Shelia Price is reminded of her daughter, Rhonda, every day.
Every time she turns on the television, Price faces the photos of her daughter and grandchildren, relics of happier times above and beside the screen. It’s also impossible to miss the urn containing her daughter’s ashes.
“It was her favorite color,” Price said of its crimson shade.
And every time Price steps outside her home, she passes the garden planted in Rhonda’s honor.
Three crosses adorned with ribbons stand tall above statues of angels and butterflies sitting between flowers in a makeshift memorial. It’s here that Rhonda’s family comes to grieve.
“It’s a place we come to think about her and think about the good memories, and the sad days in front of us,” Price said.
It’s nearly impossible to think of Rhonda Jones without thinking of her death, the deaths of Christina Bennett and Megan Oxendine, and the questions that remain since their bodies were found within a four-block radius a year ago in Lumberton, N.C.
What killed the women is unknown.
How they wound up naked and alone — in a garbage can, an abandoned house and under a tree, respectively — has so far been a mystery.
Even pinpointing the exact days of their deaths has apparently been difficult for investigators.
Authorities have been silent about the progress they have made, declining to elaborate on why they have called in the FBI to help investigate the three deaths they will only call “suspicious.”
But their families refuse to accept the unknown and what they have perceived as a write-off of their daughters and sisters as just three more bodies in an area marred with violence.
They’re upset, they’re angry and they have demanded answers.
“We got to fight for them,” Shirlyn Whitaker, Rhonda’s sister, told InsideEdition.com. “Because they’re not here to fight for themselves.”
Down a dirt road shaded with large, old trees and shared by a long railroad track is a small, blue house.
It’s off a quiet street that’s home to a church, a glass company and Floyd Mortuary and Crematory. The funeral home’s lawn is dotted with prototypes of headstones, offering a somber view for anyone standing on the blue house’s modest porch.
In the spring of 2017, the home stood vacant, as its owner put his plans to renovate on hold after Hurricane Matthew ravaged much of Robeson County, including Lumberton, the previous fall.
“As fast as we could, we were rehabbing those houses,” the blue home’s owner, local attorney Woody Bowen, told InsideEdition.com. “Then the flood hit.”
The storm worsened an already violent area, where in 2016, there were 393 violent crimes, making Lumberton the most dangerous city in North Carolina, according to FBI crime data.
Residents there have a one in 55 chance of being raped, assaulted or killed, government data showed.
So it was perhaps no surprise that after the waters cleared, the house remained boarded up, and like others in the area, became an alleged hotspot for crime.
But since then, the little blue home has gained notoriety for a different reason: It was the final resting place of Christina Bennett, 32, whose body was discovered inside on April 18, 2017.
Kristin Noel Bennett, or Christina as she was commonly known, was born and raised in Oneonta, N.Y.
"Making other people happy made her happy," Falicia Locklear, 33, told InsideEdition.com. "She was a good person."
Locklear met Christina after she moved to Maxton, N.C., to live with her new boyfriend in 2009. The women became close enough that Christina signed over parental rights of her three children to Locklear while working to overcome addiction and leave that troubled relationship.
“She left and she went to Lumberton,” Locklear said.
Christina always found a way to reach her children, who affectionately knew her as Mama Christina. “Mother’s Day, Christmas — she always called for their birthdays."
The calls stopped coming in the fall of 2014, and Locklear’s years-long hope that Christina would one day call again were destroyed when two detectives came knocking in April 2017.
“I couldn’t even think straight," Locklear said. "I felt like I was going to pass out, thinking, 'What am I going to tell my kids?'"
Miles away, the same thoughts were racing through the minds of a second family, because as law enforcement officials scoured the little blue house, bystanders smelled a foul odor coming from a trash can.
That’s when the body of 36-year-old Rhonda Jones was found.
It had been 15 days since Shelia Price had last seen her daughter, Rhonda, when she got the call.
Rhonda had failed to make it home for Easter on April 16, and Price, consumed with worry about her oldest daughter, was reluctant to travel the eight hours to family in Clintwood, Va., as she had promised.
Her cousin eventually convinced her to go, but when she arrived, a friend called.
“He said, 'Maw, when was the last time you saw Rhonda?’ I’m like, 'Being truthful, it’s been over two weeks since I saw her.’ He said, ‘Well, they just found two girls... dead.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m almost 400 miles away.'"
Price, 55, called home to send her other daughter, Shirlyn Whitaker, to the scene.
Once there, Whitaker asked an investigator to check the bodies for a distinct leg tattoo. It was the only identifying feature authorities were able to distinguish on the nude body found upside down in a trash bin.
“Rhonda would not in any kind of way have ever even touched that trash can, nevermind put herself in that trash can,” Whitaker said. “Rhonda hated dirt. Rhonda hated clutter. She hated being closed in like that. That would’ve been her worst nightmare.”
After confirming it was her sister in the garbage, Whitaker called her mother.
“It was about 15 minutes when Shirlyn called screaming," Price said. “I had to pull myself together and drive all the way back that night myself. I don’t remember but two turns all the way home."
When Rhonda died, she left behind countless loved ones whose lives were touched by her kind nature and big personality, her family said.
“Rhonda was a very, very sweet soul,” Whitaker said. “When you seen her, she always had a smile on her face and if you didn’t, she’d put one on your face.”
Rhonda’s father was in and out of her life, and growing up, she and her siblings clung to each other and their mother.
“I had my first heart attack in 2006, and if it had not been for my kids, I don’t think I’d still be here,” Price said. “Because that’s all I ever had, was Rhonda, and Shirlyn and Ronnie."
With only 13 months and 13 days between them, there were very few days Rhonda and her sister spent apart.
“I was my sister’s keeper,” Whitaker said. “I was the baby next to her, but I would always run to Rhonda when she needed me. And if I could’ve saved her... I would’ve.”
In the years leading up to her death, Rhonda battled drug addiction and tried several times to overcome her problems. When she was just 16, she enrolled in classes at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and went on to work at American Indian Mothers, Inc., a non-profit that serves the needs of American Indians and minorities living in North Carolina.
“She was awesome,” Beverly Collins-Hall, the organization’s founder, told InsideEdition.com. “She was so smart. I thought that one day, she would be the executive director... She was always trying to take herself to a better place, but the world always reached back up and dragged her down.”
Nothing gave Rhonda more joy than spending time with her children.
“Rhonda was a big kid herself when it came to the kids,” Whitaker laughed. “She would stoop down to their level and if it took getting on the floor playing, or whatever she needed to do, she’d do it. Because she loved her kids.”
Rhonda’s struggles with addiction affected her relationship with her four youngest children, who were in their father’s custody. But she had an upcoming court date to discuss visitation rights.
“Rhonda had a little glimpse of hope,” her sister said.
While spending several days at a rehab facility in late March 2017, the thought of seeing her children pushed Rhonda to be better, her family said.
The last time Price ever saw her daughter, she was ready for a fresh start.
“She hugged me, she kissed me on the cheek and she told me she loved me,” Price said. “She was the happiest I had seen her in a long time. She says, ‘Mama, we are gonna finally get to see my babies.’”
Rhonda’s court date was scheduled for April 17, 2017, her family said.
But she never made it. It’s unclear where she was at that time; she may have already been dead. Her body was found in the trash can the following day.
By April 19, 2017, East Lumberton residents knew the second victim was Rhonda.
“We received the names from the people in the community,” Nate Rodgers, a reporter who worked for CBS North Carolina at the time, told InsideEdition.com.
Rodgers was based in Raleigh, and made the nearly 100-mile drive south when the news broke that bodies had been found.
“Everybody had heard these ladies’ names because you got to remember that the population in Lumberton is around 22,000 people, so a small-knit community,” Rodgers said. “Everyone knew each other or knew somebody’s families.”
But familiarity doesn’t guarantee — and in fact, can sometimes hinder, openness, Rodgers learned.
“I think it was one of those situations where, ‘We don’t want to tell, we don’t want to talk about it,’” he said.
But one woman was open to talking on camera.
“I vividly remember standing on the corner and Miss Megan Oxendine walking up and just standing there,” Rodgers said. “I vividly remember her shaking, saying, ‘Oh my God, it’s so sad. I can’t believe this happened.’”
Megan told Rodgers she knew Rhonda from the neighborhood.
“I ain’t never seen her act out or nothing,” Megan said in the news clip. “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.”
She was shaken by Rhonda’s death, Rodgers said.
“She walked away from the interview — although she didn’t say it to me — I sensed a fear in her, from that very moment,” Rodgers said. “Her walking away from the interview, thinking, 'What could happen next? This could happen to any one of us.’”
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 was the third victim.
Megan Oxendine grew up enjoying the benefits of country living in Pembroke, a small town about 12 miles away from Lumberton.
“She’d run outside barefooted — she loved fishing — a real country girl,” her mother Shelia Oxendine, 47, told InsideEdition.com. “From the time that she was able to talk she just always had a love for all animals. She would pick up stray dogs and until the end, she still did that.”
Dreaming of becoming a veterinarian, Megan especially loved horses, and campaigned tirelessly for one of her own. Her determination paid off.
“We bought her first horse when she was probably 11 years old,” Shelia Oxendine said. “Oh gosh, she was wonderful [with it]. It was every day after school.“
The second of four girls, Megan quickly assumed the role of prankster in the family.
“She even had a green snake, the ones that don’t bite, and threw it on the bed on me and my mama,” Megan’s older sister, Khelia Oxendine, 31, said. “Me and my mama, we hit the wall off the bed. Mama was running after her, like, ‘Megan!’”
Megan could also be counted on as her sisters’ protector.
"As long as you were good to her, she was good to you," Megan’s youngest sister, Taylor Oxendine, 23, said. "She was a people person."
But nothing gave Megan more joy than her daughter, Ava.
"She loved her baby," Taylor Oxendine said.
Ava, now 7, doesn’t fully comprehend what’s happened to her mom.
“Her being so young, I don’t know if she’s grasped that Megan’s actually gone, or that she’s not going to get to see her again,” Ciera Oxendine, 27, the second youngest of the Oxendine girls, said. “There’s some days my baby sister walks in the door, and Ava hollers, ‘Hey Megan!’ That’s hard, seeing her do that.”
By her family’s account, Megan’s battle with addiction deepened significantly in the year before her death.
“It was heroin,” Shelia Oxendine said. “I still get mad at her. She wasn’t raised like that. She was raised in a good, nice family.”
Megan moved with her boyfriend to Lumberton, where the Oxendines said it was hard for her to fight her addiction. “I didn’t know what kind of area [it was] until someone told me,” Shelia said.
“It’s bad,” Khelia said.
It devastated Shelia Oxendine to learn where her daughter was living.
“She always had a choice, to come home,” she said, tearing up.
So on April 18, 2017, when the news broke that two bodies had been found in East Lumberton, the Oxendines feared the worst.
"I had seen it on TV, and within not an hour, Megan called me," Shelia Oxendine said. “Saying, ‘Mama, I’m OK. I’m OK.”
Megan was alive, but she had experienced something that left her frightened. Megan had been inside that little, blue, abandoned house when the body of Christina Bennett was discovered, her family said. The Oxendines said Megan told them she and a man were doing drugs inside the home when they came across the body.
Shelley Lynch, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said Megan is not the person who reported to police that a body had been found. Authorities did not confirm or deny, however, whether Megan was present when Christina’s body was found.
“When she called me to let me know she was all right, she told me the story," Shelia Oxendine said.
Though Megan was shaken by the discovery, she gathered her composure to speak about Rhonda on the news.
Then, she was attacked.
Megan was jumped about two weeks after the bodies of Christina and Rhonda were found.
“She had been beat up, she was bleeding,” Taylor Oxendine said. “Someone had cut her hair, cut pieces of her hair off.”
Megan told her family she was hit from behind and assaulted by at least five unknown people.
“She said they tried to kill her, and I kept asking her [who], but she said she had no idea who they were,” Taylor Oxendine said. “All I could do was keep asking, and she was crying, and just said ‘I don’t know, Taylor! I don’t know!’”
Megan refused to get medical treatment. Knowing her daughter was in danger, but unable to do anything to protect her, Shelia Oxendine said she called the police.
“She got so upset,” Shelia Oxendine said. “She left.”
Police found Megan walking down the road and brought her back to her mother’s home, the Oxendines said. “I told them I feared for her safety,” Shelia Oxendine said. “I told them that she was afraid, she had been jumped. I said, ‘she knows something about the two other girls.’”
According to the Oxendines, when police heard Megan may know something about the deaths, they contacted detectives on the cases.
“[A detective said he] felt like Megan knew more than what she was telling,” Shelia Oxendine said. “He told me that they would call me within two days … to see if Megan had told me anything, or to ask me any kind of questions. The call that I got was, it was my daughter. The next victim.”
On June 3, 2017, the body of Megan Oxendine was discovered under a tree behind an abandoned home, about 500 feet from where Christina Bennett and Rhonda Jones were found six weeks earlier.
Megan’s family first learned of the discovery on social media.
“I got a text from my baby girl saying, ‘Mama have you seen Facebook?’ Shelia Oxendine said. “She broke down. She said, ‘They’re saying they found another body in Lumberton and it’s Megan.’”
Hoping the Facebook posts saying ‘Rest in Peace Megan’ were wrong, Shelia Oxendine called the police to get answers. And when the police were unable to clear anything up, Shelia Oxendine sat by the phone, willing Megan to call.
“I knew in my heart, I said, ‘Well, if Megan don’t call me, I’ll know,’” Shelia Oxendine said.
Three days later, officials confirmed the Oxendines’ worst nightmare.
Megan had been nude when she was found, her family said.
“When they lifted her up, her blouse was actually underneath her,” Taylor Oxendine said.
The circumstances surrounding Megan’s death, like those of Christina and Rhonda’s, remain unclear.
“When people ask us, we can’t even tell what happened to her,” Taylor Oxendine said.
Locals who claimed to have seen Megan’s body said she had a wound on the back of her head and appeared to have something stuffed in her mouth. The Oxendines have been told Megan was found in a fetal position, as if she was trying to hide or defend herself.
“I knew in my heart, if she was able to, Megan fought,” her mother said. “Megan fought.”
Police have not shared details about the condition in which Megan was found.
“The investigative agencies have not released any information regarding the discovery of the body, doing so is not in the best interest of finding factual information regarding the cause of Megan’s death,” the FBI’s Lynch said.
Megan’s family said that given the state her body was in, they were forced to forego an open casket and wake.
“I didn’t get to put her clothes on for her, I didn’t get to see her,” Shelia Oxendine said, wiping tears from her eyes. “I just had to head out to the graveyard and see her casket sitting there. I didn’t have the proper burial that I would have loved for her to have.”
Not being able to say goodbye properly to Megan has only deepened the family’s suffering.
“[Her attacker] took that away,” Megan’s mother said. “They had already took her. They took that away. Disposed of her like a piece of trash. She was far from that.”
The families’ grief is compounded by the onslaught of criticism they’ve watched their dead loved ones face.
“Preying upon drug addicts and prostitutes no one cares about. Classic,” read one comment on Reddit.
The loved ones of the dead said comments appearing to explain away the deaths are no better.
“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 in a news story published after a third body that would later be identified as Megan was discovered, the Robesonian said of Christina and Rhonda: “Word on the street was that Bennett and Jones worked as prostitutes, but neither had a criminal history suggesting such.”
“If this would’ve happened to my worst enemy’s child, I would’ve never made some of the comments that I’ve seen people make,” Price, Rhonda’s mother, said. “All it does is hurt these families more.”
Regardless of the circumstances that may have led Christina, Rhonda and Megan to find themselves in East Lumberton, they were loved and worthy of living, their families said.
“For people to think, 'Well, they chose that,” Price said. “They just say, ‘Well, they were just out there on the streets. They had no business.’ Well nobody had no business taking her life, either.”
A year on, Lumberton police and the FBI have deemed the three deaths suspicious, but have fallen short of calling them murders.
“The circumstances surrounding their deaths are suspicious, in part because of the close proximity of when and where their bodies were found,” Lynch said.
The families say they know just as much as the public does.
"We do not even have a police report," Price said. "It’s been a year."
Lumberton police requested the assistance of the FBI in June 2017, after Megan’s body was discovered.
Investigators have not explained why the FBI has become involved in a case that’s not even been labeled a homicide or an accident.
In January, they announced a $30,000 reward for information to help “determine the circumstances that led to the deaths of Christina Bennett, Rhonda Jones and Megan Oxendine.”
In March, the FBI conducted a door-to-door canvas in Lumberton, knocking on approximately 800 doors and conducting 500 interviews over a three-day period.
“Every part of our work benefits from help we receive from the public. So we ask you to pick up the phone and call us. Tell us what you know, what you heard, and what you saw,” John Strong, special agent in charge of the FBI in North Carolina, said in a news release in April.
“As police chief and as a member of this community, I want to know what happened to Christina, Rhonda, and Megan. I also understand there is a lot of uncertainty, concern and even fear right now. Let me reassure you that we are committed to finding out the answers. We hope the people of Lumberton will help us,” Lumberton Police Chief Michael McNeill said in the release.
Getting answers from an area rife with violence and suspicious of outsiders has proven difficult.
"The people out here, they different," a police officer told InsideEdition.com as he responded to a reported break-in in April.
Autopsy reports must be completed before investigators can say for certain whether a crime was committed.
“We sympathize with the family and understand their frustration," Lynch said. “At the same time, we remain committed to our job; to uncover facts and evidence, and to build a criminal case if there is one to be made. That is not always a quick process and every case is different.”
The FBI has received a number of tips since announcing the reward, but to date, none have provided the information needed to determine the causes of death for any of the women, Lynch said.
"We continue to encourage the public in Lumberton to come forward with information."
The North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) performed the autopsies, but a year later, they have apparently not yet been completed.
The causes of death for the three women are still pending, officials said.
“Every death investigation conducted by the OCME has its own unique set of facts and circumstances, and the length of time necessary to complete a case can vary based on a wide range of factors,” Cobey Culton, press assistant for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said in an email to InsideEdition.com. “Accordingly, it is not possible to provide an accurate estimate for the time required to complete toxicology and/or autopsy reports, or for case finalization.”
Toxicology reports typically take between six to eight weeks to complete. Lynch said there are exceptions that may prevent reports from being completed within such a time frame. No official could indicate what those exceptions may be.
On Feb. 16, 2018, Superior Court Judge James Gregory Bell ordered the Medical Examiner’s records for Christina, Rhonda and Megan to be sealed until April 1.
“Any and all medical examination information, records and documentation related” to Christina, Rhonda and Megan were sealed based upon the findings of an investigator for the Robeson County District Attorney’s Office, court documents show.
While the documents were sealed, the investigator could share their contents with an FBI special agent and attorney with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. It was not immediately clear why the documents were sealed.
On April 18, 2018, led by Rhonda’s family and friends, members of the community gathered to mark one year since the discovery of her and Christina’s bodies, and to preemptively memorialize Megan, as well.
As the sun set at Luther Britt Memorial Park, several dozen residents released balloons into the sky in honor of those lost.
They held each other and looked to the sky as they sang along to Andra Day’s “Rise Up.”
They prayed that answers would finally come their way. They lamented the issues plaguing their neighborhood.
“When our city is considered one of the five most violent cities per capita in the country, we’re in serious trouble,” Ron Barnes, a relative of the Jones family and the pastor of Greater Hope International Church, told the group. “Here we are a year later, and we have no answers. Here we are a year later and we’re still no closer to finding out than we were a year ago. It’s sad. But I’m here to tell you, God hears your prayers, God has not forgotten you and Rhonda will never be forgotten.”
Wearing a T-shirt with her daughter’s face on it, Price dutifully gave interviews with local television stations and accepted condolences from well-wishers, while Whitaker made sure anyone with an empty hand grabbed a plate of food or a drink.
“I’m a hugger,” she said when approached by virtual strangers. "Thank you for coming."
The family and their friends spent weeks preparing for the memorial, contacting vendors and reaching out to local officials in the hopes that the more exposure their event got, the greater chance it had to make a difference.
“Of course, somebody knows something,” Whitaker later said. “Somebody knows what happened. And when it happened. And how it happened. That’s what we’re praying for, that somebody just comes forward.”
If any information does come to light, it’s likely to come from inside the community, according to those with experience in law enforcement.
“In a small town, it’s much easier to solve a crime like that, because the officers know the citizens,” Red Springs Police Chief Ronnie Patterson told InsideEdition.com.
Red Springs is only about 20 miles away from Lumberton, but its solved crime rates differ vastly. In the 29 years Patterson has worked for the department, they have had no murder go unsolved.
Patterson launched a bid to lead the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department in 2018, hoping to bring what he said worked in Red Springs to the county.
“Community policing in my city has helped to bring the crime rate down, because our officers get out of their cars, they knock on citizens’ door and ask them how can we better serve you,” he said. “When there’s a lack of trust with law enforcement and community, you’re not going to solve anything, because nobody can trust you.”
That respect should extend to all victims, regardless of their circumstances, he said.
“I don’t care if they say the young ladies might have been doing drugs or what have you,” Patterson said. “It does not matter. We need to bring closure to these family members.”
In early May, Patterson lost the election to Burnis Wilkins, a city council member in Lumberton who ran on a platform vowing to “clean up the crime and grime," often pointing to drugs as the gateway to robbery and sex work.
“If the only thing you can do is talk about prostitutes, you will not be getting my vote,” Price said. “Suddenly this is the main problem in Robeson County? No, it’s not.”
Wilkins doubled down on his views in a statement to InsideEdition.com, saying: “The county has issues with prostitution as well as does the city and several towns throughout the county.”
He said his plans relative to prostitution have no bearing on Christina, Rhonda and Megan’s cases, and his “focus on dealing with prostitution is an aggressive yet professional approach against drug dealers."
“These girls and other drug addicted persons seek out the drug dealer for the drug,” Wilkins said. “This in turn leads to prostitution, break-ins, robberies, larcenies and more whereas the addicted are seeking funds to purchase the drugs. My opinion is the addicted are often in need of professional mental health and drug addiction assistance and not just simply in need of being locked up.”
A year since the bodies of Christina, Rhonda and Megan were found, their loved ones have no choice but to carry on. They carry their grief with them every day.
“There’s days that I don’t want to even see my own children,” Shelia Oxendine said. “There’s days I be good... and all of a sudden I’m crying. I bust out crying. And I’ll say, 'Why, why am I crying?' 'Cause I still feel like it’s a dream and I’m gonna wake up.”
The little, blue house is still standing. Red trim has been added to the home’s door and along its windows, and all traces of Christina or the disturbing memories her death may evoke have been removed, the home’s owner, Woody Bowen, assured his friends in a Facebook post on April 14, 2018.
“We hired approved EPA Hazmat licensees from Gastonia to remove and dispose of every contaminated material,” he wrote, sharing photos of the home. “We treated the house and thereafter cooked it with several days of 130 degree curing until harmful particle were reduced to fewer than in the room in which you or I are sitting. Then we tore out much of the structure and replaced new, even with marble countertops in the kitchen.
“All vestiges of violence and tragedy are gone,” he wrote.
Bowen has since rented out the home, telling InsideEdition.com: “I think that it’s always good that good can come out of bad. We had a lemon and we made lemonade.”
While others in Lumberton have been able to put that gruesome span of six weeks behind them, the families of the departed have no such luxury. And time is not helping.
“I thought this was going to be a little easier," Whitaker said, a year on from when her sister’s body was found. “It gets harder.”
Anyone with information about the deaths of Christina, Rhonda and Megan, or when and where they were last seen, is asked to contact the FBI's Charlotte bureau at 704-672-6100. Anyone with information that helps investigators determine the circumstances that led to their deaths may be eligible for the FBI's reward of $30,000.