The last sighting of Shawnta Larae Pankey was at a Grangeville apartment complex a year ago. Since her disappearance that Sunday morning, April 15, 2018, no trace has been found. Foul play is still suspected in this ongoing case that progresses through investigating not only leads, but in determining what is known as fact and what can be discounted in this 25-year-old single mother’s disappearance.
“Are we getting closer finding Shawnta than when it was reported a year ago? We’re not,” said Detective Jerry Johnson, Idaho County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO). “We can exclude a lot of things, we’ve learned a lot of things and continue to. The important thing for readers who might have had a hand in her disappearance to understand is we’re going to be here week after week, month after month, year after year. We’re not going to give up on this case. It’s not going to go away.”
As far as what investigators know for certain – verified by video surveillance cameras -- is that Shawnta and her boyfriend, Edward M. Mills, left from Oscar’s Apartments around 2:15 a.m. that Sunday, videoed prior making several trips to the vehicle with items for a trip. Mills pulled the camper from Pine Bar to near Keuterville and returned to the apartment alone around 11:06 a.m. that same morning.
“In those nine hours,” Johnson said, “Shawnta went missing.”
Reported by Mills was the pair was camped at Pine Bar along the Salmon River south of Cottonwood. The pair had an argument and he reported Pankey went on a walk around 10 a.m.
ICSO’s description of Pankey is a white female 5’4” tall, 135 pounds, with long, red curly hair – possibly in a bun or ponytail -- and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing a blue and green tank top, blue jeans, pink cowboy boots and carrying a large purse.
She was reported missing the following day by her mother after she failed to pick up her daughter, Sophee.
“We’ve put hundreds of hours into the case,” Johnson said, with nearly all of the ICSO staff involved in the search or related inquiries. “We’ve had a pretty extensive search of Pine Bar, the river up to the prairie, and then up Rice Creek grade and to the top at Joseph Plains.” Volunteers, search dogs, drones and ATVs have been employed in the effort; one volunteer with climbing experience assisted in searching the steeper sections of the area on his own, he said. “A number of us went door-to-door to anyone we could find in Canfield, Boles and Joseph Plains,” he said, and multiple consent searches, and dozens of interviews were carried out.
While Mills is a person of interest in the disappearance, according to Johnson, he pointed out they have many other possible scenarios involved.
One stems from the report of a man and his girlfriend, with her children, who were driving up Rice Creek grade to go mushroom hunting on Joseph Plains. Due to the rain, they decided to head to the river, and on the way they saw a young woman with red hair hiking up grade, between 10 and 11 a.m., which fits into the time, Johnson said, that Mills said Pankey went missing from the camper.
“We felt the story was so important we had him take a polygraph,” he said, the first time they have done this with a witness. “He passed.” Also lending credibility were the details the couple each noticed about the woman they spotted on the grade, such as the male noticing she wasn’t wearing hiking books and the woman saying they were pink-topped cowboy boots, which match what Pankey was reported wearing at the time of her disappearance.
“So that introduces a whole new scenario,” Johnson said, that if Mills’ story is accurate, “it makes it more likely some unknown suspect picked her up. But to this point, there are some things we don’t know, and the things we know absolutely for certain are pretty small.”
What about tracking Pankey by her cell phone?
“We always contact the cell phone carrier right off the bat for what information we can glean about the missing person’s movements,” Johnson said.
“The unfortunate thing,” he continued,” is in that country, there is nonexistent or extremely limited cell phone coverage.” Pankey and Mills shared the same phone, and there was no contact between the phone and cell towers at the time of the disappearance, “which may mean the phone was switched off and/or that they were exactly where the boyfriend said they were.”
Such spotty or nonexistent cell coverage within Idaho County makes using this problematic as an investigation tool. The same situation occurred in the disappearance last Oct. 5, 2018, of Terrence Woods. The 27-year-old Maryland man was part of a film crew near Penman Mine at Orogrande when he ran off from the group. Woods reportedly had his cell phone, but it was unable to be tracked. No sign has been found of Woods since.
Both these cases involve common steps to spread the investigation net. Johnson explained investigators will contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to alert them if the person leaves the country on a commercial carrier. The individual will also be entered into NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System). Dental records may be sought at the investigation’s start, and later on, DNA may be sought from family to help in identification.
How do the scenarios change the odds in finding a missing person? According to Johnson, those increase considerably if more than one person is involved.
“Historically, looking at these cases,” he said, “it’s easy for one person to stay quiet. It’s much harder for two to three people to stay quiet, and everyone knows in these scenarios, the first one who talks is going to get a better deal.”
“If it’s a single person and there are no witnesses, it’s an extremely hard crime to solve, especially in this area with no cell coverage,” Johnson continued. “A single person snatch-and-grab is extremely difficult. Actually, the scenario that scares us the most is a stranger abduction.”
ICSO is continuing its investigation into Pankey’s disappearance, and is specifically interested in hearing from witnesses who saw her or Mills that April 15 morning between 2:15 and 11:06 a.m. Call ICSO at 208-983-1100.
According to Johnson, Pankey’s daughter, Sophee, who will be 7 this month, is living with her dad and stepmother.
“We’re looking into every possible scenario; we haven’t excluded anything,” Johnson said. “We’re not discounting anything. We’re listening to what anyone has to say and looking into it to see if that possibly could have happened.”