Written by Staff Writer by Becca Tiller, CNN
A headstone honoring the youngest person killed in Atlanta’s infamous 1968 serial child murders has been unveiled at a quiet granite spot in front of a church in the city’s south side.
Denise Shepherd, aged just nine-years-old, was found dead in a home in Kernersville, North Carolina, in February 1968, and was the youngest of eight children to be killed in the killings.
Her headstone and private memorial service was held at the Hopewell Baptist Church in Atlanta Saturday, commemorating her legacy.
A litany of names
Her mother, Rosalie Trotter, read the litany of Denise’s friends and relatives in front of the congregation at the ceremony: Penny, 7, who was the youngest of the group to be killed; Tim, 10, and Tommy, 11, both of whom survived; Tom, 14, who arrived late; Harold, 15, who got off the bus late; Allan, 15, who was a little late; and Marvin, 16, who came on the bus late.
Denise Shepherd’s mother Rosalie Trotter speaks about her daughter on the eve of her headstone’s unveiling. Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET
There was also the third of the children to die, Barbara Denise Sykes, 23, who was seven-years-old.
A lifelong advocate for victims’ rights and a Member of the Alabama Child Reparations Commission, Shepherd was just nine years old when she was killed. She was found dead by her mother in the front room of a home where she and her friends lived.
Later, a serial killer was named as one of the people who killed Shepherd and her friends. Now only four of the eight victims remain–Her cousin, Carol Dyer, as well as Bonnie Fain, Julie Johnson and Carol Morgan. Shepherd’s name was added to the list of suspects after a witness reported seeing a man with red hair ride past their home during the same time Denise was killed.
A few years later, William Sherry was arrested and taken into custody, but his case was never solved.
“All the kids, they remembered her and said she was special, ‘that black woman, that black girl,’ and they really liked her,” Shepherd’s cousin, Dyer, told CNN. “There was nothing we could do. The only thing we could do was pray and keep her alive in our memory.”
Dyer said after Shepherd’s death, her grandmother, Rosalie Trotter, transformed the basement of their small home into a memorial to the children killed by Sherry.
Trotter, Shepherd’s mother, remained by her daughter’s side during the years following her death. She died in 2011.
In the days leading up to Denise’s monument unveiling, a memorial garden to the victims was unveiled at the Hopewell Baptist Church. The headstone will now sit in front of the garden, where people who came to remember Shepherd can walk past it and recognize her by name.
“This means everything to me,” Dyer told CNN, standing on the red carpet outside the church on Saturday afternoon, where a modest crowd of friends and family had gathered. “To have a headstone now means everything.”
However, despite the family’s constant struggle to identify victims, to attend the funerals of their murdered children, to attain justice, Dyer said she is confident the people who murdered Denise will never be found.
“(Trotter) never stopped praying to God because she knew there were people out there that were looking for her,” she said. “There were people in Atlanta who were looking for Denise. They knew where Denise was. They knew the case. They were out looking for Denise.”
That said, Dyer was just in time to witness a miracle. In June this year, Judy Stephens, 64, was arrested and charged with Denise’s murder.
But even though Stephens is in custody, Dyer, Shepherd’s cousin, remained steadfast in her belief that the child killer was not someone who would be caught.