Mystery surrounds death of Kentucky woman found burned in South Carolina ditch

Mystery death: Kentucky woman found severely burned in South Carolina ditch

CHESTER COUNTY, S.C. — The loved ones of a Kentucky woman whose charred body was found in a South Carolina ditch in late September remain in limbo, awaiting word on what led to her death and who was responsible for her ghastly end.

Melissa Irene Whitis, 31, of Somerset, was last heard from Sept. 14 by her father, Larry Farris. Farris contacted WSOC in Charlotte last week, hoping to spread the word about his daughter’s killing and help detectives get some answers as to how she died and ended up dumped alongside a road hundreds of miles from home.

“They need to catch this monster that’s responsible for this and make him pay for it,” Farris told the news station.

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Farris, of Lexington, Kentucky, said the last time he heard his daughter’s voice, she was calling him from somewhere near the Virginia/North Carolina border. She left him a message asking for money.

He tried to call her back, but there was no answer, WSOC reported. Farris said Whitis’ family has no idea why she was in South Carolina, though she was known to travel from state to state.

It remains unclear, however, at what stop in her final trip she was slain. Whitis’ stepmother, Kathryn Farris, told WKYT in Lexington that her stepdaughter was a good person who, in the last year or so, had been leading a “troubled life.”

“She called from different areas,” Kathryn Farris told WKYT. “She left a message saying she was in Virginia, Pennsylvania.”

Whitis was last seen Sept. 17 at a Walmart near Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the news station reported. Authorities said she is believed to have been wearing yellow pants and a gray overcoat, with her hair pulled back in a knit cap or toboggan.

She was also wearing a knee brace, according to investigators.

Around 11:30 a.m. Sept. 20, a passerby found the body of a woman in a ditch 130 miles away in Chester County, South Carolina. Burned grass around the body indicated it had been set ablaze where it was found.

See WSOC’s report below about the day Whitis’ body was found.

According to the Chester County Sheriff’s Office, the body was so severely burned, they could not identify the woman through either fingerprints or DNA analysis, according to CN2 News in Rock Hill, South Carolina

Investigators were able to make public several distinguishing characteristics, including multiple facial tattoos and tattoos found on other areas of the body.

On the woman’s right foot was a tattoo of the names Ethan and Emily, according to investigators.

Those are the names of two of Whitis’ four children, according to her obituary.

WSOC reported there was no missing persons report to tie the body to, however, and Whitis had no known ties to Chester County. Without someone to step forward and identify the tattoos, the case stalled.

Chester County Sheriff Max Dorsey told the CN2 News his detectives eventually turned to a medical implant -- a shunt in the dead woman’s skull -- to identify her.

“They were able to trace that device to its manufacturer in Switzerland. It appears the device was manufactured sometime in 2012 and was shipped to various hospitals throughout the United States,” Dorsey told CN2 News.

Over several weeks, they ultimately were able to trace the shunt to Frankfurt, Kentucky, and to Whitis.

Pictured is a tattoo found on the foot of a woman whose burned body was found in a ditch near Richburg, S.C., the morning of Sept. 20, 2019. The tattoos, along with a shunt in the victim’s head, helped detectives identify her as Melissa Irene Whitis, 31, of Somerset, Ky. Whitis, a mother of four, was last seen alive Sept. 17 at a Walmart near Winston-Salem, N.C.
Pictured is a tattoo found on the foot of a woman whose burned body was found in a ditch near Richburg, S.C., the morning of Sept. 20, 2019. The tattoos, along with a shunt in the victim’s head, helped detectives identify her as Melissa Irene Whitis, 31, of Somerset, Ky. Whitis, a mother of four, was last seen alive Sept. 17 at a Walmart near Winston-Salem, N.C. (Chester County Sheriff's Office)

Dorsey told the news station Whitis had no apparent ties to Chester County and it was unclear what, or who, brought her there.

The sheriff pointed out that she left behind much family in Kentucky.

“She has a mother and a father that are still alive, and she has children,” Dorsey told CN2 News. “That’s what makes this even more tragic. She was someone that was cared for and she cared for other people.”

Larry Farris told WKYT nothing could have prepared him for the call telling him his daughter was dead.

“‘Are you sitting down?’” Larry Farris quoted the caller as saying. “I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Melissa is gone. Found her in a South Carolina ditch.’”

Whitis’ exact cause of death has not been made public. Investigators have also refrained from saying if there are any persons of interest in the case.

Farris said he understands he is probably annoying the Chester County investigators with his frequent inquiries, but the grieving father told WSOC he will not stop until the person who killed his daughter is caught.

“This is all that’s been on my mind, on the family’s mind,” Farris told the news station. “It’s like we’re just walking around in a daze.”

According to her obituary, Whitis was a Lexington native who graduated from Pulaski County High School in 2006. She was a student at Somerset Community College when she died.

“She enjoyed cooking, baking with her daughter Emily, going to cookouts and get-togethers and shopping,” her obituary said. “Most of all, Melissa loved her children.”

Whitis’ husband, Clifton Whitis Jr., pleaded for help in a comment on the Chester County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page.

“Chester County, help us out finding Melissa’s killer,” Clifton Whitis wrote. “She is the mother of my two kids, Ethan and Emily, and she has two other kids, Skyler and Sophia. We really need justice. Thank you.”

Larry Farris told WKYT whoever killed his daughter will pay.

“She didn’t deserve this. Nobody deserves to die like this,” he told the station.

The burned body of Melissa Irene Whitis, 31, of Somerset, Ky., was found in a ditch near Richburg, S.C., the morning of Sept. 20, 2019. Her death remains unsolved as of Jan. 6, 2020.
The burned body of Melissa Irene Whitis, 31, of Somerset, Ky., was found in a ditch near Richburg, S.C., the morning of Sept. 20, 2019. Her death remains unsolved as of Jan. 6, 2020. (Chester County Sheriff's Office)