On Sunday, January 3, 1999, at around 6:30 p.m., Paula Merchant left her Forest Acres, South Carolina, home. The 25-year-old informed her parents that she would be returning home in a few hours to attend a meeting at a nearby church. Her 1989 Nissan Sentra was discovered, abandoned and burned, at 12:23 am on Monday. She never made it to the church. When Paula’s parents learned of the discovery at three in the morning, they filed a missing person’s report right away.
Two months prior, Paula had relocated from Atlanta to her parents’ Forest Acres home. Having recently earned her anthropology degree from Georgia State University, she was looking for employment in South Carolina. Her parents couldn’t fathom who would have wanted to hurt her, and she hadn’t experienced any issues with anyone since returning to the area.
That Sunday night, Paula, who had been clean from heroin addiction, was headed to Christ Unity Church for a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Since moving into her parents’ house just before Thanksgiving, she had regularly attended meetings and had made a commitment to stay sober.
Later on, Paula’s brother Darrell told reporters that he thought Paula’s drug use was a result of her migraines. She suffered from migraines her entire life, and they were quite severe. Most of the time, she would need to visit the hospital, and the doctors would tell her there was nothing more they could do. I believe she was able to find solace for her suffering.
Reporters were informed by Forest Acres Police Chief Gene Sealy that the case was being handled like a kidnapping and that he was concerned for Paula’s safety. This isn’t your typical case of a missing person. One becomes a little more concerned when they discover someone’s car burned.
Paula’s car was discovered by a worker at the Seaco asphalt plant in Columbia, South Carolina, who had detected smoke and quickly gone for a walk to try to find the source. Paula’s car keys and purse were inside the burning Nissan that he discovered across the street from the Owens Field airport, but Paula was nowhere to be seen.
Reporters were informed by Forest Acres Police Detective Mike Robinson that they were dealing with arson. “The fire was started on purpose. Fuel of some kind was discovered both inside and outside the vehicle. It was acknowledged by Chief Sealy that the investigators had little information. It’s really perplexing. There aren’t many leads available at the moment. Our car is all we have, and it has burned.
Approximately twenty police officers searched the neighborhood where Paula’s car was discovered in an attempt to discover any information regarding her whereabouts. They looked in drainage ditches, wooded areas, and fields as well as beside railroad tracks. Nothing connected to Paula’s disappearance was discovered despite the State Department of Natural Resources using their helicopter to conduct an aerial search of the area.
Investigators conducted interviews with locals and workers while scouring the Rosewood neighborhood and the nearby industrial park, handing out flyers for missing persons. On Sunday night, none of them had heard anything out of the ordinary.
On Tuesday, the search was extended by the investigators, who distributed flyers for missing persons throughout Forest Acres and Columbia. In an attempt to get some insight into Paula’s mental state in the days preceding her disappearance, they requested assistance from the Atlanta Police Department in interviewing Paula’s Georgian friends.
Crime Stoppers announced as the investigation moved into its second week that they were offering a $1,000 reward for information that resulted in Paula’s safe return or in the identification, detention, and conviction of the person responsible for her disappearance.
On Monday, January 11, 1999, Paula’s parents, Darrell and Irma Merchant, attended a press conference regarding the case. Though they were too distraught to talk to the media, Forest Grove Police Chaplain Eric Skidmore read a prepared statement on their behalf. “Her family is looking to the community for assistance in finding information that will bring Paula back safely to them. Her disappearance is both heartbreaking and puzzling.”
The total reward pool was increased to $6,000 when a local businessman declared he would pay an additional $5,000 for information that would lead to Paula’s location. Investigators hoped that the promise of a monetary reward would entice some fresh leads.
Police displayed images of Paula’s Nissan and a special oval silver ring that she was wearing when she was last seen at a press conference on January 22, 1999. Chief Sealy hoped that someone would be prompted by the photos to remember something, and then come forward with information to help with the investigation. “Paula was seen by someone the night she vanished, and they can assist us in finding her.”
Reporters were informed by Chief Sealy that Paula’s parents were still too distraught to discuss their daughter’s disappearance in public. “The family is still in shock and extremely upset. Her mother says she still has hope that Paula will show up at the door someday.
The reward was raised to $9,000 three weeks after Paula was last seen because authorities were having trouble finding any strong leads in her disappearance. Investigators had pursued over 100 tips, according to Chief Sealy, but none of them had brought them any closer to Paula. In the days after Paula vanished, there had been multiple reports of sightings of her, he noted, but “we’ve not been able to confirm some of the information because of lack of details.” We require an address, a street number, or better locations.
It wasn’t an easy task for detectives to speak with the people who frequently attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings with Paula because many of the attendees preferred to stay anonymous. “I don’t think they really wanted us there, but there were quite a good number of people who were cooperative,” Detective Bryant Hinson subsequently said.
Georgian friends were shocked to hear of Paula’s disappearance and became aware that she was missing. Paula had been a student at DeKalb College since March 1995. She transferred to Georgia State University in June 1996. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology there in August 1999 after graduating from Georgia State, where she frequently made the dean’s list and finished her final semester with a 4.0 GPA. She was a quiet, industrious young lady who was never troublesome.
Paula had been a good tenant, according to her former landlord Keith Harp, who also told investigators that there had never been any complaints or requests for repairs from her. She had several boyfriends and a large group of friends.I sincerely hope they discover something.
Paula’s former landlord was among the many people who knew her but were unaware of her history with heroin use. Although she was able to conceal it well, she had developed the habit while residing in Atlanta. Before her parents realized what was happening and persuaded her that she needed to get help, she had been using the drug for approximately a year.
Investigators stated that they had not found any evidence connecting Paula’s disappearance to her occasional drug use. “It seems like someone was acting hastily, in a panic, trying to cover their tracks, which makes it seem like a random act,” forensic psychologist Harold Morgan observed. In addition, he emphasized that Paula had only recently moved to South Carolina and had no known ties to the drug trade in Columbia.
Irma made her first public remarks regarding her daughter’s disappearance in March 1999. Reporters were informed by her that she hardly ever left her home, preferring to keep an eye on her phone in case Paula called. “Until she returns home, nothing will complete the family. Kids are treasures. I wish we could have had her for a lot longer, but we don’t know how long we can keep them.”
Irma claimed that her daughter had always been an animal lover and that the family had decided to get a dog just before she vanished. After selecting a beagle puppy, Paula gave her the name Anna. The family had to wait a few weeks before they could pick up the puppy because it was still too young to be taken from its mother. “Paula had already left when they called.”
Chief Sealy acknowledged that the investigation had reached a dead end, but Forest Acres detectives were still actively working the case. “We continue to receive occasional calls, but nothing significant. We have exhausted all leads, but to no avail. He claimed that despite the department devoting thousands of hours to the investigation, not a single lead regarding Paula’s whereabouts had been discovered.
Paula’s family was becoming more and more frantic by September 1999 to find out what had happened to her. Reporters were informed by Irma that the family had scheduled a day of prayer for September 3, 1999. If only you could take a moment to yourself, not only for Paula but for everyone who is missing…Although it would be great to have you there, we really appreciate your prayers and thoughts for that day.
The investigation was inactive for several months. Paula’s family declared in October 2000 that they were raising the reward for information to $25,000. To ensure that everyone in the Columbia area knew about the new reward, over 35,000 flyers were handed out. Paula’s parents begged anyone who knew what had happened to their daughter to come forward because they were positive that someone in the neighborhood knew.
In the summer of 2001, Paula’s information was displayed on five billboards in Columbia. Time passed, but Irma never gave up hope that Paula would turn up alive. “I don’t give up hope yet. We have faith in God. He continues to watch out for Paula.
Investigators looked into the possibility in 2002 that Paula’s disappearance might have been connected to Reinaldo Rivera, who was found guilty in 2000 of killing four women in Augustus, Georgia. Despite his South Carolina education and familiarity with the Columbia region, investigators were unable to uncover any evidence connecting him to Paula’s case. Reinaldo listed his victims in a suicide note he wrote before being arrested, but Paula’s name was not one of them.
Paula’s whereabouts remained a mystery for many years to come. Detective Hinson said they had not found any conclusive evidence to support the theory that her drug use contributed to her disappearance. “A lot of people struggle here, with drugs or emotional issues, but that doesn’t change the fact that she was a lovely young woman, twenty-five years old, with her entire life ahead of her, and it was obviously taken from her.”
In 2017, the investigation was taken over by Richland County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Kevin Eisenhoward. “Somebody knows something about it, somebody’s feeling guilty about it if they have any soul,” he said to reporters. Lt. Eisenhoward said he thought Paula had been murdered, even though there was no evidence of foul play.
Paula’s case remained with Detective Hinson even after he left the police force. “It’s the one case in my career that has really stuck with me over the years because it’s the one that I really wanted to be resolved so the Merchant family could have some closure.”