AIKEN COUNTY, S.C. (WJBF) – An Aiken County widow and mother lived out her life’s purpose to provide medical care as a triage nurse for years, but on November 22, 1997, her own life ended.
“We always went to church,” said Tamara Herber, daughter of Janice Wessinger. “We went to church Sunday and Wednesday. Mom played the organ or piano, whichever.”
Tamara Herber’s mother, Janice Wessinger, tickled the ivories across the Palmetto State, and Tamara says her mom was a gifted musician.
“She just loved it and she gave her all for it,” said Vera Anderson, a church member of Janice. “She shared her talents with everybody.”
And that included the congregation of Central Baptist Church, which is where Wessinger played there for several years.
“She was just a beautiful person,” Anderson added. “You couldn’t help but love her. You just couldn’t. Her picture is still in our choir room back there.”
Wessinger’s church was not her only love.
Wessinger’s true calling was her career in medicine, and she had a passion for her patients.
“I remember when they did the 100th episode of Rescue 911. My mom was featured in it,” Herber remembered. “There was a kid who shot himself in the head. He was an 18-year-old, I believe. He actually survived. But he was sent to Allendale County Hospital and there was a filming of that. That was the day I knew I wanted to be a nurse. Watching them do that. There’s video on YouTube. I remember my mom. They were going out to the helicopter and she gets to the ledge and there’s not enough room and she just jumps off the ledge. Wow, that was so cool.”
Janice Wessinger was born and raised in Greys South Carolina in 1950, and she grew up with 3 siblings.
Wessinger got married in 1972, had two children, and remarried in 1995.
Her professional journey eventually brought her to Aiken, where she worked as a triage nurse at Aiken Regional.
When she wasn’t at work or church, she enjoyed ceramics, baking, gardening and taking walks in her neighborhood.
“Everyone loved my mother,” Herber said.
A series of events leading up to Wessinger’s death proved otherwise.
Herber tells Cold Case Project something eerie was going on shortly after her mother became a widow.
The 20-year-old and her mom lived together in a home in the woods.
“The lights just went out. I remember grabbing a gun,” Herber recalled. “I was dating my ex husband at the time. Mom asked me was Cliff over here the night before. When she came home she had smelled men’s cologne. I said no mama, no one has been in the house, but me.”
Herber felt they were being watched, and she said her mom talked about a spare key, typically hidden outside the home, missing.
However, those fears became reality.
“The last conversation I know for a fact I had with my mother, we talked about what she was going to do for the day,” Herber said. “She said she was going to go visit a friend of hers, I think Juanita’s mother who was in the hospital, in Augusta. That was the plan.”
Herber said she never made it to Augusta.
Her other plan, that also apparently never happened, was to borrow a truck from a church friend to haul something away.
Herber remembered getting up that morning.
Herber said she’s not sure if she saw her mother before she left for work, and she said Janice was not home when she returned.
“So, I called Cliff, and I said, ‘Hey, do you mind driving up and down Kedron Church Road to see if you see mom, see a body, anything,'” Herber said. “He was like ok. So, he drove up and down the road, came back and he did not see mom. I called 911 back and said you need to send someone my mom’s missing.”
A deputy responded and did a missing persons report on the 47-year-old.
Next, Wessinger’s ex-husband, her best friend, and best friend’s husband made their way to Aiken to begin searching, but just as Sunday morning settled in, Central Baptist Church’s pianist did not.
“It was just like the whole world had been taken from us,” Anderson, Wessinger’s church member, said.
Anderson recalled the pastor at the time, Bill Archer, calling on two deacons to help with the search: Daniel “Buddy” Dahlin and Alford Gunter.
They all walked from the home to the I-20 bridge and back.
That’s when Dahlin went off into the woods, where a phone post, pine trees, and a home now sit.
“He saw the footprint in the ant bed and went off into the woods,” Herber said. “By the time I crossed the road diagonally and made it to him he was coming out of the woods and I believe he was vomiting.”
Wessinger’s missing person’s case immediately turned to murder.
An incident report stated she was found stabbed several times, partially nude with her clothing spread around her on the ground and curlers in her hair and around her.
Herber would not give us the coroner’s report, but told us it stated her mother was nearly decapitated and raped.
The culprit’s DNA was found at the scene.
“There was a struggle,” Herber said. “Knowing my mother, I know my mother would have fought for her life. I know that. She would not have allowed somebody to do this to her without trying to save herself. She was a fighter.”
Wessinger’s case remained cold for 25 years on November 22nd.
What little hope Herber had lies with Aiken County Sheriff’s Office, SLED, the county solicitor, and the possibility of advancement in DNA testing.
At last check, Herber said they know it was a man’s DNA on her mother, but what was left can’t be added to CODIS: the police system used to track people arrested for crimes.
Herber reached out to outside testing sources, but the lead investigating agency will not relinquish the evidence from it’s quote “chain of command.”
The Aiken County Sheriff’s Office told us since the case is unsolved, investigators can’t release updates.
Two witnesses emerged from that day though, and we caught up with one of them.
“I worked with an undercover cop for Aiken County Sheriff’s Office,” said Fred Sanders, one of the witnesses.
“You were a confidential informant?”
“Yes,” Sanders said. “I was getting the information he needed like tag numbers…”
Sanders told the Cold Case Project that he saw Janice Wessinger, not far from where she was killed, on that I-20 bridge.
“She was already on the bridge,” Sanders recalled. “She had her hair in rollers. There was a light colored, midsize car, young black man approximately the same age as her. He had come up and made a u-turn.”
Sanders pulled up on the bridge and stopped his car right beside them.
“She opened the door, and she had an expression on her face,” Sanders said. “Like, it wasn’t ‘oh I’m so glad to see you;’ it was part apprehension.”
Sanders said he kept going and never reported what he saw, even though he later found out Wessinger was murdered.
Herber said she remains hopeful.
After becoming a nurse just like her mother, she reignited the cold case, started a Facebook page, put up signs around town, and talked with media.
Herber said she believes the murder was personal, and she shares that the missing spare house key returned the day of Wessinger’s funeral.
Recently, Herber says she learned her mother saw a therapist.
She wanted that person questioned along with the other witness, and she also wanted more information, even if it’s anonymous
“All cases are solvable,” Herbert said. “And someone has bragged about this to someone. They have mentioned it. They have told someone. Someone knows something.”
Anyone with any information about the murder of Janice Wessinger should contact the Aiken County Sheriff’s Office at (803) 648-6811.
Next time on the Cold Case Project we bring you back to Augusta to look into the 1994 murder of 17-year-old Leon Ellison on Peach Orchard Road. What family and law enforcement need to get justice and close the case.
Photojournalist: Regynal McKie