Rowan County grand jury indicts Sandy and Casey Parsons on murder charges in death of adopted daughter (video)
By Shavonne Walker and Rebecca Rider
SALISBURY — The spirit of missing teenager Erica Parsons has lingered long in Rowan County as local law enforcement agencies sought to bring resolution to her disappearance and then her apparent murder.
“It’s haunted our county for several years now,” Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said at a Tuesday news conference.
But Monday afternoon, the case lurched forward after almost a year of quiet when a Rowan County grand jury returned a true bill of indictment with four charges against both Sandy Parsons and Casey Parsons. The Parsonses were Erica’s adoptive parents, and authorities said the teenager suffered years of abuse while under their care.
Both Sandy and Casey Parsons are charged with first-degree murder, felony child abuse inflicting serious injury, felony concealment of death and felony obstruction of justice.
The indictment also revealed a gruesome detail about Erica’s death: her body had been dismembered. The information is part of why the Parsonses were indicted for concealment of death.
According to the indictment, the Parsonses “did knowingly and willfully dismember and destroy human remains of Erica Lynn Parsons, by any means, including removing body parts and otherwise obliterating any portion thereof.”
For law enforcement authorities, the indictments are one step closer to justice.
“We’re very proud to be where we are today,” Auten said. “It’s a difficult case. At times, we had a lot of hope we’d find Erica, then we had hope we’d find her remains. And now we’re just ready to move on with the prosecution.”
Casey and Sandy Parsons will be extradited to Rowan County, where arrest warrants will be served and a first court appearance set.
“It’s probably going to be a couple weeks,” Auten said. “It’s not gonna be today or tomorrow, I can tell you that.”
Auten said his office had been waiting for the autopsy results, and then for District Attorney Brandy Cook to complete a different first-degree murder trial.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Auten said. “You know, we wanted to make sure the ‘i’s were dotted and the ‘t’s were crossed.”
Auten said he is pleased the charges came in time for Erica’s birthday. Were she still alive, she would turn 20 on Saturday.
“So it’s kind of fitting we’re at this point,” he said. “I just wish we could have had them arrested by her birthday.”
The couple, who are currently in federal prison after a March 2015 conviction for tax fraud, mail fraud and other offenses, will be brought to Rowan County to face the latest charges. In the 2015 federal case, a judge sentenced Casey Parsons to 10 years in prison after she pleaded guilty. Sandy Parsons was found guilty by a jury and received an eight-year sentence.
On July 30, 2013, Erica, who would have been 13, was reported missing by her adoptive brother, Jamie, who is the Parsonses’ biological son. He told the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office that he had not seen his sister since November 2011.
What began as a missing persons report launched an investigation that would go on to capture national attention and uncover allegations of severe abuse of Erica by the entire immediate Parsons family.
In February 2015, Jamie Parsons testified in federal court that the last night he saw Erica, she looked sick. He said she complained of breathing problems.
Jamie described horrible living conditions and abuse that Erica endured at the hands of his parents, his siblings and himself. According to his testimony, Erica was punched, her fingers broken, she was neglected and at one point was forced to eat dog food. A malnourished Erica was kept locked in a closet and would endure punishment if she urinated or defecated while inside it.
Sandy and Casey Parsons said they sent Erica to live with her biological grandmother, Irene Goodman, a woman they knew as Nan. The Goodman family has said Cloie Goodman, Erica’s biological grandmother, died in 2005, much earlier than the Parsonses’ story about sending Erica to meet her grandmother in 2011. Rowan County sheriff’s investigators have said no Irene Goodman existed.
The couple said they were contacted by Irene Goodman, who “wanted to get to know Erica.” Casey Parsons told a Post reporter in August 2013 that they let Erica visit Goodman at her Asheville home until, eventually, the teen didn’t want to return.
The Parsonses maintained their story, later proven to be false, that Erica was alive and living with Nan.
In September 2015, Casey Parsons pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, five counts of mail fraud, five counts of aiding in the preparation of a false tax return, four counts of wire fraud, and one count of aggravated identity theft.
In October 2015, a jury found Sandy Parsons guilty of 43 of the original 76-count federal charges. The charges include one count of conspiracy to defraud the government, one count of aggravated identity theft, one count of false statement to a government agency, 20 counts of theft of government funds, and 20 counts of mail fraud.
Casey Parsons prepared all of the family’s tax returns, including for his eldest son, Sandy Jr., who she allowed to claim the youngest children — Sadie and Toby — as dependents even though they were not in his household. She received some of the tax-refund money from Sandy Jr.
Testimony during the federal hearing revealed Casey was trying to avoid the IRS garnishing any money she would have received if Erica was listed on her tax returns because she had defaulted on a student loan. More children listed on her return would have meant less money.
The Parsonses also had an eBay account on which they listed items for sale. The couple collected money, but the two never sent the items to the people who paid for them. Bank statements showed twice in August 2011 that Sandy Parsons took thousands of dollars from a SunTrust account the couple shared.
Casey Parsons also claimed to be a first-time homebuyer in order to seek money from the government. She claimed she had bought an $80,000 home when she had not.
In February 2016, Sandy Parsons sought out Rowan sheriff’s Detective Chad Moose and admitted to the veteran law enforcement officer that Erica was dead. He also told the detective the exact date Erica’s body was disposed of: Dec. 18, 2011. Law enforcement officials maintain that no plea deal was made.
Over the past several years, Rowan investigators, along with agents from the FBI and SBI, searched different locations where the couple had lived — including their 218 Miller Chapel Road home in Salisbury and Sandy Parsons’ father and stepmother’s home in China Grove.
But Sandy Parsons led detectives about 80 miles from Salisbury, to land off Taylor Chapel Road near his mother’s house in Chesterfield County, South Carolina. The property is not owned by Parsons’ mother, the search warrant said.
On Sept. 27, 2016, after the Rowan County District Attorney’s Office helped investigators obtain a temporary release from federal custody, Sandy Parsons led Rowan County investigators to a rural area just outside Pageland, South Carolina.
“And he led us to the grave, which turned out to be Erica’s grave,” Auten said.
Sandy Parsons pointed to a shaded forest floor, just over a short incline, and there authorities found skeletal remains in a shallow grave dug into the sandy soil.
“That day in South Carolina was tough on all of us,” Auten said Tuesday. “I saw some pretty tough cops take it pretty rough.”
On Sept. 30, 2016, the Medical Examiner’s Office positively identified the petite bones as Erica’s remains.
At Tuesday’s news conference, Auten said he knew why Sandy Parsons broke his five years of silence but he said he is unable to share that information. But without Sandy, he said, “we probably would have never recovered the body.”
More than six years after she disappeared, Erica Parsons’ remains were returned to Rowan County. On Feb. 25, 2017, family, law enforcement officers and strangers filled First Baptist Church for a funeral service.
Most of those gathered inside the church had never met Erica Parsons, who would’ve celebrated her 19th birthday the day before her funeral.
She was remembered for the future she never had. Speakers said her death was a sad reminder for the community to “pay attention” to the countless other children who may endure abuse.
Erica’s biological mother, Carolyn Parsons, was seated on one side while most of Erica’s extended adoptive family sat on the other.
Nearly a year after it released Erica’s remains, the Medical Examiner’s Office released the autopsy. Auten said the report was “one of the final pieces” of evidence he and other investigators had been waiting for.
Auten said he had been “frustrated” by the delay but understood that Erica’s was an unusual case.
“I understand this case is not your normal case. It’s not routine for them, when all you have are skeletal remains and years behind the body decomposing,” he said.
But without the autopsy, the case couldn’t move forward. On Jan. 9, investigators got the evidence they needed. The medical examiner determined that Erica died of homicidal violence of undetermined means.
“Given the history of physical abuse, and signs of physical abuse present at autopsy, we cannot exclude the possibility of a terminal blunt force injury, suffocation or strangulation,” a medical examiner wrote in the report.
The autopsy also revealed that Erica was malnourished and had low bone density for her age and a pronounced growth deficit.
Examiners found fractures in various stages of healing in her nose, jaw, upper right arm, scapulae (the bone connecting the upper arm and collarbone), a finger, seven ribs (some broken more than once) and left shinbone.
She also had signs of spina bifida occulta, a mild form of a birth defect in which a child’s spine has not formed properly.
At least one tooth was missing, and others showed signs of being broken, the report said.
Erica may have been suffering from an untreated infection or sepsis, renal failure, poisoning or rhabdomyolysis (a breakdown of muscle that releases a damaging protein into the blood), the autopsy report said.
The future investigation
For investigators, the primary feeling Tuesday was one of relief.
Auten said he is glad the Parsonses have been in prison where they could “do no more harm to the community,” but he and other investigators kept pushing, hoping to find Erica.
“It weighed on everybody,” he said. “I’ve been here 30 years, and some of my investigators have been here a long time, and we felt like if we did not find her and get these folks charged eventually, then we were failures in our whole career. This case has weighed on us pretty heavy. We just did not want to leave a little girl out there — we wanted to bring her home.”
The indictments are the result of partnerships among the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, the SBI, FBI and local District Attorney’s Office. Auten said he wanted to thank the community for its support throughout the investigation. Residents of Rowan County, he said, are just as eager to see the case come to an end and to see justice for Erica.
“The whole community is enraged, to some degree,” he said.
“There are people that think the Parsonses should have already been hung on the square. They’ll have their day in court, and we’ll let the jury decide their fate,” he said.
Auten said the court case will not be easy.
“But we feel like we’re in a good place,” he said.
Auten said trying the case locally could be difficult.
“But I don’t know that it would be better in an adjoining county,” he said. “I don’t know that it would be better anywhere in the state, this case has drawn so much attention.”
The Parsonses will be held in Rowan County custody once they’re extradited from their respective federal prisons in Florida and Michigan.
Auten also thanked the team who worked on the case, including Detective Moose. But he made it clear that the story of Erica Parsons is far from over.
“It’s going to take all of us to finish this case and get that final justice for Erica,” he said.