impression on the future sheriff.
Back in the day, Bromage would ask to come in on his days off so he could work cases for Tanner, who was then a detective sergeant for criminal investigations south of the Broad River.
“When you find someone that is that eager to do something right,” Tanner said, “I mean, you help them as much as you can.”
Even now, at 51, Bromage has no pause button.
He seeks out experts to pick their brains on cases.
How would you go about doing this?
What do you think of that tactic?
When he needs information — minor, major, in between — he finds the person who has what he needs.
He’ll stop what he’s doing, dial a number from memory and unleash this urgency on whoever picks up.
Not long after Tanner put Bromage in charge of cold cases in 1999, Bromage solved two — the 1988 murder of a newspaper delivery-woman on Hilton Head and the 1995 case of an elderly man bludgeoned to death in his bed on St. Helena Island.
“Let me tell you, I’ve been around a lot of law enforcement officers in my 38 years. I’d like 50 like Bob,” Tanner said. “The guy will work until the job’s done.”
When the Krulewicz-Weed investigation was reopened in 1999, Bromage was pleasantly surprised by how thick the original case file was. In addition to maintaining dozens of pages of witness statements, detectives in the early 1980s had left behind fairly detailed written accounts of every person they had investigated through 1982.
“It tells me the case was still very much alive at that time,” Bromage said.
Photos of the crime scene, however, were missing, as was a psychological profile of the suspect, developed by the FBI, which the sheriff’s department had sought in March 1982.
Worse, key evidence had been inexplicably converted to microfilm by SLED and then discarded — meaning that instead of the swabbings from the rape kit taken that night, Bromage had photocopies of negatives.
The good news, though, was that David’s and Susan’s clothing from the night of the crime had been preserved — and were still in the original hospital bags they had been put in.
Bromage sent the clothing to SLED, where cuttings from the blood and semen stains were made and then submitted for DNA testing.
In addition to considering the forensics of the case, Bromage had several meetings and phone calls with the few Beaufort County detectives from 1980 who were still alive.
Floyd Wiley, the lead detective on the Krulewicz-Weed case in 1980, took Bromage to the crime scene and walked him through the investigation.
“He didn’t subscribe to the Johnny Weed theory,” Bromage said recently.
Instead, Wiley believed there was a strong possibility that a drill instructor who had been at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in January 1980 could be the suspect.
The man had been arrested in North Carolina in 1982 and convicted of killing and raping a prostitute before attempting to burn the evidence.
That’s when he popped up on Beaufort County Sheriff’s Department detectives’ radar.
The man’s superiors at Parris Island told detectives that he was a “smart alec” and that he had been relieved of duties for the maltreatment of recruits, that he smoked Kool cigarettes and that his disposition was of “coolness” and “a very polite nature,” just like David and Susan’s assailant.
What’s more, investigators had also discovered that the man had lied when asked whether he was in Beaufort on Jan. 5, 1980.
So in October 1982, Susan was taken to Odom Correctional Facilities in Jackson, N.C., to see if she could identify the man in a lineup.
She could not.
“Her identification would have been a stretch anyway,” Bromage said recently. “It was the middle of the night, in the woods. She didn’t get a look at his face.”
Technology at the time also couldn’t have helped matters.
It would be more than 20 years before a DNA profile would be developed of David and Susan’s assailant.
In 2003, the profile proved what Susan had been telling deputies all along: She had been raped that night by an unknown male.
That same year, Bromage tracked the former drill instructor to a prison in Ohio and worked with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation to get a DNA sample from him.
An agent met with the prisoner under the guise of interviewing him about another case. He kept the man’s cigarette butt and a styrofoam cup. Bromage drove to Lima, Ohio, to collect the evidence.
But the former drill instructor’s DNA was not a match.
The DNA profile developed from Susan’s clothes also did not match any of the DNA on file with the FBI.
In 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a warrant was not needed to take DNA samples from jailed suspects, it became mandatory in South Carolina for detention centers to swab anyone arrested for a felony, eavesdropping or stalking, or whose charges carried potential sentences of five or more years.
Those DNA profiles are then uploaded to a state database as well as a national database called CODIS.
This meant that if David’s killer was still out there, he had not put himself on the map — at least not since DNA testing became a thing.
“You knew he had to have re-offended based on the behavior at the crime scene,” Bromage said of the unknown man’s likely criminal history. “From that level of violence to acting like he was on a date? This wasn’t a one-time offender. There’s no way.”
Diane Larsen had always figured the man had left town sometime after the crime, maybe moving north.
“I had resigned myself to the thought that maybe they’ll never find who did this,” she said.
Her mind wouldn’t accept that any human being could do something as depraved as what this man had done and then be capable of going right back to small-town living — working, shopping, laughing in the same space as the families he had devastated.
As if nothing had happened.
As if he hadn’t done a thing wrong.
As if the night of Jan. 5, 1980, was wholly inconsequential to him.
“I did not factor in the ‘no conscience.’”
‘Stay in touch with Capt. Bromage’
Every Dec. 17, Diane Larsen called her mother.
“Happy birthday, David,” she’d say when Betty Whisnant answered the phone.
“Ohhh,” her mom would say sadly. “You’re thinking of him too.”
Betty had seven kids.
David was the second child she had lost.
Before the family moved to Beaufort County in the early 1970s, her son, Charles, whom they called Chipper, had died of sudden infant death syndrome at 2 months old.
“In a way,” Diane said, “I think she took Chipper’s death better.”
Betty could never make peace with — or sense of — David’s murder.
She also carried enormous guilt about it.
Before he bought his van, David had told Betty he was going to get a motorcycle.
“No, you’re not,” his mother told him. “They’re too dangerous.”
If David hadn’t owned that van, Betty later reasoned, he wouldn’t have been killed that night.
And besides, a bike wreck would’ve been easier for her to understand than murder.
“Mom,” Diane would tell her, hoping to soothe her pain. “David wouldn’t come back even if he could. David’s fine. We’re all going to be there (in heaven with him).”
Once or twice a year, Betty would call the sheriff’s department asking them for something, anything to show they were still on the case.
“She was obsessed,” Diane said.
Let us know. Let us know. Let us know.
“I think it helped her feel like she was doing something,” Diane said. “She didn’t want them to forget about us.”
But that’s how Betty continued to feel.
“You have a grieving mother who lost her son,” Betty’s oldest son, Danny Krulewicz, said recently from his home in Mobile, Ala.
She understood that detectives couldn’t share details of the investigation with the public, he said, but “we weren’t the public. We were the victims.”
Simple updates, Danny said, would have been enough.
“If they would have told Mom that Susan was going to lineups, she wouldn’t have been as bitter.”
Betty’s anger and desperation is palpable in a memorial she wrote and submitted to the National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children in 1999 in which she names Susan’s father, Johnny Weed, as a possible suspect:
“The only person who knows the truth is the girlfriend ... The funeral was the one and only time I saw or spoke to her or her family. There was not a scratch or bruise on her at that time, 3 days later.
“... I have never given up hope that some day there will be a break in the case. It can never bring my son back, but Lord what a load it would be off of the hearts that loved David.
“If I only knew what to do.”
In the days after David’s death, she urged Danny to go to Johnny.
“I felt like we were in the mafia or something,” Danny said. “She wanted me to beat the truth out of him.”
“She was grabbing at straws,” he said. “It was just driving her crazy not knowing what was going on ... I know she gave the sheriff’s department hell, but they probably deserved every bit of it.”
It was well-known in the community that Johnny had terminal cancer. Betty figured he would confess to killing David before he died.
“This case is fixing to be solved,” she would say.
Johnny died in 1983 and, according to Susan and his wife, Marie, never knew about the rumors that he was the real murderer.
When Tanner reopened David’s case in 1999, Betty felt hopeful again.
The man who had taken her son from them might finally be caught.
He might finally be brought to justice.
But she would never get to see that happen in her lifetime.
From her deathbed in 2007, Betty, age 70, expressed one last wish.
“I want you to stay in touch with Capt. Bromage,” she told Diane.
Year after year, the status of David’s case was always the same: Still no leads. Still no hits on the DNA profile.
Until one August evening in 2016 — two months after a 63-year-old man was arrested for shooting his former roommate at a gas station in Beaufort.
Diane was sitting outside the Beaufort County jail, where she had volunteered for years — where, unbeknownst to her, the 63-year-old man was about to be booked.
She emptied her pockets and purse of loose change and other items she couldn’t take into the detention center.
Then her phone alerted her to a text.
She didn’t recognize the number.
She knew the name.
And, all at once, she knew.
“Diane. Bob Bromage. Call me please. Thank you.”
Click here to read the next installment of “Monster Unknown.”
Reporter Liz Farrell began following the Beaufort County cold case after Isaiah Gadson was arrested for the 1980 murder and rape in 2016. The resulting series, “Monster Unknown,” is the culmination of more than 100 interviews, dozens of hours of archival research, a year of attending cold case committee presentations at the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, as well as shadowing Maj. Bob Bromage, a cold case detective with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, and Hunter Swanson, the lead prosecutor of the special victims unit at the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, as they prepared for Gadson’s trial. Dialog is based on the reporter’s firsthand observations, primary accounts of past events, video, audio, newspaper articles, letters, text messages, as well as sheriff’s office investigators’ reports and written statements from the original case files.