"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" — Clarence the Angel, "It's A Wonderful Life."
THOMASTON — Johnnie Hay was 11 the last time she saw her older sister, Cheryl.
"She had told us she was leaving to go with the fair; she had met someone, we didn't know who," she said.
For 39 years, Hay, her other sister Lynn Johnson and their mother, Kathleen, wondered what had become of 18-year-old Cheryl, who vanished in 1981 after leaving the family home in Thomaston for a job at the fair.
"She would call us three to four times a week," Johnson said. "The last time we heard from her, she said she had met someone and was going to Texas. She expected to be home by Christmas and said to put something under the tree for her."
Recently, Johnson, Hay and their mother finally got the answers to their lifelong question: Where is Cheryl?
They discovered she was buried in Brooks County, an unknown murder victim beneath a headstone inscribed "Known Only to God." The Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Thursday that Cheryl was Brooks County's "Jane Doe."
Shirlene "Cheryl" Hammack had been stabbed and strangled; her body was found near a cornfield in the Brooks County town of Dixie. George Newsome, a 52-year-old fair employee, confessed to her murder and was sentenced to life in prison, dying behind bars in 1988 without ever giving up her name — whether deliberately or from ignorance, authorities do not know.
Rather than allow her to be buried anonymously in an unmarked grave, a Brooks County family arranged for her to be buried in their family's cemetery plot with a headstone.
Hay described her sister, Cheryl, as a "free spirit" who did things her own way. Their parents were divorced, but there were no big fights or issues hanging over the family, she said.
Johnson, the middle sister who was 17 when Cheryl disappeared, said she vividly recalls her sister's love of cooking.
"I always got the outdoor chores, but Cheryl liked to cook," she said. "I especially remember her pork chops.
"She had only been gone three to four months when we figure (the murder) happened," she said.
When Cheryl hadn't called in for a week, the family suspected something was wrong. Then her mother received Cheryl's wallet in the mail with her driver's license but with no return address.
"Mom went to the sheriff's office to file a missing person's report," Hay said. "They checked in with us a few times to see if she was still missing."
Johnson said she was always "wondering what Cheryl was doing, if she was alive." Hay said she always felt that something had happened and that her oldest sister was dead.
"We were a close family," she said. "She would have contacted us."
Occasionally people would claim they had seen or heard from Cheryl, but none of the "sightings" panned out, Hay said.
"It was tough growing up with a missing sister," she said.
The break in the case of the missing sister came in 2018 when a woman walked into the Brooks County Sheriff's Office after seeing a website posting about the case and said she might have been Cheryl's childhood friend. This led to a series of events resulting in the exhumation of the "Jane Doe" remains in Brooks County and extensive DNA testing that put a proper name to the missing girl — Shirlene "Cheryl" Hammack.
A repeat trip to the sheriff's office in Thomaston found that somehow Cheryl had fallen off the missing persons list over the years, possibly when the department moved from paper records to electronic files, Hay said.
The sisters and their mother have been down to Brooks County to see Cheryl's grave. Johnson said they plan to have Cheryl brought home to Thomaston for reburial.
"When we first saw the grave, we still weren't sure it was Cheryl," she said. "We put flowers on the grave and said 'If it isn't her, then the flowers are for whoever is buried there.'"
Terry Richards is senior reporter at The Valdosta Daily Times.