By the time the FBI had begun publicly discussing a young Black man as a prime suspect in a high-profile missing person case in 2016, I had already taken a buyout and left The Sun News, the only daily newspaper in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Our staff had been gutted a couple years earlier. I’ll never forget the day our executive editor went around the newsroom gently patting colleagues on the shoulder asking them to step into her office. She wanted to detail their severance packages, tell them that was their last day on the job, as our paper went through drastic downsizing like most local newspapers have over the past decade.
I can’t tell you with certainty that that downsizing was the reason that, 13 years after Brittanee Drexel’s reported disappearance, we are only now learning how wrong we were to publish Timothy Taylor’s name, how wrong it was for so many other local and national outlets to have done the same. But it definitely didn’t help, given that downsizing meant getting rid of the kind of pain-in-the-ass copy desk that has long kept news organizations out of trouble and jettisoning many of the most experienced journalists on staff. I can’t tell you with certainty that I would have raised a stink about the decision to name Taylor despite the fact that he never was charged, but I know it was easier to think such important decisions through when the newsroom was full of people who didn’t all see the world the same and got on each other’s nerves about seemingly small things that were never really small.
Just this month it became clear that Taylor will likely never be charged in the case that began in April 2009. Law enforcement recently announced the arrest of a different man in Drexel’s disappearance. They now say Raymond Moody — a man the police interrogated years earlier — kidnapped, raped, and murdered Drexel. Moody, a white man who had been convicted decades ago of kidnapping and raping a young girl and reportedly abusing others, had been sentenced to forty years in prison but was released in 2004. A year before Drexel went missing, in 2008, Moody was charged with indecent exposure. A year after her disappearance, in 2010, he was charged for failure to register as a sex offender. Law enforcement officials originally investigated Moody, but he never became a public suspect the way Taylor did.
Taylor was a 16-year-old boy at the time of Drexel’s disappearance, disabled since he was four years old when he lost an arm in an accident. The FBI used Taylor’s involvement in a 2011 robbery of a McDonald’s to publicly squeeze him in the Drexel case — even though he always maintained his innocence. That’s how a white man who had been convicted of kidnapping and rape never became the prime public suspect in a kidnapping and rape case and a Black boy with one arm did. Law enforcement officials left the impression they were certain Taylor had taken Drexel, and that Taylor’s father was also involved, and journalists parroted what law enforcement officials said in court and in press conferences. The media didn’t stick to what we thought had been a hard-learned lesson after the FBI publicly — and falsely — pointed the finger at Richard Jewell in the Atlanta Olympics bombing: Don’t name suspects who have not been charged.
Because we failed to adhere to that ethical guidepost, Taylor’s family suffered under years of the worst kind of suspicion. His mother lost a job. His father was viewed as a murderer. An uncle endured rumors of being part of a sex trafficking ring. The Taylor family’s grandchildren had to receive counseling. They were targeted with death threats in a rural part of South Carolina where Black people were once targeted for other nefarious reasons. Taylor and his lawyers decided to give interviews, locally and nationally, to try and clear his name. That only led to more mentions of his name, more frequent publishing of his photo in connection to Drexel’s disappearance, more false impressions that he was a rapist and murderer.
The Drexel case never left my mind. It’s been a top story in our area since she was reported missing in April of 2009.
But for all these years, the false image of a young Black man doing ungodly things to a young white girl was stuck in my head. Because the media helped the FBI stick it into the heads of most of those in the public who’ve ever come across the name Brittanee Drexel.
It’s a bell we can’t un-ring — but must avoid ringing again.