In the midst of debates regarding film incentives, it’s sometimes easy forget that the local film community is more than just an industry; rather, it’s a family. Much like the onslaught of love and compassion seen this past month with the Slates for Sarah campaign, in memory of Sarah Elizabeth Jones, camaraderie once again shines through in Wilmington—this time in the ongoing search for Shannon Rippy Vannewkirk.
Vannewkirk, former production coordinator at Screen Gems Studios, was last seen on Saturday, April 5th, entering The Husk Bar in downtown Wilmington at around 7 p.m. Her family became suspicious whenever she missed her birthday celebration on Sunday. Having left her presents outside the front door of her home, their concerns were confirmed whenever the gifts were still there on Monday upon their return. Shannon was missing.
What’s transpired since has been truly miraculous. Citizens from all walks of life in the port city have rallied together in search of the 54-year-old woman. Those who know her all describe her as vivacious and one-of-kind. They beam with fond recollections as they discuss the strong woman they hope to see return. Beginning with a search party organized at Delphina Dos on April 8th, flyers, social-media sharing, and dialogue regarding her whereabouts have spread like wildfire. Headed by Joyce Fernando, many have donated their time and efforts.
“I phoned over 40 mutual friends and acquaintances, and then talked with officers at the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) [about] getting a search team together,” Fernando details. “Since that first day, we have covered most all of New Hanover County including the beaches and into Pender and Brunswick counties and beyond.”
They took the flyers and pictures door-to-door. Some people even combed ditches and areas where they feared she may have been hurt or injured. Members of the film community have aided the investigation during breaks on 12- to 15-hour shoots. Even people who didn’t know Vannewkirk personally have participated in the search. Sandi Justice originally saw a Facebook post about Vannewkirk. Sharing several mutual friends with the missing woman, she has given her time and exhibited much compassion toward the people who were close to her.
“I’ve met her family [and] feel like I know her,” Justice tells. “She’s got so much love, and [so many] people looking for her—it’s amazing.”
As reported last week, it has been confirmed that foul play was most likely involved. However, the morale remains high, with her family and loved ones continuing their fight to bring Vannewkirk home. Keeping the discussion going proves vital in bringing this situation to a resolution.
“Never give up,” Vannewkirk’s friend and former colleague Connie Nelson tells. Somebody knows something, or may not even know she’s missing but has information that can help. So, keep asking questions.”
Last week on Thursday, April 17th, a candlelight vigil was held to ensure Vannewkirk’s name remained on the lips of locals. The vigil encompassed family, friends and concerned citizens gathering at the steps of City Hall, downtown, to celebrate Shannon as a person and garner more support in the search. Through the words of Shannon’s friend of 15 years, Cindi Castles, and the faith-embedded comfort of former police officer and current pastor Donald Smith, the evening’s theme was one of perseverance.
“I think the best thing for any investigation is always to have the community involvement,” Smith explains. “Whenever you have people that are starting to talk to one another and being observant and taking a proactive stand, it’s always the best way to solve anything. It’s the best way to help the police out. We have one of the best trained police forces in the southeastern United States.”
Smith became involved at the request of friend Michele Seidman. She, too, has been an asset to local efforts. Seidman knows Vannewkirk from their years working on some of the same films. With the investigation two weeks in, Seidman divulges on the current mental state of the searchers.
“Everyone’s fighting themselves from thinking the worst and hoping for the best,” she says. “So, I think a lot of people are numb. Some people have already gone through some grieving, others are waiting to grieve, and some of us just don’t even know exactly how to process this yet.”
Looking toward the future, all involved intend to continue full-force. Keeping her name and the sparse details from being released to the public proves vital to piecing this puzzle together.
“We have to come together,” Cindi Castles says. “We have to continue to turn over every rock [and] open every door. We have to get her name and her picture out there, so that people don’t forget her.”
People who would like to help can call the WPD tip-line by texting TIP708 and then the message to CRIMES (274637). Or provide information by calling the WPD at (910) 343-3600. Vannewkirk was a daughter, a friend and an asset to this community. No detail is unimportant in closing this case.
“Our family really appreciates it,” Vannewkirk’s brother, Shawn Dayton, concludes. “We are shocked at all the love and people who have come out. It’s amazing how many friends Shannon had.”