Sunday, November 9, 2008

Alice Donovan, Casualties of Crime


Angie Gilchrist and Brandon Basham both came into the world on Sept. 14. Both grew up in troubled homes. Each had a father who drank too much.

Both now live in the shadow of a murdered woman.

Six years ago this week, their fates became inescapably intertwined. On Nov. 14, 2002, Basham and Chadrick Fulks - prison escapees from Kentucky - kidnapped Gilchrist's mother from a Wal-Mart parking lot in Conway, sparking a search that continues to this day. The tragic consequences of Alice Donovan's disappearance and death linger, unraveling the lives of families and friends on both sides.

"It seemed as if there was any weakness in the family, it broke," said Judy Ezell, Donovan's 54-year-old sister.

Basham and Fulks now sit in federal prison awaiting the day a concoction of legal drugs will be injected into their veins.

Gilchrist is fighting her way back from addictions she turned to for comfort in the aftermath of her mother's disappearance.

Through interviews and letters exchanged over several weeks, some of the key players in the tragedy shared their emotions, frustrations and insights with The Sun News.

Setting the stage

Long before Donovan's disappearance on that November day, the circumstances of Gilchrist's and Basham's pasts set the stage for their futures.

Basham's mother blew marijuana smoke in his face when he was 2 years old to calm him and shared drugs with him throughout his childhood.

He hopped from state-run home to psychiatric center to state-run home before ending up in prison.

Gilchrist's father beat her mother and told his daughter of his numerous drug escapades - to scare her away from addictions, she said - until the day, as a teenager, she was called to the hospital to identify his body after he had injected and inhaled a deadly concoction of illegal drugs.

Gilchrist, now 32, began acting out. She dabbled in marijuana and alcohol for the first time at the age of 17, the kind of behavior that led to her father's death.

Donovan grounded her. Gilchrist left home, hopping from Maine to New Hampshire to Massachusetts, wandering from friend to fast-food job to friend, partying and drinking every step of the way.

Her mother married Barry Donovan, whom she met at a factory job in New Hampshire. They moved to the Grand Strand. Gilchrist and her sister, Jennifer Warner, eventually followed.

They didn't know that decision would later involve them in a two-week crime spree that began Nov. 4, 2002, when Basham and Fulks escaped using bed sheets, two blankets and a basketball. Basham was serving time for forgery; Fulks was facing several charges including domestic violence and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Burying the pain

On Nov. 14, 2002, the day her mother disappeared, Gilchrist broke. She began drowning herself in drugs and alcohol.

Her over-indulgences before her mother's death turned into full-bore addictions and destructive behavior after.

"Before my feet even hit the floor in the morning, I did two lines of coke," she said.

That was during and after the fruitless, agonizing and ultimately empty searches for her mother, during and after the period when her hopes were raised by periodic media reports about remains being found, only to be disappointed when they were determined to be a man's or an animal's, not her mother's.

That was while she worked as a waitress and tried to raise small children before she, their father and the S.C. Department of Social Services determined those kids needed to be away from her.

The trial for Basham and Fulks began in June 2004. From June to November, it went on ... and on, the gruesome and sometimes tedious details kept coming, kept flowing from the witness stand into Gilchrist's psyche, from the jury selection to the handing down of Basham's death sentence in the fall of 2004. Vodka and beer and drugs carried Gilchrist through.

"I just wanted to be numb," she said.

She heard attorneys describe how Basham and Fulks kidnapped her mother, how Basham walked with her into the woods and came back alone.

She heard an FBI agent testify that Basham said Donovan's body was "dragging distance from the road."

She heard how Basham and Fulks let others go free during their multistate crime spree. They kidnapped one man, stole his vehicle, tied him to a tree with duct tape and apologized to him for the inconvenience.

She learned how Basham thought about kidnapping a woman and her daughter from a Kentucky Wal-Mart but changed his mind and apologized for bothering them.

During those trials, she heard experts argue that Basham had a damaged brain and a poor and abusive childhood, and how that should mitigate his punishment.

Gilchrist heard Fulks' oldest brother scream and curse that his brother was "not a monster," forcing Gilchrist to acknowledge the pain also being felt by those who love the men who murdered her mother.

"I have compassion for their families," she said. "But I'm still angry."

Moving on with life

"It's like being in this movie," Gilchrist said. "You are the main character, and you don't want the ... role."

Nor did the rest of her family want to play roles in a drama co-authored by two prison escapees.

Barry Donovan didn't want his wife of almost 10 years to be taken away so violently, so confoundingly randomly, or at all. He initially held out hope that she would return.

"We just have to assume the worst won't happen," he said then.

It was his relentless searching in the early hours of the disappearance that convinced police to get involved sooner than protocol otherwise allows or encourages.

Since then, he has sued Wal-Mart and the prison from which Basham and Fulks escaped, securing two undisclosed settlements. He remarried two years ago and lives in the home he and his former wife built.

Gilchrist and Jennifer Warner, Alice Donovan's daughters, remember days when they all - Barry, Jennifer, Angie and Alice - would sit on the back porch, throw back a few beers, laugh and enjoy each other's company.

Three years after his wife's death, Barry bought a bar: Gilchrist and Warner became its bartenders and managers.

But the bar is now closed, another sign of the family's post-murder difficulties.

Sometime after that, Barry Donovan was instrumental in sending Gilchrist to an intensive in-house rehabilitation center in Colorado to rid her of drug and alcohol addictions.

But he no longer has contact with his former wife's daughters. The once-close stepdaughter-stepfather relationship has dissolved into an as-of-now unbridged divide.

Today, he doesn't want to talk about the losses that began when Basham and Fulks arrived in Horry County.

Still, Gilchrist said she won't ever forget the role he played in initiating the search for her mother, won't forget that even though they have lost contact, he helped pull her through.

"The crux of it is that he wants to put the whole thing behind him and get on with the rest of his life," said Ezell, Alice Donovan's sister.

Painful details resurface

Anger, resentment, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder are often part of the legacy of violent crime, research suggests.

"Sadly to say, a great percentage of victims in circumstances such as the Donovans do tend to follow a destructive path, be it drugs, alcohol or just plain destructive behavior as a means to cope," said Catina Hipp, the law enforcement victim advocate for the Conway Police Department.

"Some families never recover and spend the rest of their lives mourning and/or searching for their loved one," she said.

Gilchrist has periodic episodes of memory loss. During research on her mother's death a few weeks ago, she came across the testimony which showed that Basham raped Alice before killing her.

Even though she sat through hours of court proceedings during which details of the rape emerged, she cried sitting at her laptop when reading the account in old news reports.

She had not remembered. She had been too drunk, her mind too muddled by the drugs. She felt guilty for not remembering.

"I shouldn't have been a drunk," Gilchrist said. "I shouldn't have been an addict."

One of Alice's granddaughters was 6 at the time of Alice's disappearance. She started making sure all the doors and windows in her house were locked. She feared being alone. She realized that if a 44-year-old woman could be snatched, so could a 6-year-old little girl.

"That's the one thing that sticks out, the impact on the kids," Ezell said. "We do everything we can to protect her."

Ezell read a letter from Alice into the court record that recounted how her sister endured abuse and molestation by a family member.

She did it because she wanted Alice's voice to be present in the proceedings, wanted them to know that while Alice had a troubled childhood - like Basham and Fulks - she had overcome and had become a positive influence.

But some family members were taken aback. They said Ezell aired painful, private moments and put the penalty phase of the trial at risk.

"Some of us don't speak anymore," she said. "It's kind of rough. Expressing love with one another was not something we were into doing. There weren't hugs. There was always a sort of competitive attitude in the family.

"Because of those differences, we don't even talk to each other in an effort to keep the peace with each other."

The guilty parties

Fulks has been trying to make peace with his role in the crimes, though, he still says he did not participate in the killing of either Donovan or Samantha Burns, a West Virginia college student also murdered after their escape. Her body, too, has never been found.

"I can't sit here and make excuses for my actions throughout those 17 days in November of 2002 because my involvement was horrible, and I deserve to be punished," he said in response to questions asked of him in a letter sent by The Sun News. "But I never took the lives of either of those women. ... If society thinks I deserve to die for my involvement, then that's what my fate will be. And to be honest, I welcome my death, and that's why I have recently dropped my appeals and asked for a prompt execution date. I live with this 24/7, and for the longest time I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror."

He said he is depressed and regrets causing his mother stress. The crimes were not planned, he said, but he was high on "meth," which clouded his judgment.

He has vowed to help Gilchrist find her mother's remains. He has given police information in the past about Donovan's whereabouts, but the searches turned up nothing.

"I've done all I can to give them some kind of closure, but nothing I say is believed, so that's left me with nothing else but to have my sentence carried out in order to give the [families] of both Alice and Samantha closure," Fulks wrote. "I feel like the boy who cried wolf all his life then when he did tell the truth, no one believed him. ... No one wants to give me the time of day."

Basham has been trying to speak with people in the outside world, if only for a mental escape from his 6-foot-by-13-foot cell in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.

That's what a short Internet profile Basham wrote about himself reveals.

Media access to prisoners on federal death row has been limited since Timothy McVeigh gave an interview to "60 Minutes," making it difficult to describe life there.

Inmate David Paul Hammer, who has been suing for several years to loosen those restrictions, co-founded deathrow, a Web site that provides a glimpse into the lives of the only two prisoners on federal death row for crimes committed in South Carolina.

Basham did not respond to a letter from The Sun News seeking comment. But his Death Row Speaks profile describes him as the youngest of two children, his sister being much older. He works out often to "stay in tip-top physical shape by working out three to five times a week," it said.

"My physical description is: solid, athletic build with great muscle tone, 5'10, 192 pounds, brown hair and eyes," the profile reads under photos of Basham showing off his biceps.

It says his interests include beaches, the outdoors - like Alice Donovan - cycling and "living life to the fullest when possible."

"I am a single white guy, never married, and I've not fathered any children," Basham said. "These are things which I think about a lot. I'll likely never have an opportunity to experience a normal life on the outside. That's a depressing and disturbing prospect."

"Our mother died this past July (2005), which has left a void in my heart," he said. "I hope that someone reading this profile will decide to write me."

Gilchrist and Warner read it. They didn't write him.

It just angered them that the man who murdered their mother seemed to want sympathy because his mother died. And they are angry because they can't complete their mourning.

"I need to find my mom," Warner said.

'Life goes on'

Gilchrist also wants closure. She isn't waiting for Basham or Fulks to provide it. She's spearheading a fundraiser for the Community United Effort, a group which helps search for missing people.

It will be held Saturday - one day after the sixth anniversary of Alice Donovan's disappearance.

The benefit, which will include karaoke, raffles and other fun and games, is the next step in Gilchrist's quest to regain her footing.

She's now married to a man who she says is gentle and "does not judge me for my imperfections and accepts me, good, bad and indifferent."

Ezell said that while her sister's death strained and even broke some family relationships, a few other bonds were strengthened.

"My relationship with God is now closer even than before," she said. "Not that I would want to go through this again. I don't want to test it. When my faith was weak during that time, [God] held me."

They want everyone to know that even during the worst days, there were good moments. They received help - prayers, letters, e-mails, financial aid - from people throughout the country.

They appreciated how hundreds of strangers took to the streets and into the woods to search for their mother, a woman who was a stranger to them.

They want everyone to know it still hurts, "but not like it used to," that though not every family issue has been solved or every imperfection erased, things are getting better, even if in fits and starts.

Their journey is still an uphill one, but the climb seems a little less steep than six years ago.

"Losing a loved one creates a huge void in a person's life that is hard, if not nearly impossible, to fill," said Hipp, the victim's advocate.

"Murder is a senseless act for which an adequate answer to the question of 'why' can never truly be answered. I have seen those rare cases where the [victim's family] uses their tragedy as a springboard and becomes a very productive member of society."

Gilchrist wants everyone to know they plan to continue searching - to give her mother a proper burial, to make sure she's never forgotten - and they want to help others find their loved ones.

"We want people to know that even when you are stretched to the fiber of your very being, life goes on," Ezell said. "And you still find some measure of joy in between."


Go to to read letters Chadrick Fulks wrote to The Sun News columnist Issac Bailey from prison and to view a photo gallery of the search for Alice Donovan.

If you go

What | Fundraiser for the Community United Effort, a Wilmington, N.C.-based group that helps search for missing people

When | 7-10 p.m. Saturday

Details | Karaoke, raffles and other games

Where | Breakroom Billiards, S.C. 544 next to Food Lion Plaza, Conway

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