This is a special episode of The Deck, because the story I want to tell you today is about
a man whose face is not in a cold case card deck.
But we found the case so compelling that we’ve decided to bring you his story in what we’re
going to call a wildcard episode.
There will be other wildcard episodes throughout this year, mostly because when our reporters
travel to do an interview, sometimes they come across other cases that aren’t featured
on a deck that we just can’t shake.
In this instance, we actually got asked to cover this case by the department.
And once we started learning more and more about this case, we quickly realized why.
So our card this week is Shelton Sanders, a wildcard from South Carolina.
Shelton was a young man who disappeared 20 years ago.
And despite all the time that’s gone by and all the heartache his family has experienced,
we’ve never stopped looking for him.
I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.
On the morning of June 20th, 2001, Peggy Sanders was at home in the small town of Rembert,
South Carolina, when her phone started ringing.
She picked it up, and on the other end of the line was someone from the University of
South Carolina’s School of Medicine, where her son Shelton worked.
This colleague asked Peggy if Shelton was running late for work that morning because
no one at the office had seen him.
Peggy was a little dumbfounded by the question because she knew that her 25-year-old son
He should have left a few hours ago.
You see, at the time, Shelton was living at his family’s house, and every day he made
the 40-minute drive to Columbia and back.
In between taking classes at USC to get a degree in administrative information management,
Shelton was working as a computer programmer in the School of Medicine’s neuropsychiatry
That’s where he should have been on the morning of June 20th.
Peggy knew it was completely unlike her son to be late for work, let alone not show up
And she said as much to his co-worker who was on the other end of the line.
They both agreed that something felt off because Shelton just wasn’t the type to blow off his
job and classes.
In fact, according to his family, Shelton had a habit of making a big deal when he arrived
to work each day.
He would jovially greet all of his colleagues and announce his arrival when he clocked in
Peggy hung up the phone with Shelton’s employer, and in her gut, she felt like something was
definitely wrong with this situation.
If, for some reason, Shelton had gotten caught up with something that morning, she knew he
would have at least called her or his dad.
Shelton was constantly in touch with his family during the day.
This was one of the first things his father, William, and his sister, Wolveria, told our
reporter in their interview for this show.
He would call home every day and let us know that he’d made it to work, made it to school,
and then when he was on the way back.
So it was a frequent conversation with my family.
Within minutes of Peggy hanging up with Shelton’s employer, she did what I think is natural
for any mother or loved one to do when they’ve just learned that no one knows where their
She started making phone calls.
She dialed family members, more co-workers, and even hospitals just in case Shelton had
been in a car accident or something.
And just to give you an idea of how determined Peggy was, she didn’t just call hospitals
in her local area.
She called every hospital between Columbia, South Carolina, and Jacksonville, Florida.
Like, Mom was searching hard.
And the reason she made inquiries so far south was because the Sanders actually had other
family members in Jacksonville, and she assumed that it might be possible that Shelton had
But again, it’s not like he had mentioned any plans to do that.
But Peggy just wanted to make sure she covered all the possibilities.
The last time anyone in Shelton’s family had heard from him was the night before, so
He had called home around 8.45 p.m. and talked with his mom.
He wanted to let her know that he would be getting home late because he had to go reserve
some hotel rooms in Columbia for a friend’s upcoming bachelor party.
At the time, Shelton was driving his brother Edwin’s car because his was in the shop.
During that same phone call when he talked with Peggy, he’d also spoken with Edwin
and told him that he’d have his car home within two hours, so around 11 o’clock that
After that, Shelton’s family didn’t hear from him, but they weren’t super alarmed
at that point because he told them he’d be coming home later than usual.
So they all just gone to bed, and no one had actually heard or seen Shelton come home that
When everyone woke up on the 20th and didn’t see Shelton or his brother’s car, they just
assumed Shelton had already left for work.
When they realized that wasn’t the case, though, that’s when Wilveria, William, and
Peggy really started to worry.
He could have been driving home and got into a car accident or ran off the road.
Every call they made to medical centers and other family members turned up nothing.
They drove roads, looking into ditches, but still found no clues as to where Shelton was.
Within a matter of hours, Shelton’s dad, William, went to the Sumter County Sheriff’s
office, since that’s the county Rembert is located in, and he tried to file a missing
Staff at the department told him he couldn’t report his adult son missing for 48 hours.
This is a really common line we hear a lot in stories like this, and the reason some
agencies have this policy is because anyone that’s a grown adult can technically just
choose to go missing if they want to.
The sense of urgency you’d normally see, say, if a kid disappeared, isn’t there when
a 25-year-old just doesn’t show up for work.
It is such a frustrating policy, and I’m always haunted when I think about how many
missing people might have had a better chance of being found if an investigation into what
happened to them wasn’t delayed by two whole days.
But despite William telling the deputies that his son was the last person who’d take
off on his own without telling anyone, the Sheriff’s office stood by its 48-hour rule.
So William and the rest of Shelton’s family was left to start dialing the phones again.
They got a hold of some of Shelton’s friends to find out if any of them had seen Shelton
the night before.
William got a hold of staff at USC and one of Shelton’s guy friends, and within a few
minutes he was able to piece together some really critical information.
He learned where Shelton was and who he was with on June 19th.
After attending two hours worth of classes at USC, Shelton went to work at around one
o’clock in the afternoon, and he got off work at 7 p.m.
After leaving work, he went to a friend’s house in Columbia and talked with his friend
about having to go book those hotel rooms for his friend’s bachelor party.
Now it might sound weird that he was planning to go in person to book these rooms, but it
is 2001 and online booking wasn’t really as easy as it is today.
And yes, he could have called, but Shelton had mentioned to his friend that the whole
point of going in person to the hotels was to go scope out which locations had the best
room configuration for all the guys attending the bachelor party.
Now the friend Shelton went to see after work was initially supposed to help him scout and
reserve the rooms, but at the last minute he told him he couldn’t go anymore because
he’d made plans to go hang out with his girlfriend.
While Shelton was still at this friend’s house, one of Shelton’s old roommates, a
guy named Mark Richardson, who was also a friend of the groom, showed up and volunteered
to help Shelton go scout hotel rooms.
Before Mark and Shelton left, Shelton told Mark that they’d be taking his brother’s
car, and that they couldn’t be too long because he needed to get it back to Rembert
So Shelton followed Mark, and they drove to Mark’s house so Mark could leave his car
there, and the men rode together in Shelton’s brother’s car to go look at the hotels.
Around that time was when Shelton made the call home to let his family know he’d be
coming home late.
But that’s all the information Shelton’s guy friend could give to William.
Everything after that is a complete mystery, and unfortunately William didn’t know Mark,
so he didn’t make contact with him during this first round of phone calls looking for
Days passed, and Shelton’s family was only growing more and more worried about him.
The moment 48 hours came and went, William reported his son as a missing person to the
Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, and at that point, it was now June 22nd.
Pretty much right away, detectives started interviewing Shelton’s family members and
his friends, trying to determine his last known whereabouts.
Everyone cooperated and gave their statements about the last time they’d all seen or talked
The cops learned about Shelton’s phone call home and plans to go visit hotels in Columbia.
What police can clearly establish is that no one had seen him since June 19th.
No one except Mark Richardson.
Staff at three different hotels confirmed to investigators that they’d seen Shelton
and Mark at their front desks inquiring about booking rooms.
Those witness accounts established a window of time between 9pm and 11pm, in which the
pair was doing what they told friends that they’d set out to do.
The last known sighting of Shelton and Mark was around 11pm, when a witness indicated
the men were wrapping up for the night and heading home.
As police reviewed the rough timeline of Shelton’s last known movements, they obviously set their
sights on tracking down and speaking with Mark Richardson.
Right as they were about to do that, though, a person came forward with information that
made the investigation turn a corner.
Investigators were faced with a shocking report that Shelton might not just be missing,
he could have been murdered.
As Sumter County investigators were getting into the search for Shelton Sanders, they
were going door to door where they think he was last seen, and they came across some crucial
information from Mark Richardson’s next door neighbors.
The neighbors told investigators that on the night of June 19th, between 11.30pm and midnight,
they heard three gunshots come from Mark’s rental trailer in Columbia on Olympia Avenue.
The neighbors told police they were so jarred by the sounds that they actually went over
to Mark’s trailer and asked him what was going on.
Now, I’m not sure that’s something I would have done, like a crime junkie rule is to
always stay away from where gunshots come from, but they must have known Mark well enough
to venture over to ask him.
Mark reportedly told his neighbors everything’s alright, like that sound was just my car backfiring.
And the neighbors really didn’t give his answer another thought until days later when
police came knocking at their door to ask if they had heard anything next door on the
night in question.
And that’s when they say they couldn’t deny the fact that what they thought they
heard were three gunshots.
Unfortunately, when investigators learned this information from the neighbors, Mark
wasn’t home, and up until that point, no one, including police, had been able to get
a hold of him.
And at this point, when the authorities did learn the suspicious information about Mark
from his neighbors, Shelton had been missing for a full week.
Mark being with Shelton on the 19th and the information about the gunshots immediately
made Mark a key person of interest in the case.
So detectives asked him to come in and answer a few questions.
Mark agreed to talk with police and confirm the conversation he had had with his neighbors
late on the night of June 19th.
But he insisted that the noises that sounded like gunshots were just his car backfiring.
Mark said after Shelton dropped him off at around 1130, he didn’t know where Shelton
Not much else came out of the interview, and police really didn’t have a lot to go on
to press Mark further.
And no one had offered up any reasoning for why Mark would have had it out for Shelton.
According to all the friends and family members police had spoken with up until that point,
the two men had no beef whatsoever.
With no sign of Shelton, or his body, or Edwin’s car, and no real motive for anyone to want
to hurt him, police didn’t hold Mark or charge him with anything.
They didn’t even have enough probable cause to try and get a search warrant for his trailer.
Pretty quickly, the investigation came to a screeching halt.
Detectives held onto hope that an actual eyewitness would come forward to give them more information,
or that Shelton would just turn up, but neither of those things happened.
Some tips did trickle in here and there during the weeks and months after Shelton vanished,
but none of them led anywhere.
Feeling like police were getting nowhere, William decided to take the investigation
into what happened to his son, into his own hands.
He started going out nightly, looking everywhere he could think, and speaking with as many
people as he could get to talk to him.
I wasn’t afraid.
When it came, I got in my military mode, and I would go out, and I would walk places, and
I would ride places, but I didn’t want anyone to see me leave home.
I would go places where I thought that I would learn something.
I would just sit there like a forward observer, look and sit on a target to see whether or
not there’s any movement.
I have a sense in my mind, in my heart, a relief that I did not sit idle.
William kept at this for nearly two years, and he learned a lot of information, but nothing
that led him to finding out where his son was.
Finally, in April of 2003, law enforcement working the case caught a major break.
On April 26th, just shy of the two-year anniversary of Shelton’s disappearance, a sheriff’s
deputy in neighboring Richland County, South Carolina, was on patrol in Northeast Columbia
when he noticed a car at the Greenbrier apartment complex that was backed into a parking space
and had four flat tires.
The sight alone wasn’t super alarming, but it was suspicious enough for the deputy
to park and check it out.
When he got close enough to it, he noticed that it looked as if the rubber on the tires
was actually melting into the pavement.
Like the tires weren’t just recently flat, they looked like they had been flat for a
while and the rubber had sort of pooled and melted into the asphalt a little bit.
The deputy ran the license plate and it came back as belonging to Edwin Sanders.
Now, thankfully, this deputy knew enough about the Shelton Sanders case in Sumter County
to pick up the phone and alert that agency that he had found a car that they would definitely
be interested in.
Crime scene investigators from Sumter County responded to the apartment complex right away,
and they started taking photos of the car and processing potential evidence.
Shortly after that, the Sanders family got a phone call informing them that the car Shelton
had been driving had been found.
After two years of feeling like hope was fading, the Sanders were stunned to hear the news
and learn that the car had been sitting right there in plain sight the whole time.
I thought that a car was actually either placed in a river or in some lake or even burned.
I didn’t really expect to ever, ever see that car again.
Investigators carefully combed through the car for clues, but found little in the way
According to investigators, crime scene techs found some dead flowers in the backseat and
a local newspaper from Columbia that was dated June 19th, 2001, the day Shelton disappeared.
The flowers were an odd find at first, but apparently in June of 2001, Shelton had been
pursuing a classmate at USC, and he had told friends and family that he planned on giving
this girl the flowers.
So based on the fact that they remained in his car, that told investigators that he likely
intended to make the romantic gesture on June 19th or possibly the morning of June 20th,
but he never got the chance.
Instead, the flowers died in the backseat of this abandoned car.
Investigators swept the trunk of the car for any further forensic evidence, but found
They even searched up and over a hill that was behind where the car was parked, but that
too led nowhere.
The site of the abandoned car was difficult for William to handle.
It was a glimmer of hope, but it only left them with more questions than answers.
It’s a day that I won’t forget.
It’ll always be a day that I can’t even tell those, I know I have words to tell you what
was going on when I saw the car.
It’s just emotional.
Sumter County towed the car to its police impound lot in Columbia, and it’s actually still
sitting there to this day.
Now, despite finding nothing of evidentiary value in the car, the location where it was
parked became a focal point for investigators.
And actually, it caused the case to be transferred to the Richland County Sheriff’s office.
While both agencies stayed involved with the case, and even some investigators with the
State Police of South Carolina lent resources, ultimately Richland County officially took
the lead at that point.
The first thing detectives wanted to know was if Shelton had any connections or acquaintances
at the Greenbrier Apartments.
And it turns out, he did have a friend who used to live there.
But the Greenbrier Apartments are massive, like there are multiple buildings sprawled
around a few different blocks.
And that friend who lived there didn’t actually live in the building directly in front of
where the car was found.
He lived one building down from the car’s location.
Our reporter asked detectives with Richland County why this friend who lived there never
reported seeing the car during these two years after Shelton vanished.
And they said that since it was Shelton’s brother’s car, police think that the friend
didn’t recognize it as being associated with Shelton.
But aside from even this friend, it seems odd to me that no one reported the car since
a be on the lookout had been circulating for such a long time.
And the car had apparently been sitting there for two years.
But police in Richland told news outlets that no reports about the car had come into them
during that time.
Anyway, the car being discovered moves the investigation forward in a pretty important
Police had never stopped suspecting that Mark Richardson was somehow connected to what happened
to Shelton, but they could never prove it.
So now that they had a location where Shelton’s car had been abandoned, they worked to get
Mark’s cell phone records to see if he’d been in that area back in late June of 2001.
And wouldn’t you know it, Mark’s cell phone records showed that he was in the exact
same place as Shelton’s car on the night of June 19th, 2001.
So if things looked bad for Mark before, now it’s really looking bad for him.
Police bring him in for another round of questioning.
But remember, this time the case has moved to Richland County and a new set of detectives
get their chance to grill Mark.
On July 25th, 2003, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office starred in on Mark, asking him why
his old roommate Shelton Sanders hasn’t been seen since he was at Mark’s house two
years prior, in 2001.
And detectives sort of start out slow, wanting to see if Mark would confess to anything.
But he didn’t.
So they changed tactics.
They informed Mark that they can now prove, based on his cell phone records, that he was
in the same area where Shelton’s brother’s car was abandoned.
Mark explained that Edwin’s car and him both being at the Greenbrier Apartments on
June 19th was just pure coincidence.
And then he told investigators a wild story.
Mark said that after Shelton left his trailer that night, Mark had gone to the laundromat
and tried to hook up with a girl.
He ended up in that woman’s car near the Greenbrier Apartments, but then the girl bailed
and he was left alone needing a ride home.
Now, police didn’t buy the story and pushed Mark for more information about Shelton.
And it’s at that point in the interview that Mark stopped, and he asked a strange question.
And that’s when he was asking the hypothetical questions about, is there such thing as an
accidental death in South Carolina?
How do you explain getting rid of a body?
And how do I go back to Shelton’s parents?
And tell them that I’ve already pretended like I wanted to help them.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Mark Richardson, in a police interrogation room with his head in his palms, is asking
police how consequences for an accidental death work in South Carolina, and how a person
could explain getting rid of a body.
In that moment, the Richland County detectives reminded Mark that Shelton’s family has
been waiting two years for answers, and he owes it to them to at least tell them what
happened to Shelton, or where his body is.
But almost as quickly as it seemed he was breaking, Mark shut down and refused to say
From there, police started moving more in the direction of trying to secure an arrest
warrant for Mark.
The problem was, he didn’t technically go as far as to outright confess to anything.
He just asked really, really sketchy questions.
Police absolutely thought Mark was involved somehow, they just weren’t sure exactly
They theorized, based on what he said in his interview, that if he didn’t kill Shelton
himself, then it was possible he at least knew who did, and he likely witnessed the
murder and then helped hide his body.
So Richland County detectives started rebuilding their case, doing more interviews, reconducting
old interviews, and collecting as many statements as possible.
And most importantly, they continued looking for Shelton’s body.
They searched lakes, rivers, swamps, fields, and drainage ditches all throughout Richland
and Sumter counties, but still there was no sign of Shelton.
Finally, in 2005, after a lot of things happened behind the scenes, police were granted search
warrants for Mark’s trailer, the one he’d been living in back in 2001 when Shelton
went missing, along with a new apartment that he’d been living in since 2003.
By October 2005, whatever investigators did with the results of those search warrants
and all of their investigative efforts up until that point, they were able to officially
arrest Mark for the crime, even though Shelton was still missing.
Based on what Richland County told our reporter and what the Sanders were told, authorities
had enough to bring charges by 2005, so that’s what they did.
But the specifics of what they had and what their theory was wouldn’t come out until
Right after Mark’s arrest on October 7th, the Richland County Sheriff told WLTX-TV,
“‘We know that he’s dead and we know that Mr. Richardson is responsible,’ end quote.
After that arrest, Shelton’s family breathed a partial sigh of relief.
They’d long suspected Mark was involved, but like police, they couldn’t prove it.
Just the fact that prosecutors were willing to try the case without Shelton’s remains
was a win in their minds.
Plus, they hoped that maybe Mark’s arrest would make him decide to reveal where Shelton’s
body was, if he was actually involved.
The weight of everything that had happened between 2001 and 2005 hit Wolveria hard.
She was only 11 when Shelton vanished, but by the time Mark was arrested and charged,
she was a teenager.
I was just getting out of elementary school, going to middle school, and in middle school
the kids would come to me and say things that their parents told them that I never even
And so that always worried me going to high school, especially in high school, it got
But I never could tell my parents because I just didn’t say anything to them, I just
kept it all in.
For years, she missed her big brother, and she longed to have the memories back that
were stolen from her and her family.
Every Saturday he would make me get up early in the morning and get on this little stool,
we still had this stool at home, and I would have to get up there and cook grits and he
would show me how to make the water in there.
And then if I accidentally put too much butter in it, he’d be like, that’s too much butter.
It took Richland County attorneys three more years to prepare for Mark’s trial.
And finally, in April 2008, the prosecution laid out its case for a jury.
We were able to get the audio recordings of the trial while in South Carolina.
Here’s the head prosecutor’s opening statement.
We’re going to put witnesses up on this stand.
We’re going to swear it over and tell you that late the night of June 19th, 2001, they
heard three gunshots.
And those three gunshots that night happened to be in a living.
And they happened to be in the yard.
And that yard happened to be where the defendant, Mark Richardson, was living in a trailer that
Three distinctive gunshots, June 19th, 2001.
The state argued throughout the trial that the neighbors hearing the gunshots and Mark’s
near confession during his second police interview in 2005 were enough for a conviction.
Sheldon Sanders was never seen from nor heard from after those three gunshots in his yard.
Never heard from again, body never seen again.
Mark’s defense attorney countered, though, and chastised the government’s case, saying
that it was built entirely on circumstantial evidence.
They emphasized that if jurors wanted to see direct evidence tying Mark Richardson to the
disappearance and death of Sheldon Sanders, they weren’t going to find it.
We will point out to you and you will see that there’s no indication of any physical
evidence that Sheldon Sanders was killed on June 19th by any other day.
There are no eyewitnesses that can testify that Mark Richardson killed Sheldon Sanders.
By their own admission, they have never found Sheldon Sanders’ body.
In addition to the neighbor witness testimony, prosecutors presented to the jurors the testimony
of one of Sheldon’s friends who said that Mark had experienced what they referred to
as an episode of paranoia right before Sheldon was killed, and that Mark had stated that
he had the desire to kill one of his friends.
That testimony was the closest authorities ever got to establishing a motive.
They could not find any other reason why Mark or anyone in Sheldon’s life would benefit
from his death or want him dead.
The state was convinced that Mark killed Sheldon in some sort of momentary rage over something
that in hindsight was probably very insignificant.
But in all the statements taken from their friends over the years, none of Sheldon and
Mark’s mutual acquaintances ever recalled them fighting or even having issues with each
The trial lasted more than a week, and after several hours of deliberation, the jury came
back with a surprising verdict.
Here’s a recording of the judge who presided over the trial.
I cannot make you deliberate any further.
I can ask you if you think that deliberating further would serve any useful purpose.
I can ask you if you think coming back tomorrow or anything else might serve any useful purpose.
I can’t make you do anything.
Mr. Foreman, do you think it would serve any useful purpose for the jury to come back further?
Do you want to discuss that with your fellow jurors or anything?
They won’t make a difference.
Won’t make any difference.
Then the court declares a mistrial in the case.
A mistrial because of a hung jury, meaning the majority of jurors on the panel couldn’t
convict the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, but they didn’t necessarily believe
that he should be acquitted either.
Simply put, the jury couldn’t agree unanimously or with a majority.
The foreman said that because there was no body and no weapon, there just wasn’t enough
evidence for them to know for sure what really happened and how involved Mark may have been.
After the mistrial was declared, Mark was released on bond and ordered not to have any
contact with the Sanders family or any witnesses who testified at trial.
He posted bond and was warned that he could be tried again when or if Shelton’s body
was ever found and prosecutors decided to refile charges.
That was in 2008, 14 years ago.
Shelton Sanders is still a missing person and all these years later, no one in his family
has closure as to what happened to him.
What’s worse, they don’t even know for sure if his suspected killer is Mark or if it’s
someone else who’s still out there.
They told our reporter that they don’t even feel strongly about whether or not Mark gets
They just want Shelton’s body so they can lay him to rest properly.
In fact, the family has a $25,000 reward up for grabs for any information that helps them
find Shelton’s remains.
I can only speak of my family and what we desire is the remains more so than the suspect.
We want the remains home because that’s just how close we are.
We want to know what happened to our loved one.
Wolveria always thinks about what it would be like to have her brother around today and
what his life would be like.
He’ll definitely be a computer programmer.
He’s going to marry with kids by now.
Yeah, he’s very optimistic about his future, graduating and starting a new career.
William has no doubt that if Shelton were still here today, they’d be spending time
together watching their favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.
But instead of doing that, William is left pondering the last interaction he had with Shelton.
I remember this conversation that we had.
He came to me shortly before he went missing.
He said, Dad, give me a big bear hug.
I said, I’m going to make you very proud of me.
Yeah, yeah, that’s what he said.
And this is within days before he went missing.
I’m going to make you very proud.
That’s the last thing in my mind.
I’ll never forget that.
In June of 2021, the Sanders held a 20-year commemoration for Shelton at their home in Rembert.
Wolveria planned the whole thing with help from her mom, Peggy, and dad, William.
And there was a great turnout.
She wanted to celebrate the milestones that Shelton did achieve in his short life
and bring awareness to the fact that they’re not giving up hope that they will bring him home one day.
The family hopes that having events like this around the anniversary of Shelton’s disappearance
will remind people that the time to come forward is now.
The season for justice is now.
Shelton Sanders didn’t just disappear.
His body is out there somewhere.
If you want to help the Sanders family bring Shelton home,
or if you have any information about the person or persons who may have been involved in his case,
there are a few things you can do.
You can call the Shelton Sanders Anonymous tip line at 803-427-4209
or you can call the Richland County Sheriff’s Cold Case Unit at 803-576-3000.
The Deck is an AudioChuck production with theme music by Ryan Lewis.
To learn more about The Deck and our advocacy work, visit thedeckpodcast.com.
So, what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve?