COLUMBIA, S.C. – Death row inmate Chadrick Fulks insists he wants to help a murdered West Virginia college student's family find solace by leading investigators to her body.
It wouldn't be the first time he's made that claim. State and federal authorities spent six years on wild goose chases prompted by tips from Fulks before one of his clues actually led searchers to another victim of his 2,300-mile crime spree, which left two women dead and several people injured in 2002.
"I will fight until my last breath to make sure that Samantha is recovered as well," Fulks, 32, wrote in a recent letter to The Associated Press from the federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.
But now, the same volunteer who successfully unearthed one of Fulks' victims says she's not so sure the condemned man really wants anyone to find the other, 19-year-old Marshall University student Samantha Burns.
The volunteer, Monica Caison, is the founder of Community United Effort - Center for Missing Persons. She led the team that found the remains of Alice Donovan, a 44-year-old South Carolina woman, earlier this year, but is frustrated by the search for Burns.
"I've found people missing for 15 years or more, more easily than this," said Caison, whose recent searches of rural, wooded parts of West Virginia based on tips from Fulks have turned up nothing. "I try not to let my frustration show. ... Everybody expects to get out there and find her and have the same success that we had with Alice."
After Fulks sent her a map and photos earlier this year, claiming they were Donovan's final resting place, Caison drove directly from Wilmington, N.C., to South Carolina, where in January she found bones in thick brush near the North Carolina line. Last month, DNA tests confirmed the remains belonged to Donovan, information that left Fulks feeling somewhat vindicated.
"I'm thankful that her family can now have a proper burial for her," Fulks wrote, "and I can only pray that in some way this will help them to begin to heal."
That chance came only after years of fruitless searching. Right after Fulks was arrested in November 2002, information he gave agents prompted them to spend their Thanksgiving looking through another patch of woods, but they found nothing. In the six years after that, Fulks repeatedly urged state and federal authorities to search several different areas.
It has never been clear if he was intentionally misleading them or simply forgot where the bodies had been discarded.
Donovan's daughters are planning to bury their mother Nov. 14, the seventh anniversary of her death. Fulks, who says his own brother recently committed suicide in jail and was buried the same day Donovan's remains were identified, wrote to the AP that he now understands the anguish felt by both victims' families.
"Seeing his pain made me constantly think about Alice and Samanthas familys pain and it has drove me to not give up until they both were found," he wrote.
Earlier this year, Fulks wrote to Caison again, sending a map and photos of the rural area where he says Burns' body was dumped. He and co-defendant Brandon Basham pleaded guilty to killing her during their spree, which authorities said also included carjacking a Kentucky man and leaving him for dead, shooting a South Carolina man who refused to give them his vehicle, and attacking police officers in Kentucky and Ohio. The spree started when they broke out of a Kentucky jail.
Both men are on federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind. Fulks has consistently blamed Basham for the women's deaths but insists he also knows where the bodies are.
In March, Caison led a group through a wooded area in southwestern West Virginia at Fulks' direction, her spirits renewed by the success in identifying Donovan's remains.
For 16 days, Caison's team logged hundreds of hours combing the earth for Burns' remains. Cadaver dogs picked up scents. Searchers crawled on hands and knees, hoping to uncover some clue that would verify Fulks' information.
But in the more than six years since Burns' death, the area's terrain has changed, making it difficult to rely on Fulks' maps and memories. As time stretched on, Caison says, she began to doubt his veracity.
"I feel like there is something, that one thing you could tell me, and you know I'd be right on top of her, and you're holding it back," she told Fulks during a telephone conversation from the search site. "I said, I'm not effective here, right now. ... It just shouldn't be this hard. If she's here, these dogs will find her."
Caison says she's taken the last few months to regroup, going back over the maps and letters she's received from Fulks — and telling Burns' family it's not time to give up. Next month, she will return to the same search area with dogs, excavation machinery and dozens of people from the nation's top search teams.
"If we don't find her after I bring this crew in ... then Chad Fulks is a liar, because I will believe the dogs," Caison said. "If she's there, we're going to find her."
Fulks' attorneys have filed documents asking a judge to grant their client a new trial. But from his spot on federal death row — he was sentenced to death for killing Donovan and life in prison for killing Burns — he insists he's resigned himself to his fate and is focused on finding peace for his victims' families.
"I know no one believes me and I cant blame them," Fulks wrote. "All I want to do is help these familys have there loved ones back and I want to be clear about this. This has nothing to do with wanting to help myself. ... I'm in no way doing this to save my life but rather to help these familys find some kind of closure 'if' that is even possible."