AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – An Alabama mother moved to Augusta with her children to turn her life around. And she did. But that victory soon met tragedy when she was brutally killed.
“I definitely remember her dancing, like doing the Cry Baby at parties. Tearing it up too.”
Jawona Caldwell, who is 30-years-old, remembers the fun mom.
“I could talk to her about anything, and she would understand me.”
Dera McElderry recalls the trusting mom.
“BLT with bacon and tomatoes and lettuce,” she reflects. “It was just so good, but she wouldn’t share it with us. (laughs) Not at all.”
She also remembers the good cooking mom who sometimes kept dishes to herself.
But no one has seen her in more than a decade.
Dera McElderry and her younger sister Jawona Caldwell have been missing her for 13 years.
“She let us go outside and play,” Caldwell said. “We had a normal childhood. It was good.”
Born in Anniston, Alabama, a city about an hour and a half west of Atlanta, family members told us Teresa McElderry grew up a sweet kid who played softball and went to work right after high school. She gave birth to four children, but struggled to raise them. Dera McElderry told] Cold Case Project that her mother used drugs and was a lady of the night. Dera said she would try to convince her mother to walk away from that lifestyle.
“I didn’t want her out there living like that and she would say I’m ok. Nothing is going to happen to me,” Dera recalled.
But there was always the concern something would happen. Her loved ones even purchased a cell phone for McElderry because her daughters said their mother spent a lot time in the streets of downtown and east Augusta. And while she kept her private life to herself, sometimes the bad parts surfaced.
“Men she hung out with, that was the issue,” Caldwell said. “She would get with them and drink and they would fight. She would end up in the hospital.”
Coming from a close-knit family, Dera, Jawona and their siblings were adopted and raised by loved ones. Later, everyone relocated to Augusta in what seemed to be a good move for Teresa. She even took her good cooking skills to Maryland Fried Chicken. And secured her own apartment.
“Maybe a year and a half she was trying to do better,” her daughter Dera said. “She was even going to church with us.”
“I was really proud of her. It motivated me and made me want to help her even more and just be a part of her life,” Caldwell exclaimed. “Seeing her get that job. It didn’t matter how she got there. She walked to work, but she went.
But her old lifestyle resurfaced. She lost her job, became depressed and took to the streets.
“Try to numb the pain as much as possible,” Caldwell said. “I think that’s why the drugs came in. She just wanted to get high and just forget everything.”
On the night of Thursday, September 10, 2009, Teresa McElderry stepped out wearing black Levis jeans, a multi colored black, red and grey striped shirt and white, blue and lime green tennis shoes with a black wig. By the early morning hours of Friday, September 11, she met harm.
“Some blunt force trauma involved and strangulation,” Richmond County Coroner Mark Bowen said adding that he remembers responding to the scene.
Coroner Bowen said what authorities found afterwards was unique crime scene.
“Well, they asked us did we know anybody named Teresa McElderry. When they said that, then they said we found her body downtown over there by the Boat House and I just dropped to my knees and started crying,” Dera told us.
An incident report with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office states a witness flagged down a deputy after they found McElderry’s body on a dirt road off the 300 block of Prep Phillips Drive. It’s now called Riverfront Drive because it’s right next to the Savannah River.
Cold Case Project went to the Sheriff’s Office to learn more about the incident.
“The Boat House is all the way down here. If you come down, there’s more businesses on your left. The levee runs all the way straight down. This was the dirt road she was actually down when we found her all the way at the end.”
Captain Brandon Beckman works with the Criminal Investigation Division and remembers McElderry’s murder like it was yesterday. He said even though there were multiple pieces of evidence at the crime scene, he thinks the murder happened somewhere nearby and the killer dumped the body there.
“It seemed like maybe it was done in a rush where her body was found,” Cpt. Beckman said. “She was partially clothed.”
Captain Beckman identified McElderry using AFIS, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. It’s used nationally to identify the unknown, usually after they have been arrested. While no other fingerprints could be found at the scene, Captain Beckman said the suspect left vehicle tire prints and DNA after an apparent fight, two things that can be cross-checked to find a suspect now and in the future.
“She had to get reconstructive surgery on her face, like plastic surgery,” Caldwell said. “She had a broken nose cage. They said she had a broken rib cage. She had a lot of broken stuff, a lot of fractures and stuff. What did she do that was that bad?”
Captain Beckman told Cold Case Project there were five persons of interest, but no suspects. Caldwell has been to the crime scene too, trying to connect the dots.
“I even go to Prep Phillips Drive and I drive on that road to see if I can see something that the investigators missed, like somebody’s shoe or something that reminds me of my mom or something that I can have of hers,” Caldwell added.
Cold Case Project’s Renetta DuBose asked, “What’s your message to someone who may have something, who may not think they have everything, but something about whereabouts that night and death? What’s your message to them?”
Dera added, “Come forward because if it was your mom or your dad or your sister or your auntie, you would want someone to do the same thing for you.”
Anyone with any information about the murder of Teresa McElderry should call the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office at 706-821-1080 or CID at 706-821-1020.
Next time on the Cold Case Project, we look at the missing person case of Daniel Birchfield who was last seen leaving his home in Richmond County in 1991. What family and law enforcement need to get justice and close the case.
Photojournalist: Regynal McKie