How the mysterious disappearance of
Sherron Lankester’s son nearly destroyed her.
The woman stands behind the altar, eyes on the congregation of a small Baptist church. Her face tightens with fear as she rubs slips of paper between her wrinkled fingers and begins to speak.
“I have not forgotten my faith in God,” she says, “but my faith in mankind has been lost a long time ago.”
This is Sherron Lankester, a soft-spoken grandmother and retired caterer with bright blonde hair, and she’s just warming up. She’s here to talk about her eldest child, a 38-year-old carpenter, who went missing in 2004.
New Hope Baptist, planted in the rising hills north of Atlanta in unincorporated Acworth, is a kind of home for Sherron. She’s spent Sundays here most of her life, but these people — her people — long ago seemed to grow tired of her pain.
She came here on this chilly day in 2013 to say some things you don’t normally hear in church.
With a slight crack in her voice, she makes her point.
“I feel abandoned by my family, my friends and also by my church. I’m not telling you this for your sympathy. I’m telling you because I’m worried about my church.”
The room is quiet but for the sound of people shifting in their seats and sliding their shoes on the carpet.
“For nine years, I’ve heard stories of how my son died,” she says. “I have heard stories of how he was tied up and beaten by several people. I was told he was locked in a building, naked, cold, bleeding… They hung him up by his feet, cut his throat…”
People shake their heads, grunt in disgust.
A sour look forms on the face of a young woman in the choir. She walks quickly down the steps, crosses the sanctuary and leads a child out of the room by the arm.
Sherron continues. She recounts a recurring dream in which her son, Steve, calls out to her in the night. Help me, Momma, he begs, his voice weak, his body frail. He’s in front of his mother’s house, trying to climb the porch steps on his belly. Sherron tries to help him up, but over and over she fails. Finally, she wakes up screaming.
When she’s done, she takes her papers from the podium and walks back to her seat.
The room is silent. Sherron sits alone until a man walks over and joins her. A stranger, he whispers in her ear, telling her she is brave.
This is a story about madness, the kind that can come for average people and push them to the edge of their faith in the world.
It’s about what happens to a mother when her child vanishes, when she believes people know what happened but won’t talk, when she knows someone got away with harming him. It’s about what happens when her daughter becomes so eaten up by her brother’s disappearance she commits a desperate act.
And, in the end, it’s about how the mother manages to survive.
Gone in the headlights
The winding, rising drive to Sherron Lankester’s house passes through the thick woods where Steve played when he was young and along roads he careened around in a turbocharged Thunderbird when he was grown.
At the end of a dirt driveway is Sherron’s ranch house with a long porch and a little garden beside it surrounded by a wire fence to keep out deer. Inside, she sits at the kitchen table. Her hot-pink nail polish catches a little shine from the dim overhead light as she smokes cigarettes, drinks sweet tea and talks about her lost boy.
Stephen Lankester was Sherron’s first child, born March 13, 1966. His father was already dead, a casualty of the Vietnam War.
Sherron recalls Steve’s childhood antics: How he fell down the stairs as a toddler and then got up and took his first steps. How he broke his arm, got the cast off and broke the other arm in the same month. How he got sent home from the first day of eighth grade because they didn’t allow mustaches.
Her son wasn’t perfect. He messed around with marijuana and pills, and in his mid-20s got in trouble with the law, spending occasional nights in jail and serving stints on probation, mostly for drunk driving and drug possession. Eventually, the Thunderbird sat parked at Sherron’s house because Steve got too many tickets.
But Sherron loved him.
He was a kind man. He wrote poems for loved ones who died, and once drew tears from the crowd at one of the rowdiest country bars in metro Atlanta with a verse about his late grandfather. And he was a loving father to his two children.
Around 2003, things went south with Steve’s marriage. His wife took their kids to live in Louisiana, and he moved in with Sherron and his stepfather, Jack Lankester. There he grew despondent. His 12-year-old daughter suspected he was getting deeper into drugs.
One Thursday night in November 2004, Steve was having a quiet evening at home. He shucked some corn and prepared to grill it.
Then the phone rang. It was around 10 p.m.
Sherron overheard Steve tell the caller he saw headlights coming up the drive.
He hung up and told his mother he’d be back after a while.
He didn’t say where he was going, and Sherron didn’t pry. Steve always came back when he said he would, or he at least called to tell her where he was.
Steve walked outside, down his mother’s front porch steps and into the headlights.
Sherron left town the next morning to pick up a grandkid from North Carolina, planning to return Monday. She checked in with Jack at home to see if Steve had come home.
He hadn’t. No calls either.
The same on Saturday.
By Sunday even Jack was concerned, and he wasn’t one to worry. His concern caught the attention of Steve’s half-sister.
Leslie Green was 36 at the time, two years younger than Steve. The two weren’t especially close, and they often butted heads, but they loved each other nonetheless.
Leslie didn’t get along with Sherron, either. Methamphetamine might have had something to do with it. The drug had become entrenched in unincorporated Acworth beginning around 2000. Arrests for possession and distribution are not uncommon. In February of this year, a bust in the area yielded 42 pounds of the white powder. This time last year a raid on an Acworth home uncovered what officials called the hub of a drug distribution operation that stretched throughout the Southeast.
Leslie was addicted. But not Steve. He was more of a pot smoker who dabbled in pills, says Leslie. But recently he’d started spending time with the meth crowd, and she knew where to look for him. He’d been hanging around at a house in a newer neighborhood with quiet streets and cookie-cutter houses.
A man named Walt Neally lived there.
Neally, who’d moved to Georgia from New York, was a little older than Steve and out on parole after convictions related to drugs, forgery, fraudulent credit-card purchases and receiving stolen goods.
His house was busy with girls and country boys, partying and hanging out, says Leslie. Steve called Walt a “cool cat.”
Leslie claimed Neally sold meth and, in fact, he later would be convicted of the crime.
She went to Neally’s to question him about Steve’s whereabouts, but no one would tell her anything. Neally said Steve had been expected at a birthday party Friday night but never showed. Someone else said they’d received a phone call from Steve on Saturday, but that was all the information Leslie could get.
Sherron’s worry mounted, but she didn’t panic until the fourth day when Steve’s probation officer stopped by Monday and said he’d missed an appointment.
That’s when Sherron called the police to report Steve missing.
A few weeks later, Cherokee County Sheriff’s investigators turned up at Sherron’s door. Officers had been by several times already asking questions. Now they had information.
They told Sherron they believed Steve had been planning to take part in a robbery at a gambling joint over in Cobb County on the night he went missing. They suspected he’d gotten killed along the way.
Sherron already assumed Steve was dead. He wouldn’t have been away so long without calling. But she felt some relief hearing they had figured out what happened. Still, she had trouble believing the circumstances. Steve hadn’t been a violent man.
And there was still one problem.
The detectives didn’t know where Steve’s body was.
Life in a border town
From the beginning, the investigation was difficult.
Unincorporated Acworth is something of a border town, covering a swath of north Georgia spanning Cobb, Cherokee and Bartow counties. The area has historically been populated by the working-class and transient.
But over time, the slow creep of Atlanta up I-75 has created an odd juxtaposition of rural Southern life and suburban developments.
Drive around today, and you’ll see ramshackle bungalows with porches piled high with junk and rebel flags sagging from the eaves near hulking estates planted on the shores of shimmering Lake Allatoona. You’ll see faded trailers in yards with sun-bleached kids’ toys and overgrown yards near brand-new subdivisions.
One area of unincorporated Acworth was of particular interest in Steve’s case. Some cops call it “The Mecca.”
The Mecca is around Third Army Road, off Old 41 Highway, in Bartow County. It’s near the lake, but on the other side from Sherron and Neally’s homes in Cherokee County. The road is lined with rusted industrial sites and dilapidated houses among towering pines.
The Mecca is rife with drug activity.
It’s a simple truth that areas near borders tend to be less-policed because it’s hard to know which agency is in charge.
“Acworth is a great example of that,” says Phil Price, commander of the Cherokee Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad. “You can be standing in Cherokee County, turn around and not realize it and be in Cobb or Bartow.”
Many of the people police wanted to question in Steve’s disappearance lived or hung around The Mecca. They were mostly poor, working-class whites with construction gigs and probation officers. People, in some ways at least, like Steve. It’s the kind of place where people go running out the back door when officers show up at the front asking questions.
But some did talk in Steve’s case.
Early on, investigators came across a woman who said she’d driven a car to Alabama, with what she thought was a shipment of drugs in the trunk. Later, she learned it might’ve been a body.
She couldn’t say. She told the police she parked the car in a garage and left without ever looking at the load.
That lead came up dry. It was possible she’d hauled a body, but if she did, police couldn’t find any evidence of it.
Walt Neally talked, too. At least in the beginning.
He said he knew nothing.
He also said things that turned out to be lies. In January 2005, a couple months after Steve disappeared, Neally, who was on parole, was charged with obstruction and making false statements that hindered the investigation.
If they were going to find out what happened to Steve, the police thought they needed to press Neally.
Enter Lt. Steve Edwards.
After 23 years with the Navy, Edwards, a barrel-chested man with a thick graying mustache, joined the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office in 1993. He quickly moved up to detective.
Everybody called him a “bulldog” because he was so relentless.
His drive had already helped close several cold case homicides. If anybody could get Neally to talk, it would be Edwards.
But Neally sat across the table from Edwards and said he wasn’t talking anymore. Instead, he said words the detective had never heard before: Put me back in prison, Neally told Edwards. I want to revoke my parole.
The detectives agreed. The questions stopped.
To Sherron, it looked like the police were letting people get away with murder. She couldn’t prove it, but she felt, at the very least, Neally knew what happened to Steve.
Through the years, various detectives at the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office have alternately called Neally a suspect and person of interest in Steve’s disappearance and presumed homicide.
But one theory has always prevailed: Walt Neally knew what happened to Steve.
And Neally wasn’t necessarily alone in that. Police think several people knew.
Sherron pounded the pavement, knocked on doors. She printed fliers and passed them out in public. She talked to her neighbors and asked if they knew anything. She stayed in frequent contact with the police. When she heard about human remains found anywhere in the Southeast, she called to find out if they were Steve’s.
She posted in online discussion forums, naming people she’d heard might know something about Steve’s disappearance, demanding someone to come forward. For a while, she enlisted the help of a private investigator.
Meanwhile, she endured grisly rumors circulating through the community about the beating and torture of her son. Word got around there were photos of his death being shared around town like it was a joke.
And she was haunted by the phone calls. The first one came about a week after Steve disappeared. Sherron listened as someone screamed and cried for help on the line while people laughed. She wondered if it was the sound of her son dying. Another caller told her to walk outside and she’d smell her first-born’s rotting body.
It’s hard to imagine how people can be so cruel, and why. One reason could be because Sherron was relentless.
She didn’t care who she offended. She wanted justice.
And maybe she got too close.
Photo: Leslie and Sherron look through a photo album in Leslie’s room at their Acworth home.
A bond in torment
Sherron and Leslie’s relationship had always been marred by disagreements and hurt feelings. Sherron says Jack favored Leslie over Steve, so Sherron compensated by favoring Steve over Leslie.
It was wrong, she knows now.
But mother and daughter found common ground in their pursuit of answers in Steve’s disappearance.
As impassioned as Sherron was in her search, Leslie was more so.
Leslie is small but tough. Growing up, she never wore dresses, preferring blue jeans and high-top sneakers. When it came to work, she gravitated toward professions like fixing cars and driving backhoes.
When Steve disappeared, something changed for Leslie. She got clean. She had a new obsession: Finding out what became of her brother.
Leslie collected tidbits of information in the case and catalogued them in a notebook. She made sure everybody knew she was looking. As the months drew on, her frustrations grew. She heard gruesome tales, one after the other. She communicated with the police regularly and gave them tips she’d gleaned. But she saw no progress in the case. She thought they weren’t trying hard enough.
In the early months of 2005, everything started to get to Leslie and her behavior grew more desperate.
She started sneaking in people’s homes as they slept and waking them up with a gun held to their faces. She made them think she would draw blood if they didn’t talk.
It isn’t clear how much the police knew of her methods, but Leslie says they warned her to calm down before something bad happened.
She didn’t listen.
One day in June 2005, Leslie and a male acquaintance drove a white Oldsmobile to a house in The Mecca. When she arrived, she saw Carrie Gentry, a woman Leslie was convinced knew what happened to Steve, seated in her car in the driveway. So Leslie pulled up behind Gentry’s car, blocking her in, and something sparked in her mind. She’d heard Carrie was among those who had pictures of her brother being tortured, beaten down to his hands and knees, burned by cigarettes and starved.
Leslie appeared at Carrie’s passenger’s-side window, a mere 5-foot-3, 115 pounds, holding a Smith & Wesson .38 loaded with five rounds.
She told Carrie they needed to talk.
Leslie got in the car and tossed Carrie’s keys into the woods. She told Carrie it was time someone made an example of her. Leslie called out to her acquaintance and told him to bring her something from the Oldsmobile.
Leslie wrapped it over Carrie’s hands, arms and eyes. Then she grabbed Carrie by the hair, led her to the trunk of the Oldsmobile and ordered her inside.
Before Leslie could decide what to do next, someone who witnessed the act dialed 911.
Deputies arrived to hear pounding and muffled shouts coming from the Oldsmobile trunk. The cops ordered Leslie and everyone else who’d gathered to lay face down in the yard.
The deputies popped the trunk and found Carrie, panicked and crying, inside.
Leslie spent a year in jail before agreeing to take a plea bargain. She was given 10 years in prison, 15 more on probation.
Sherron had already lost a son. Now a daughter.
But it did not deter her from continuing her search for Steve.
‘Where’s my son’s body?’
By 2008, police had interviewed some 70 people, written numerous search warrants, dug up yards, searched bodies of water, sent out dogs, looked in wells and been told at least 10 different stories about how Steve died. Half of those stories involved Neally.
Sherron befriended a woman whose adult son was missing in a separate case in Cartersville.
They got business cards printed with their sons’ pictures and the words, “Have you seen us?” They got licenses to carry handguns. Together they would question people. Sherron says her friend did most of the talking, recording conversations on a tiny microphone in her bra. Sherron waited in the car with a pistol in her lap, ready for the worst.
They went to Neally’s old neighborhood and spoke with neighbors. They’d heard Steve was killed at Neally’s house on Sundown Way, that blood covered the floor in the days after. But police said there was no direct evidence.
This was typical of Steve’s case: No direct evidence.
Sherron didn’t like most of the detectives. It seemed like they didn’t care.
But Steve Edwards, the bulldog, was different. Sherron didn’t know why Edwards cared so much, but she didn’t ask too many questions.
After she lost her son, many of her friends, relatives and fellow church members distanced themselves. But there was always Edwards.
He traded emails with her and called once in a while to ask if she wanted to take a ride. Together they visited sites around Acworth where the stories took them. They even went to Alabama. They never found anything significant, but the drives made Sherron feel they were at least trying.
As long as Edwards was on the case, she thought there was hope.
In 2009, at age 57, Edwards retired. He’d spent 16 years with the sheriff’s office and taken only one week off. Now he wanted to spend time with his family.
But Edwards couldn’t let Steve’s case go.
A newspaper reporter writing about Edwards’ retirement asked if any investigations still haunted him.
“The case of Stephen Lankester,” he replied.
Even after retirement, Edwards would call the sheriff’s office and ask if any tips had come in. He tried to run down leads remotely. And he tried to assure Sherron the case wasn’t cold.
Still, it all was getting to her.
She often woke in the night to the haunting dream of Steve coming to the house, begging: Help me, Momma.
Meanwhile, Neally, now freed from prison, was going about his life as he pleased.
Sherron fantasized about seeing him one day, what she would say and do.
And she grew more despondent all the time.
She thought of death, about hurling her body from a bridge onto the hard earth below and what comfort giving up might bring.
“I just sit, I don’t even get dressed anymore,” she told a reporter as the sixth anniversary of Steve’s disappearance approached.
One day in 2012, Sherron finally got the chance to find out what she would do if she encountered Neally.
She and a friend of Steve’s were returning from visiting Leslie at prison and had stopped at a gas station for cigarettes. Steve’s friend went in the store while Sherron waited in the car. When she returned, she told Sherron that Neally was inside the store.
The 67-year-old woman opened the glove box, reached inside and pulled out a loaded .38-caliber handgun.
For years, she had wondered how Neally could go on like he was. Did he know the torment she’d had been through? Did he know how badly she wanted to bring her son home, if only for a funeral?
Now he emerged from the store.
She called his name and invited him to her car window to talk. He didn’t come. She called again.
Walt, it would be in your best interest if you came over here and talked to me.
He relented and leaned down to the window. He must’ve seen the gun on her lap.
Where’s my son’s body at? Sherron asked.
I don’t know.
You know, I could kill you right where you stand.
Now, Mom, don’t talk like that.
Rage boiled in Sherron.
I’m not your mother, she spat. If I’d been your mom, I’d’ve killed you soon as you was born.
Thoughts of shooting him flashed in her mind. She wanted him to suffer the way she imagined Steve did.
But she didn’t shoot. She watched him walk away.
She doesn’t know why. Her best guess is that it was grace, that God made her stop, because it’s a sin to kill and hell is forever.
A few days later, Edwards, Sherron’s favorite detective, died in his home in Tennessee. She read about it in the paper.
She couldn’t help but think the case died with him.
Two years later, Neally returned to state prison for selling meth. Repeated attempts to get his side of the story have been fruitless.
Around the 10th anniversary of Steve’s disappearance, something changed for Sherron.
She decided the time had come to celebrate her son’s life. She planned an event at New Hope Baptist. She invited media and politicians. It turned out to be just friends and family, but that was OK. Members of her church came. For so long, Sherron had felt abandoned by them, like they’d forgotten Steve’s death. Now they shared her pain over his loss and her joy for memories of his life. A gospel group from Cartersville sang and everyone ate chili in the fellowship hall afterward.
A few days later, Sherron was back at her kitchen table talking about how beautiful the event was.
Sherron glowed, smiling. Her spirit seemed buoyant. She was ready to move on.
She was ready to try extracting some happiness from the life she had left.
Taste of freedom
Gospel plays on the Buick radio as Sherron pulls up to Metro Transitional Center on the south side of Atlanta. Her makeup is freshly applied, her hair recently coiffed. She wears a leopard and floral print blouse in shades of purple, pink and blue.
It is June 2015, nearly 10 years from the day Carrie Gentry lay panicked inside Leslie’s trunk. Today Leslie walks free.
Sherron is anxious. In a few moments, she and Leslie will be together again, like a normal mother and daughter. No more timed phone calls and conditional visits.
Waiting, Sherron smokes a cigarette and makes idle chit-chat, glancing over at the building’s entrance.
At 8:33 a.m., Leslie emerges. She wears blue jeans and a dark shirt with roses on her petite frame. Her brown hair is cut short. She looks both tired and relieved.
A smile grows wide on Sherron’s face as she stares across the parking lot at her daughter for a moment.
“Freeeeedom!” Sherron sings, walking toward Leslie.
They hug and pose for pictures. Moments later, they’re in the car driving home to Acworth.
“Got anything you wanna say to that prison back there?” Sherron asks Leslie.
“Kiss my ass!”
They both laugh.
In Acworth, Sherron pulls into a McDonald’s. Leslie opens the door and puts her feet on the ground. She looks out into the morning light as the sun washes over the parking lot and she watches people walk by.
The car radio plays Elvis Presley’s “In the Garden,” his low, moaning voice filling the car with the hymn.
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses…
Leslie ponders divine action. She wonders why it never occurred.
“I’ve prayed to God my whole time, ‘Just bring him home and I’ll leave it alone,’” she says. “I don’t know why that prayer wasn’t answered.”
But she says she isn’t mad anymore.
Those 10 years she lost in prison weren’t wasted. She grew closer with Sherron. She became a firefighter. And she stayed off meth. In a way, her brother’s disappearance saved her life.
Sherron seems as happy as she’s been in a decade.
They both know the future won’t be easy. They’ll have to adjust to being together again and hope their old difficulties don’t reappear. Leslie will have to adjust to freedom, conditional as it is with the years she still has on parole. She will have to try to find her place in society as an ex-convict, knowing that when the prison gates open, many doors swing much more slowly in this world.
They walk to the restaurant entrance, smiling, laughing — the picture of a mother and daughter excited to be together. It doesn’t matter right now that it took a death and a prison sentence to get them here.
Later they will go home and see Jack. Leslie will sleep in a real bed and wake up free. Sherron will wake up still with a son gone, but a daughter home.
In a meeting with her parole officer earlier this month, Leslie tested positive for marijuana and methamphetamine. She is serving 30 days in the Bartow County jail.
Sherron is worried about her daughter, terrified really.
Otherwise, things are better for Sherron. She now finds support and comfort at New Hope Baptist. And she’s thinking of holding another event in Steve’s honor, to spend a few hours with people who recognize her grief. Perhaps on the next anniversary of his disappearance.
With 12 years now gone, the sheriff’s office is still trying to solve the case. New detectives are lending fresh eyes to the evidence, officials say.
Sherron remains determined. She won’t let them give up.
ABOUT THE STORY
I met Sherron Lankester in 2013 while working for The Cherokee Tribune. Her son had been missing since 2004, and she felt abandoned and forgotten by friends, family, police and the media. Over the next three years, I researched her son’s disappearance and spent numerous hours with Sherron. We went to church together and to prison. I tried to understand how she gets through the torment life has handed her. As sad as it is, her story is one of resilience and love.
ABOUT THE REPORTER
Joshua Sharpe is a local news reporter covering DeKalb County for the AJC. He’s a native of Waycross, and his work has appeared in newspapers and magazines around the state and in Florida. Before joining the AJC, he worked for The Cherokee Tribune and the Gwinnett Daily Post, winning awards for feature and news writing. He lives in Decatur.
ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian US, Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years.