West Virginia town shocked by girls' murder plot


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STAR CITY, W.Va. -- For nearly nine months, the people of this small West Virginia town just north of Morgantown saw the face of missing 16-year-old honors student Skylar Neese everywhere -- beaming at them from fliers on utility poles, in gas stations, even at the local tattoo parlor.

She had been missing since she slipped out of her bedroom window one night last summer, but some in this town of fewer than 2,000 people never believed she had run away.

Police chased numerous leads with no luck. The break finally came when one of Skylar's friends admitted plotting with another girl to kill her -- shocking even the investigators working the case.

The two girls were charged with luring the straight-A student at University High School out of her family's apartment in the middle of the night, stabbing her to death at an agreed-upon moment and hiding her body under branches in Wayne, Pa., Greene County, about 30 miles away from her house, according to court documents.

The pair -- one of whom has now pleaded guilty -- had spent time with Skylar's mother after the slaying and even helped with the search.

The cold calculation and brutality of the plot shocked a community already frustrated by the slow pace and secrecy surrounding the case. Investigators have said little since announcing the charges three weeks ago. Court documents offer no insight into the motive.

People sit in the chairs at John's Barber Shop, gaze at Skylar's photo on a bulletin board and wonder: How could anyone so young plot to kill a classmate and friend?

"They look as normal as any other kid that you could ever see," barber BJ McClead said. "Not kids you would think would have anything to do with anything like this."

A newly released transcript of a secret plea hearing reveals that 16-year-old Rachel Shoaf said she and the second girl carried out a plan to kill Skylar.

Rachel, a red-haired student actress and singer with sparkling blue eyes, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Monongalia County Circuit Court on May 1 and awaits sentencing in a juvenile detention center.

The other girl's identity is, for now, shrouded by the confidentiality of juvenile court. Though Mr. McClead says most people in town have figured out who it is, it's unclear how long the three girls had been friends or just how close they were.

It's also unclear whether prosecutors will try to have the second suspect charged as an adult, as Rachel was.

"People are confused. They're like, 'What is taking so long?"' said Mr. McClead, whose daughter Hayden had been friends with Skylar since junior high.

"It's ridiculous. Who's protecting these girls?" said the barber, who still hands out red-and-yellow bracelets bearing the victim's name. "Three families' lives are now ruined because of this heinous crime that these girls committed."

Monongalia County Prosecutor Marcia Ashdown has refused to return repeated calls seeking comment.

The mystery began July 6, 2012, when Skylar climbed out of her bedroom window. Surveillance video showed her getting into a car at the end of her street in a quiet residential neighborhood near West Virginia University. With no sign of fear, no money and no contact lenses, she apparently expected to return.

When she didn't, Dave and Mary Neese worried. Police initially suspected their daughter was a runaway, but they knew better. They walked up and down Crawford Street with Skylar's photo, then plastered fliers everywhere.

"You couldn't go 5 feet without seeing her," said 24-year-old Brittany Crouse, who moved in around the time of the disappearance. "Everybody really, really wanted her to come home."

For months, police chased down tips to no avail. The transcript from Rachel's hearing shows the break came Jan. 3, when she finally told investigators the truth -- and where to find the body.

But it wasn't until March that authorities confirmed it was Skylar, and silence followed until the day of the plea hearing.

"I think police who were involved in the front lines of that interview and that part of the investigation were stunned at Rachel Shoaf's confession," Ms. Ashdown told Judge Russell Clawges that day.

"She confessed to a plan and conspiracy with another juvenile to kill Skylar Neese. A plan carried out."

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First Published May 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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