A Sprite can was the link police needed to identify one of Bridget Shiel’s alleged killers.
Atlanta police issued an arrest warrant Thursday for Christopher Spencer, a known gang member tied to five killings in the metro area in the past two years. Spencer is already serving a life sentence for one of those crimes at Macon State Prison.
Thursday’s break in the Shiel case comes on the second anniversary of when her body was found naked in a grassy area near a basketball court in Oakland City Park about 6:50 a.m. May 31, 2016. The 19-year-old had multiple gunshot wounds to her back, buttocks and legs.
Two men, one of them Spencer, were last seen with Shiel at a Shell gas station on Rockbridge Road and Memorial Drive about 11:30 p.m. May 30. Witnesses told police she was with the men and sitting in the passenger side of her car against her own will. A day after she was killed, Shiel’s car was found behind King’s Southern Delight restaurant in the 4900 block of Redan Road in DeKalb County.
But two years after Shiel’s death, no one knows why she was killed.
Atlanta police couldn’t offer a motive but said they don’t believe the shooting was gang-related. In an interview with police, Spencer said he’d never seen Shiel before and denied his involvement in her killing, Atlanta police Maj. Michael O’Connor said at a news conference Thursday.
Spencer, 28, is in prison for the murder of a couple in a DeKalb County home invasion. Spencer and Vernon Beamon were each convicted of multiple counts of murder in the October 2016 deaths of Samuel White Jr., 54, and Sylvia Watson, 57, of the Stone Mountain area. They were sentenced to life without parole. Spencer got an extra 30 years, Beamon an extra 25.
Officials also confirmed Thursday that Spencer was one of 10 men charged in connection with a 2016 Clayton County killing of two children. Police said 11-year-old Tatiyana Coates and her brother, 15-year-old Daveon Coates, were sleeping in a Clayton County home when they were shot to death by gang members who may have been after someone else.
“The Atlanta Police Department, the DeKalb Police Department, the Clayton County Police Department and our office were mutually cooperating in independent investigations in all three jurisdictions,” Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson confirmed.
The night of Shiel’s slaying offered few clues, which made finding any suspects difficult, O’Connor said. Shiel’s purse, phone and car where nowhere near Oakland City Park. Atlanta police eventually traced Shiel’s movements to the Shell gas station, but Spencer and his accomplice were never seen on surveillance cameras.
“They were smart enough to have someone outside the store go in and buy the items they wanted,” O’Connor said. “They didn’t even get out of the car that they were in.”
A 911 call came in hours before Shiel was found, but when police went to Oakland City Park, they didn’t see anything. At the time, it was speculated she was shot somewhere else and brought to the park. And while Shiel’s car is seen on surveillance footage near the park, the crime isn’t.
Shiel’s clothes and a Sprite can were found near her car when police located it on Redan Road, but nothing more.
It would be January 2017 before the little evidence police did gather — a Sprite can and Shiel’s clothes — got them DNA evidence. By then, Spencer had killed Watson and White in their DeKalb home and was allegedly involved in the Coates siblings’ killings.
“We didn’t have a ton to work with,” O’Connor said. “By that time, the rush on our case was over with and he was already in the prison system.”
Atlanta police connected Spencer to the crime once his DNA sample was provided to the state and placed in the Combined DNS Index System (CODIS) database. Spencer’s DNA was found on the Sprite can, O’Connor said.
“I’m just so overwhelmed with feelings, and that’s all that I can say right now,” Shiel’s mother, Angela, said at the news conference.
But Angela Shiel and grandmother Beverly Toole couldn’t call it closure yet.
There are still questions Atlanta police couldn’t answer: Why was Bridget Shiel killed? Where is that second suspect believed to be in the car with Shiel and Spencer at the gas station? Was she targeted?
Those unknowns still haunt the family.
“Maybe if we find out how he got her ... it could be a chance encounter we just don’t know,” a distraught Toole said. “I don’t know that it will help at all.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.