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KCSO arrests Lugoff man in Rabon murder

Posted: March 1, 2014 4:35 p.m.
Updated: March 3, 2014 5:00 a.m.

A Lugoff man is in custody for allegedly sexually assaulting and then strangling 18-year-old Briana Rabon to death nearly a week ago. Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews announced Friday night that investigators had arrested Stephen Ross Kelly, 21, of Leslie Branham Road, Lugoff. Kelly is charged with murder, kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct. During a press conference Saturday morning at the Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), Matthews said Kelly is investigators’ only suspect.

“This past week has been a tough week for Kershaw County,” Matthews said, “but yesterday, things took a turn for the better.”

Matthews revealed that a search warrant allowed investigators to examine Kelly’s late model dark colored Chevy Impala that, along with other evidence from where Rabon’s body was discovered, tied Kelly to her murder.

“We think sometime late Tuesday night (Feb. 25) … Briana Rabon was brutally murdered and her body was left in a wooded area behind the Haigs Creek subdivision,” Matthews said.

Haigs Creek is located south of Elgin off White Pond Road not far from I-20. Later Saturday, after the press conference, Matthews explained to the C-I that the spot where three teenagers discovered Rabon’s body Wednesday afternoon is in a wooded area just beyond the northeast edge of the subdivision off a dirt trail following a set of power lines.

Matthews said he believes Kelly lives with his parents on Leslie Branham Road, a few miles north of that crime scene. He also said Kelly worked at a northeast Richland County restaurant.

Matthews declined to go into any details about the alleged sexual assault. He also declined to speak of exactly how Kelly allegedly strangled Rabon. He said the two were acquaintances, having both attended Lugoff-Elgin High School (L-EHS), but that they were not boyfriend and girlfriend.

He said part of the evidence leading KCSO investigators to Kelly was collected by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).

“They have an excellent crime scene unit. Chief (Mark) Keel has been very gracious; every time we’ve asked, he sends them as quickly as he can,” Matthews said. “From about 4:30 until 11:30 on Wednesday night, the SLED crime scene unit was processing the scene -- actually two separate scenes -- in the wooded area. They made photographs and impressions of tire prints … and they also processed the scene around Ms. Rabon’s body.”

Matthews later explained that where investigators found the tire prints and where Rabon’s body was discovered are approximately 50 yards apart.

He said while the scene was being processed, Rabon’s mother came into KSCO headquarters to report her daughter missing. During that report, she described Rabon’s car -- a red Ford Focus that investigators soon found at a restaurant near the I-20/U.S. 601 interchange. Investigators moved the car to KCSO headquarters where SLED agents later processed it as well.

Friday night, Matthews described the investigation as an “emotional rollercoaster,” with leads looking good and then panning out. Among those ups and downs were surveillance videos from both the restaurant where Rabon’s car was found and surrounding businesses.

“We initially thought we had (a different) person of interest. We thought we had video footage at the (restaurant) of Briana and a white male subject, but it turned out not to be her. That lead turned out to be a dead end for us,” Matthews said during the press conference. “As the investigation progressed for the next couple of days, things started to look a little better. We were able to look at some additional surveillance film from some businesses around the area and in the neighborhood that was adjacent to where Ms. Rabon’s body was found.”

That, ultimately, led investigators to identify the Impala as belonging to Kelly.

“Our investigators obtained a search warrant for that vehicle, and, yesterday, went to Mr. Kelly’s residence, seized the vehicle and told him they would like to speak to him here at the sheriff’s department,” Matthews said.

He said Kelly was not arrested at that time, but voluntarily came in to be interviewed where he was read his Miranda rights.

“During that interview, his story changed several times about where he was that day, although he did admit he was with Briana Rabon. I think that once he realized that he was getting caught in his lies, he asked to have an attorney present,” Matthews said, adding that he did know the attorney’s name.

Meanwhile, SLED’s forensics unit had processed Kelly’s Impala at KCSO headquarters finding what Matthews described as “considerable evidence” linking him to the crime scene. At that point, Kelly was arrested and taken to the Kershaw County Detention Center where he is awaiting a bond hearing.

Asked later how certain he is that Kelly is responsible for Rabon’s murder, Matthews answered, “100 percent confident. Obviously, he’s innocent until proven guilty and we still have to prove our case in court, but I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.”

He said he believes there is a term of court this week. It is, therefore, possible that Kelly could face a judge as early as today. Matthews said he will be in that courtroom.

“And I will ask the judge to deny him bond. I think it would be good for the community to come out to this bond hearing as well. When the courtroom is packed with people who don’t want to see somebody like him out, I think the judge would be a little bit hesitant to set a low bond and allow him back out onto the streets. We don’t need that,” he said.

In addition to the search warrant for Kelly’s car, Matthews said the KCSO is attempting to obtain search warrants for Kelly’s phone and to obtain his DNA. Friday, he said that SLED was processing DNA and fingerprint evidence from Rabon’s car.

“The majority of the evidence was in (Kelly’s) vehicle. In Briana’s vehicle, SLED removed some items for processing and we do not have the results back,” he said during the press conference. “Everything will help solidify the case. It’s a big puzzle; we have to find the pieces and we have to put them together. Anything that we can put together -- DNA, hair, fibers, fingerprints, other physical evidence -- will help build this case.”

The sheriff said that Kelly’s attorney has not allowed investigators to speak to their client. That, plus additional evidence to process, means there are still unanswered questions.

“We still have loose ends to tie up,” Matthews said when stating that investigators believe Rabon’s murder took place late on the night of Feb. 25. “We do not know if she was killed someplace else and brought there at this point. The crime scene did not have any indication of a struggle taking place there.”

While Matthews confirmed that Rabon and Kelly met at the restaurant near I-20 in Lugoff, why they did so is still a mystery. He said there is no surveillance footage in the KCSO’s possession showing that they went inside the restaurant. However, cameras at a nearby gas station provided helpful surveillance images, Matthew said, but that he did not know whether it showed Rabon and Kelly together.

The biggest mystery, perhaps, is why Kelly killed Rabon.

“We have no motive,” Matthews said.

This is not the first time deputies have arrested Kelly, something that actually helped identify him as a possible suspect in this case. Matthews confirmed that in July 2013, deputies arrested Kelly in connection with a stolen truck that was recovered from a location near the spot where several young people discovered Rabon’s body Wednesday.

According to online court documents, Kelly pled guilty in November to receiving stolen goods valued at $10,000 or more. A circuit court judge sentenced him to five years in prison, suspended to 133 days served and three years probation. The judge also ordered him to pay $1,000 in restitution and not to have any contact with the victim or their property.

Matthews said you would have to have knowledge of the area where Rabon’s body was found to locate the site.

“The fact that the (stolen truck) was found there just kind of reinforced the idea that he knew that particular area because he’d been there before,” he said.

Three teenagers discovered Rabon’s body around 3 p.m. Wednesday after having left school early due to rumors of a bomb threat at L-EHS. Rabon graduated from the school in 2013. L-EHS’ school resource officer determined that some graffiti found on one of the buildings was of an unthreatening nature. Rumors grew anyway that there was a bomb threat, causing some parents to take their children out of school early.

Social media played two roles in this case. On one hand, Matthews said, a lot of people in the community offered both support and tips they hoped would help investigators. However, some of what happened online was not helpful.

“This morning we were notified by the (school district) that there was a tweet, I think -- I’m not sure -- that we had made three arrests,” Matthews said Friday.

He said he believes some young people made up the rumor that named three people, one a female that had some “bad blood” with Rabon and got two male subjects to kill her. Matthews said his investigators had to “wade through all this stuff” in order to find the legitimate tips that led to Kelly.

“It hinders progress. If people are really concerned … then they need to zip it up a bit and not be so quick to spread rumors. It does not help,” Matthews said about this and any other case.

In addition, someone managed to take and share a picture of the crime scene after Rabon’s body was discovered, but before deputies arrived.

“Someone took a picture of the crime scene area, including Briana Rabon’s body,” Matthews said Friday. “I haven’t seen the picture; I’m not sure how close up it was, but it was very disrespectful and hurtful to her family. We know who did it and they’ve been talked to, but there’s no criminal (element) about it -- it’s just about having common courtesy and being respectful.”

The sheriff praised both SLED and his own investigators for working the case quickly, but thoroughly. He said a total of nine KCSO investigators -- including three narcotics agents who volunteered to help -- worked the case.

“SLED did a magnificent job processing the crime scene,” Matthews said. “It is a meticulous, time consuming, painstaking process. I was there throughout the investigation at the scene of the crime and a little bit when they processed his vehicle. And it goes without saying that our investigators did one heck of a job.”

He said his “heart was warmed” by his investigators dropping everything to work on the Rabon case and that they spent a lot of time “going around, looking for leads, going into businesses, trying to obtain surveillance footage” which they then had to review.

Matthews also revealed Friday that he asked for the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) assistance in the case and that they readily agreed. Saturday, he said the KCSO needed the FBI’s help in a particular area, but declined to explain the nature of that assistance.

“They have some capabilities that we don’t have in this state,” he said.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department also helped, Matthews said, but did not elaborate.

The sheriff also talked about the impact of the tragedy on both the Rabon and Kelly families.

“Two families were devastated,” he said. “Obviously, the Rabon family was; they lost a daughter, a sister taken needlessly from a cruel act by Stephen Kelly. I have to say that his family must be devastated as well. They lost one of their sons in a tragic ATV accident, so they’ve gone through a lot as well. Nobody wins in this.”

In June 2011, Kelly’s 11-year-old brother was killed when his ATV went off the side of Green Hill Road and struck an embankment, overturning on him.

Matthews said he spoke to both of Rabon’s parents after learning of Kelly’s arrest and that both sounded relieved.

In addition to the truck theft case, online court records also show that deputies arrested Kelly in June 2013 on a first offense charge of criminal domestic violence and a charge that covers either malicious injury to animals or personal property between $2,000 and $10,000 in value. While the malicious injury charge is listed as being dismissed, Kelly requested a jury trial for the criminal domestic violence charge. Matthews said Kelly allegedly beat up his girlfriend.

That trial is still pending.

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