Investigators expand search for remains following confession

WOODRUFF, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina man’s confession to a decade-long crime spree has cracked open a cold case that had haunted the victims’ relatives and has prompted law enforcement investigators to expand their search for human remains beyond the property where they discovered a woman chained inside a storage container.

Todd Kohlhepp became a suspect in at least seven deaths in the days after a woman was found Thursday chained by her neck and ankle in a metal storage container on his 95-acre property near rural Woodruff.

Following his arrest, he confessed to a 2003 quadruple slaying at a motorcycle shop in the small town of Chesnee, investigators said. He was denied bond Sunday during a brief court appearance on four murder charges for those slayings.

He’s also charged with kidnapping the woman, and more criminal counts are expected. Authorities suspect he killed at least three people in addition to the motorcycle shop victims.

A Spartanburg County Sheriff’s investigative report says Kohlhepp “confessed to investigators that he shot and killed” the motorcycle shop’s owner, service manager, mechanic and bookkeeper, giving details only the killer would know.

Now, Sheriff Chuck Wright, who was first elected about a year after the Superbike Motorsports killings, has a wide-ranging investigation of a crime spree over more than a decade.

The investigation has expanded to other properties that Kohlhepp, a real estate agent, either currently or used to own. Those properties are not limited to South Carolina, Wright said Sunday, declining to be more specific.

Both the FBI and Homeland Security are involved, he said.

Kohlhepp showed investigators Saturday where he says he buried two other victims on the property he bought two years ago. Human remains were uncovered Sunday at one of those sites, Wright said.

“We’re not even close” on identifying the remains or cause of death, he said. “We can’t tell anything.”

Kohlhepp did not tell investigators who was buried there. Removing the remains to “preserve every bit of evidence” is a meticulous, time-consuming process, said Coroner Rusty Clevenger.

The gravesites Kohlhepp pointed to are in addition to the body found Friday in a shallow grave at the site. Authorities identified that victim as the boyfriend of the woman found Thursday. Clevenger said he died of multiple gunshot wounds.

The Associated Press is not naming the woman because the suspect is a sex offender, though authorities have not said whether she was sexually assaulted.

On Sunday, Kohlhepp appeared in an orange jumpsuit for the brief bond hearing and declined to make a statement. He didn’t have an attorney.

After Kohlhepp left the courtroom, Magistrate Judge Jimmy Henson told the family members they would have a chance later to address Kohlhepp in court.

“You have something to say. You’ve been waiting 13 years to say it,” he said.

The father of Brian Lucas, the 29-year-old slain service manager, thanked the judge.

“Your honor, I appreciate your words to us and your counsel,” Tom Lucas said as two others put their hands on his shoulders. “We thank you.”

Before the hearing, Lucas said he wanted to be in court to look Kohlhepp in the eye.

“I want to look at him, and I want to try to use that in healing,” he said.

Before Kohlhepp emerged as a suspect, investigators had said all four victims were killed with the same pistol. They have theorized that the killer came in the back and killed mechanic Chris Sherbert, 26, as he worked. Bookkeeper Beverly Guy, 52, was found just outside the bathroom in the middle of the showroom.

Thirty-year-old shop owner Scott Ponder was found just outside the door in the parking lot. He was Guy’s son. Brian Lucas was in the doorway of the shop.

Melissa Ponder, who was married to Scott Ponder, said detectives told her Kohlhepp was an angry customer who had been in the motorcycle shop several times.

“It isn’t closure, but it is an answer,” Ponder said by phone. “And I am thankful for that.”

Kohlhepp was released from prison in Arizona in 2001. As a teenager, he was convicted of raping a 14-year-old neighbor at gunpoint and threatening to kill her siblings if she called police.

Kohlhepp had to register as a sex offender. But that didn’t stop him from getting a South Carolina real estate license in 2006, building a firm and maintaining the appearance of normalcy.

In Woodruff on Sunday, scores of people congregated outside the chain link fence that surrounds the wooded property.

“Things like this don’t happen at home,” said Tina Gowan, who lives in Pauline but grew up in Moore, where Kohlhepp lived. “He looked like your everyday Joe.”

She was among those who prayed at the fence.

Frances Bradley, who lives near the 95-acre site, said God answered prayers in solving the 2003 cold case.

“I was so awe-struck by the revelation,” she said, she felt a need to pray at the fence before going to church. “I thanked God for giving us good out of this.”


Kinnard reported from Spartanburg, South Carolina.


Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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