27 years ago this week, a Georgia mother disappeared as her children slept

Now, her sister helped re-open the cold case on Pamela Ray’s disappearance

Rhonda Bishop feels certain she knows what happened to her sister nearly 27 years ago. She just wants proof.

It was mid-August 1992 when Bishop and her family last saw Pamela Ray alive. Ray, 36, had decided to take her two children on a quick trip to the beach from their Villa Rica home before school started. Her husband couldn’t go due to work. Bishop had planned to go, but then changed her mind. She’d already taken her son on a trip that year and needed to buy him school clothes.

“That was a horrible decision I made,” Bishop said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If I could take that one decision back, that’s the decision in my life that I would take back.”

Now, 27 years after Ray disappeared, fresh clues may finally turn up hundreds of miles away in central Illinois. There, authorities in recent weeks dug up the former property of a man who once confessed to killing Ray, but later recanted. Bishop remains convinced he was involved and is hopeful the investigation may finally answer the question of what happened to her sister.

“In my heart I can know once and for all, everybody will be at rest,” Bishop said.

“The Last Vacation of the Summer”

In August 1992, Ray packed her children into her blue 1991 Plymouth Sundance and drove through the night to Panama City Beach. When she arrived in the early morning on Aug. 12, a hotel room wasn’t immediately available and they waited in the car.

Around 5:20 a.m., Ray was seen by a young police officer who was working a second job as a motel security guard. About 10 minutes later, hotel guests reported hearing a woman’s screams. When Ray’s children, Shayne, 12, and Brandi, 5, woke up Ray was gone. Her purse, containing traveler’s checks, was still in the car.

“It was the last vacation of the summer,” Shayne Ray said during a recent interview. “It was devastating.”

In the days that followed, police questioned a man described as a beach bum, but he had an alibi. Meanwhile, family members handed out hundreds of fliers in the area, hoping someone could offer clues to Ray’s disappearance. They put up a $10,000 reward. Heavy rains in the area slowed the search.

On Aug. 14, 1992, two days after Ray was last seen, stories on her disappearance were published in The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution.

Months later, there was a glimmer of hope when a Florida man was charged with rape in a separate case. But those charges were dropped and no link to Ray was found.

A year passed with no signs of Ray. Her mother, Helen Bennett, told The AJC in August 1993 that she felt that someone knew what happened, but hadn’t come forward.

“I know a lot of people think she just ran off somewhere, but I’ve had her 36 years and I know her. They don’t,” Bennett said. “She would have never left those children.”

A confession recanted

About six years after Ray was last seen alive, Bishop was told a man had confessed to killing her sister: Mark Riebe.

Riebe, now 58, was convicted in 1998 for killing a woman nine years earlier. He confessed to killing nearly a dozen other women, whose disappearances were also cold cases, according to Florida media reports. Riebe said when he encountered Ray, she was carrying a lone key, as she was known to do.

Riebe later recanted his confession. But Ray’s family feels Riebe knows more than he’s admitted.

“When you do something, you know what you did and you know where things are. You don’t play games,” Shayne Ray said. “It’s just playing with people’s emotions and it’s not a good thing.”

Bishop says doesn’t believe Riebe and she has a good reason.

“With everything in me, I know he killed my sister,” Riebe said. “He was just a serial killer. He’s just evil and crazy.”

Bishop is now in touch with Jelena Hayes, Riebe’s daughter. Hayes was 4 years old when her family abruptly left northwest Florida with two U-Haul trucks and drove to Warrensburg, Ill. There, Riebe put his children to work.

“He made the kids dig holes,” Bishop said. “She remembers digging those holes vividly.”

Hayes has told Bishop and Panama City police that she believes the remains of Riebe’s victims were in bags that her father then buried in holes. In July, Bishop and Hayes met with police to share the information.

“She’s had to carry that burden throughout her whole life,” Bishop said of Hayes. “She thinks he killed my sister along with many others.”

And Bishop does, too.

“Mark didn’t only take my sister. He took tons of women, and it’s not right for those families either,” Bishop said.

Coincidentally, Drew Whitman, the Panama City Beach police officer who last saw Ray alive is now police chief for the beach town. Whitman did not respond to a message regarding Ray’s case.

Taking matters into her own hands

After visiting the Panama City Beach police, Bishop decided to also contact police in Illinois.

The property where Hayes lived with her family has different owners now. But Bishop said the current owners gave investigators permission to search. The Macon County Sheriff’s Office, in central Illinois, immediately began digging.

“Something of a higher power has been pushing me to get these answers out,” Bishop said. “He’s been pushing and I’ve been working my tail off.”

Sgt. Roger Pope has told media outlets the investigation is still ongoing, but has not publicly discussed what, if anything has been uncovered. Pope didn’t return a phone call regarding the case.

So far, Ray’s remains haven’t been found, Bishop said. But she feels certain the investigation has already turned up clues. Bishop said her parents died not knowing what happened to her sister, and she wants to have something to place by her parents’ graves.

“I don’t need to relive this each and every year. I live with each and every day of my life,” she said.

Shayne Ray, now a father himself, and his sister also want closure. But as the years pass, Ray says it seems less likely.

“I’m at the state of the mind that I don’t think we’ll ever find out what really happened,” Ray said. “There’s a big hole of not knowing that’s even worse than knowing.”