Family of Woman Found Dead in Lumberton 4 Years Ago Takes Up Cause of all Missing and Murdered in the City
Since their daughter and sister, Rhonda Jones, was found dead four years ago, Shelia Price and Shirlyn Whitaker have sought justice and answers, and become advocates for others whose loved ones have gone missing or have been found murdered.
Shelia Price and Shirlyn Whitaker have spent the last four years making lists. It’s the only way the mother and daughter can keep track of the missing and murdered in the North Carolina city of Lumberton, because once they put the call out for names, the submissions never stopped. But one name they can never forget and stands at the top of the list is Rhonda Jones, their daughter and sister.
“I had no idea,” Shirlyn said of the extent of lives taken violently in Robeson County, of which Lumberton is a part. “I mean, you don’t think about … how many other families are dealing with this, [are] in the same situation we are, until it happens to your family.”
In Lumberton, an Area Rife With Violence, the Deaths of 3 Women Still Stood Out
Rhonda was 36 when her body was found unclothed and face down in a trash can on April 18, 2017. The discovery of her remains came only hours after the nude body of 32-year-old Kristin Noel Bennett, or Christina as she was commonly known, was found covered in a blanket inside of a television cabinet in a nearby abandoned home.
As investigators worked to determine what had led to the women’s deaths, Megan Oxendine spoke to a local news reporter about their deaths.
“I ain’t never seen her act out or nothing,” Megan told Nate Rodgers, a reporter who worked for CBS North Carolina at the time. “She’s just quiet. She didn’t really mess with too many people... I don’t understand how somebody could do somebody’s child, mother, niece, like that.”
In the news clip, Megan crosses her arms and looks off in the distance as she talks. She has her hair pulled back, wears a Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and has a black backpack strapped to her back.
Six weeks later, that same backpack would reportedly be found in a trash can.
Megan’s body was discovered several blocks away under a tree behind an abandoned home. The 28-year-old woman was found about 500 feet from where Christina and Rhonda had been found.
She too reportedly was found without any clothes on. “When they lifted her up, her blouse was actually underneath her,” one of her three sisters, Taylor Oxendine, told Inside Edition Digital in 2018.
The Oxendine family’s recounting of the worst time in their lives—the death of their daughter and sister, Megan—came one year after the discovery of her, Christina and Rhonda’s bodies, and at the time, the circumstances surrounding the three women’s deaths were unclear.
“Of course, somebody knows something,” Shirlyn told Inside Edition Digital in 2018. “Somebody knows what happened. And when it happened. And how it happened. That’s what we’re praying for, that somebody just comes forward.”
But three years on, the families of the dead believe they are no closer to answers, justice, or closure.
“It’s killing me. I promise you, it’s killing me,” Shelia said, choking back sobs. “Four years. I’m so tired. I haven’t lived since this happened.”
The Fight for Justice for Rhonda Jones Includes the Lumberton Community-at-Large, Her Family Says
There is no moving on or moving forward for Shelia. After all, how can a mother make peace with the circumstances of her daughter’s death when they remain shrouded in mystery? Instead, Shelia has put everything into ensuring no one forgets that no one has been held accountable for Rhonda’s death or the deaths of Christina and Megan.
“I’m so mad and angry and tired. This ain’t my job. Ain’t no one paying me to be a private investigator,” Shelia said. “But we ain’t going to stop.”
She’s also determined to ensure people realize it’s impossible to discuss the three killings without acknowledging the countless others in the area that have also gone unsolved.
“How many other families are not getting the help they deserve?” said Shirlyn, who, with her mother, founded Shatter the Silence, an organization dedicated to shedding light on the missing and murdered in Robeson County.
What began as a Facebook group has ballooned into a community working toward nonprofit status.
“I’m probably the weakest person in this group,” Shelia said, in awe of the families she’s met and vowed to fight for.
But weak is not a word others would often use to describe Shelia, who spends up to 60 hours a week working on getting the word out about the group, the issues plaguing the area and, most importantly, showing the families of victims of violence they’re not alone. She and Shirlyn listen to their stories and take on their burden, putting to the test just how much grief a human being can endure. And they add their loved one’s name to the ever-growing list the group keeps of individuals whose families say they are missing or were murdered.
“There’s always updates,” Shirlyn said.
Most recently, the list contained 377 names. Several individuals are noted to have either gone missing or fallen victim to violence outside of Robeson County, and some of the cases are listed as having been solved, but those distinctions are unfortunately few and far between.
“We learn these people’s names. We speak to their families,” Shirlyn said. “These families are always on my mind. Like when I'm looking at stuff about Rhonda, I think about [how] so-and-so's dealing with this or so-and-so's posted a picture of their child today, things like that. Like it's a part of our everyday life now.”
Individuals’ names are added to the list without any judgement surrounding the struggles some of the deceased or missing may have endured during their lives, because Rhonda’s family acutely understands the harm that can be done when a victim is written off because of their past.
It wasn’t long after Christina, Rhonda, and Megan’s deaths that armchair sleuths began offering up their ruthless takes on the case.
“Preying upon drug addicts and prostitutes no one cares about. Classic,” read one comment on Reddit.
“My little theory is that someone is preying on these women’s drug habits... they are an easy target so to speak,” another person wrote.
And a story published on the Robesonian news site after a third body that would later be identified as Megan was discovered read, in part, “Word on the street was that Bennett and Jones worked as prostitutes, but neither had a criminal history suggesting such.”
That the women struggled with addiction made their deaths no less devastating to their children, parents, siblings and loves ones, but it was the detail that many appeared to cling to as explanation for their deaths, Shirlyn said. “How many people heard ‘prostitute’ and turned away?” she said.
For the Loved Ones of the Dead, The Luxury of Turning Away Doesn’t Exist
In April, Shelia and Shirlyn once again gathered with loved ones and community members to remember Rhonda, Christina and Megan. They put tablecloths down and set up signs with Rhonda’s photos at Luther Britt Park, a picturesque spot where children can be found running around playgrounds and feeding the geese at the lake. It’s also where they gathered to mark the first anniversary of the deaths, an emotional milestone that’s become a grim routine.
Marking each year while unable to pinpoint any obvious progress made in the investigation is a nearly impossible weight to carry.
“No family should have to go through this,” Shirlyn said. “It's bad enough to lose somebody you love, but no family should have to go through feeling like their family member has just been pushed off to the side, the folders being closed, the case is just... It's over, it feels like. It feels like nobody cares.”
More than 20 months after the bodies were discovered, police submitted the rape kits of the women for testing, a particular source of frustration for Rhonda’s family.
“Evidence sat on that shelf for 21 months,” Shirlyn said. “Kristin Bennett, Lumberton Police told the medical examiner to discard of the blanket she was wrapped in … I didn’t even finish high school, but I have enough common sense to think, when doing a murder investigation, that may have evidence.”
The autopsy report filed for Kristin confirmed Shirlyn’s account, reading, “The grey blanket is disposed of at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at the request of law enforcement.”
“I just don’t understand it,” Shirlyn said.
When asked about the blanket, Lumberton Police declined to comment.
In a statement to WPDE in 2019 regarding the rape kits, Lumberton Police said: “At the time of the autopsies of Christina Bennett, Rhonda Jones, and Megan Oxendine, Lumberton detectives were advised that due to the condition of the bodies, the Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kits (SAECK) would likely not yield results to advance the investigations. For that reason, other evidence which may have had a better chance of advancing the investigative process were prioritized and submitted to the crime lab. The SAECK were submitted more than a year later, their analysis did not provide positive results.”
The FBI declined Inside Edition Digital’s request for an interview into the case. In a statement, the agency announced it was increasing its reward for information in the deaths of Kristin, Rhonda and Megan from $30,000 to $40,000.
“I think about these women and their families constantly, it weighs on me heavily that this tragedy occurred, and we don't yet know exactly what happened,” Lumberton Police Chief Michael McNeill said in a statement. “We are grateful to the community members who have cooperated with these investigations and we hope more people will come forward with information to help us bring closure to Rhonda, Christina, and Megan's families.”
In a statement, FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert R. Wells urged the community to think back to four years ago to see if anyone in the area began acting differently. “It's possible the offender left the area, but if they stayed their regular habits and demeanor likely changed. Sometimes, all it takes is for you to come forward with that piece of information that matches the evidence and completes the puzzle to solve a case," he said.
“These women mean a lot to their families, friends, and neighbors. Whoever is responsible for what happened to them must be held accountable.”
Life will never go back to the way it was before Rhonda’s death. Finding whoever is responsible cannot bring her back. But it’s all Shirlyn and Shelia have.
“I want people to know that Rhonda was a mother. And she was a daughter. She was my best friend, my sister, the one I could hold on when I needed something. Rhonda was a college graduate. Rhonda had a high education. Rhonda was so much more than what people thought she was,” Shirlyn said. “It sucks. It's hard just to think about everything that she was, that somebody didn't care enough to think who she was, they just took all that from us in a matter of seconds. And it's changed our lives.”
Shelia agreed. “I had asked somebody the other day, I said, ‘Do you think Rhonda's proud of me?’ And they said, ‘Well, yes, Ms. Sheila. I've never seen a mother fight like you.’ And it's not that I want to fight this, that's for sure.”
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