Beth-Ellen Vinson, Rick Heath, lie detectors and cold cases

The Beth-Ellen Vinson case has been getting some renewed attention lately, 20 years after the disappearance and murder. Here’s what happened:

Vinson left her apartment near North Carolina State University around 2:30 a.m. the morning of Aug. 16, 1994, and three hours later, police found her white 1990 Mazda 626 in front of a car dealership at 2501 Capital Blvd.

The driver’s door was open. The motor was still running, and the radio was still on. Police found her shoe on the floor on the driver’s side.

Seven days later, a factory manager found Vinson’s body a half-mile from the car lot between two warehouses near Atlantic Avenue.

She had been stabbed multiple times.

For a long time, one of the primary suspects seemed to be Rick Heath, her live-in boyfriend at the time. Heath even failed a polygraph test, which is a seeming red flag. Not so fast, though:

In the legal system, polygraph results are not admissible in court, and they are often not enough to convince prosecutors to file charges against a suspect. That was the case in the 1994 unsolved murder of Beth Ellen Vinson in Raleigh. Her live-in boyfriend, Rick Heath, failed a polygraph test. The lead investigator wanted Heath arrested, but he couldn’t convince the district attorney.

Other investigators on the case said Heath’s emotions got in the way of the test.

“Yes, he failed a polygraph,” said retired Raleigh police investigator John Lynch. “The emotions he was going through didn’t make him a good subject for a polygraph.”

But Rozzi said stress is factored in.

The real, likely, situation here is tied to the fact that Vinson worked for an escort service off and on; on the night she disappeared, she was headed to meet a client at Innkeeper Motel off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh. It took the police a couple of months, but they finally determined she never met the client — the reason it took a couple of months is because said client had been in a 24-hour cycle of drinking, drugs and ordering prostitutes, and he was unclear (couldn’t recall) if he had ever met Beth-Ellen Vinson. Finally it was determined she never made it to Innkeeper, which means she met with harm somewhere between her and Heath’s house (Avent Ferry Road) and Capital Boulevard (her car was found by a service road there, and her right shoe was on the floorboard — potentially indicating some type of struggle).

Her body was eventually found less than one mile from where the car was found.

This case seems a little bit similar to the Paige Birgfeld case in Colorado, which also has an abandoned car (in Birgfeld’s case, it was on fire), a body discovered (although in Birgfeld’s case it was years later), and — well, the central difference is that Birgfeld’s case has a major suspect, that being Lester Ralph Jones. This case doesn’t appear to have a leading suspect.

If you look at the relatively short distances between some of the places Beth-Ellen Vinson traveled that night, it seems most likely that she either (a) made another appointment to “dance/escort,” perhaps off-book, and that appointment was the wrong person for her to run into, or (b) she ran into someone and this was a random act of violence. She had only been in the general Raleigh area for about six months at the time that all this happened, so it’s doubtful it was someone she knew — unless, of course, Rick Heath is somehow involved (I honestly don’t think he is; I think lie detectors as a concept are kind of a total mess because of how human stress levels work).

Cold cases do get solved 20-30 years on, albeit rarely, so let’s hope something happens with this one.

Generalized area in which she traveled:

Ted Bauer