Special Reports

9 Investigates: Investigators take new look at 1981 murder of 5-year-old Charlotte girl

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was a horrifying crime that appalled the Charlotte community and forced parents to hold their children closer.

On Feb. 18, 1981, Neely Shane Smith, 5, was playing with friends at her apartment complex off Green Oaks Lane in east Charlotte.

Witnesses reported seeing a man with gray hair pick Neely up and force her inside his van.

Sgt. Darrell Price with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department's Cold Case Unit was still in the police academy the day it happened.

"Charlotte in 1980, 1981 was a fairly quiet town. We did have our share of violent crime, but nothing to match small children being abducted and murdered," Price said.

For nearly two months, crews searched across the Charlotte area.

Neely’s mother spoke with Channel 9 at her home. Neely's dolls and stuffed animals were just as she had left them.

On April 11, farmers spotted human remains in a remote area of Mecklenburg County, off Union Road.

Bryan Gregory, a retired North Carolina trooper, was first on the scene.

“Up in the road in front of us about 100 feet, I could see a round object lying in the road,” he said. “As I got closer, I noticed, that's not a skull, that's a head.”

The remains were later identified as those of Neely.

Person of interest identified in the case

In the months that followed, 30 people were interviewed.

One stood out as a person of interest.

At the time, Fred Coffey was a suspect in the murder of another girl from Charlotte – 10-year-old Amanda Ray.

Coffey was convicted of Amanda's murder in 1987. He is in prison and serving a life sentence in Pender County, North Carolina.

Police never had any physical evidence to connect him to Neely's murder, and so the case went cold.

Coffey is 70 years old. He comes up for parole every three years and is up again in July.

Price said he prays Coffey never gets out of prison.

Cold Case Team takes fresh look at Neely's case

Gregory took Channel 9 back to where Neely's remains were found – 34 years later.

He even wrote a book about his work as a trooper and included a chapter about Neely's murder.

Price's Cold Case Team is now giving the case a fresh look.

"There's some things that we can do with it now that we couldn't do in 1981," Price said.

That includes DNA testing. Price said Neely's remains had little evidence on them but there was some.

He's also recruited some fresh eyes to look over these files and files of old documents.

A new team of retired FBI agents and criminal justice professors is reviewing them.

Price is re-interviewing witnesses, even though most of them were Neely's age when the crime happened.
"It doesn't matter if it's 34, 44 or 54 years old -- if we can solve it, we're going to do our best to solve it," Price said.

If you remember anything about the Neely case that can help in their investigation, call police.

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