Sailor’s Sister, NCIS Plead for Help Solving 40-Year-Old Murder Cold Case

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Kimberly Shawn Vaught poses with his mother.
Kimberly Shawn Vaught poses with his mother. (Courtesy of Cathy Abbott)

Cathy Abbott remembers her brother, Kimberly Shawn Vaught, as a squared-away sailor and overall sweet person.

The 21-year-old served as a hull maintenance technician on what was then the newly commissioned destroyer Moosbrugger. He was proud to serve, Abbott said, and planned to someday open a welding business with his best friend.

But on Jan. 1, 1980, Vaught's body was found at the Holland St. and Bainbridge Ave. intersection on the now-closed Naval Base Charleston in South Carolina. He'd been strangled -- the heavy-gauge steel wire still around his neck -- when a pair of sailors found him just after noon that New Year's Day.

Four decades have passed without answers. Naval investigators never determined a motive or found a suspect.

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Abbott, who was 23 when her brother was killed, has never stopped wondering why someone would take Vaught's life. Her family and naval investigators are hopeful that anyone with information about his case will finally speak out.

"If they were in their 20s then, they're 60 now," Abbott said. "Maybe someone knew something but didn't come forward thinking, 'It might not look good for my career' or 'Somebody's going to come after me.'

"Those reasons are gone now," she added.

Vaught was a low-key person, she said. He kept a small circle of friends and wasn't known to cause trouble. That's part of what has made the mystery so tough to crack, according to the lead investigator on the case. The agent, with Naval Criminal Investigative Service's Cold Case Homicide Unit, requested that her name not be used since she conducts undercover work.

"Although the investigators at the time really gave it a good shake when it came in, there have really never been any substantial, tangible leads in this case," she said. "They interviewed scores of people, but no one ever really rose to the top."

That included the 300-plus Moosbrugger crew members, she added, with special attention paid to those in Vaught's shop who worked most closely with the sailor.

Even with the case going cold, though, she said there's still hope they can solve it today. NCIS' Cold Case Homicide Unit, which was the first federal-level agency of its kind when it was stood up in 1995, has solved more than 60 cases.

"The passage of time is really valuable to us," the agent said. "Alliances change, family relationships change and someone who may have known something and didn't feel comfortable saying something back then may be comfortable saying something now."

'Do the Right Thing by This Family'

On New Year's Eve in 1979, Vaught -- like a lot of sailors -- headed out to the base's enlisted club to celebrate.

He was seen leaving the club alone after last call. But investigators have never been able to piece together what happened between then and the next afternoon when his body was found.

It's unclear whether Vaught ever left the base, the agent said. It's also possible that a lot more people were at Naval Base Charleston that night since it was a holiday.

"In the 1980s, the comings and goings on base were a lot different than they are now," the agent said. "It being New Year's Eve is a whole different dynamic, too, of what might've been going on that night in terms of folks going on and off to parties or events."

The smallest detail could be the missing piece of this puzzle, Abbott said. She and the agent urge people to share any memories they have of Vaught that night.

"I just want people ... to put some effort into thinking, 'When's the last time I saw Kim?'" Abbott said. "Reach out. No matter how funny, stupid or insignificant it might seem, just come forward because that might be the one little catalyst that's going to start the ball rolling."

The agent on Vaught's case also urges anyone who celebrated the new year in Charleston that night to look at old photos to see if he's in them. That includes gatherings both on and off the naval base, she said, since his whereabouts during close to a 12-hour window are still unknown.

Abbott and her family have stayed in contact with naval investigators over the decades. As the years drag on, she admits feeling frustrated that the case has gone unsolved. Still, she added, she's grateful they're still working on the case, which she acknowledges has been a challenging one.

She wants answers about her brother's death during her lifetime. In his eulogy, Vaught's older brother called him "the main inspiration and delight to our family" who in moments of difficulty was "a beacon." And Abbott's mother, who referred to Vaught as her "Sunshine Child," never got to learn the truth about what happened to him.

"My heart is so heavy," Vaught's mom wrote in a letter after her son's death. "... I am so angry at what they did to my little one."

Kimberly Shawn Vaught holding nephew
Kimberly Shawn Vaught holding the nephew named for him. (Courtesy of Cathy Abbott)

When Vaught was murdered, Abbott was already dealing with a devastating loss. She lost her husband soon after they married. When Vaught went home for what would be his last Christmas with his family, the sailor vowed to take care of her and her family.

Abbott has two children, both named in honor of Vaught: a son named Shawn and a daughter named Jaime. Her brother, Abbott said, once told her he hoped to someday name his own daughter Jaime.

Revisiting the details surrounding her brother's murder in the effort to finally solve the case hasn't been easy for Abbott. She's a private person, she said, and many of her current friends weren't even aware she'd lost a brother to murder all those years ago.

But, Abbott added, she needs answers.

The agent working the case urged anyone with information about Vaught's final hours to have the courage to speak up.

"It's time to do the right thing by this family who has always been engaged in wanting to bring this to resolution," she said.

Anyone with information can submit tips anonymously through the NCIS Tips mobile app or at www.ncis.navy.mil.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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