Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Scotty and Pamela Sue
By Caitlin Causey
If memory serves, the phone in my childhood home rang after midnight only twice: once when my grandmother died, and once when a little girl in my neighborhood was murdered. The first call I expected, in some way; the other was beyond my comprehension.
It was a Thursday in 1997, exactly a week before Christmas. I was 12. I had gone to bed jittery, elated to have only one remaining school day left before the holiday break. My mom came to unplug the Christmas lights strung up in my window and I pretended to be asleep, though was secretly wide awake. In the ensuing dark I watched beams from passing cars race across the shadowy pink of my bedroom walls until I finally drifted off.
The initial ring seemed like part of a dream. The second, however, was definitely real. I sat up.
“Mom?” I said. She stirred in her bedroom, directly across the hall from mine. I heard her blankets shuffle, her feet toddle across the floor in half-sleep. These were the times when a call like this woke the whole house.
“I’m awake,” she mumbled on her way to the kitchen phone after its third ring. “I got it.”
Mom picked up the phone and answered. By this time my heart had gone into full panic mode. No one called us at night. No one. Nobody called anybody at night, ever — this was Hogansville, Georgia, population 2,908, the so-called City of Friendly People, where dialing a neighbor after 8 o’clock, let alone midnight, was generally regarded as a cardinal sin. This was kindergarten stuff that even a baby knew.
“Oh, my God,” my mother said. She kept her voice low, correctly assuming that I was eavesdropping on her every word.
“Have they found him?” she asked. I slunk back down under my blanket.
“Yeah, we’re OK here. Haven’t seen or heard anything,” mom added. “Thanks for the call. Yep. Doors are all locked.”
After she hung up the phone, I heard my mother sigh. She turned on the kitchen light and filled a glass with water before returning to her room.
“What happened?” I asked, calling out to her from beneath my covers.
“Nothing,” she replied. “I’ll tell you tomorrow. Go back to bed.”
The next morning, I saw a van from a big Atlanta news station drive past my house. I knew by then that something was amiss. My mother didn’t really need to explain anything to me at that point, because all I had to do was turn on the TV to find out. My diary entry recounting the events I began hearing about was written as follows on December 20, two days after the crime:
OK, now I’m going to write about some stuff in the order it happened. Well, on Thursday a little girl was murdered right down the street from me in the projects. Her name was Pamela Sue Yearta, and she was only 7 years old. You know what? A 14-year-old boy named Scotty McTaggart did it to her…. I was so scared when it happened because Pamela was raped, gutted, and had her throat slashed by Scotty.
TV dispatches, newspaper reports, rumors: heavy stuff to be noted in a kid’s middle school journal. Hogansville had not had a murder like this in recent memory, nor had the town gotten this much attention from the outside world. I continued:
I’m afraid the police are going to ask me questions about the stuff that happened. I didn’t know Scotty would kill anyone, but I did know that he was a crazy, strange, always-in-trouble person. You could just see him on the street and see the mean in his eyes.
And, in a ruling of straightforward pubescent justice:
I think Scotty deserves the death penalty.
The police never questioned me, of course. Although I had known Scotty in that neighborly kind of way for many years, so had hundreds of other people. I kept thinking about him, and about how I had just seen Pamela Sue only a few days earlier at a holiday party for Hogansville’s Girl Scout troops. I had helped her make a Christmas ornament, and now she was dead. I felt immense guilt for thinking at the party that she was very plain, even ugly. Oh, how I dwelled on that superficial judgment and prayed for forgiveness after her death, reassuring myself of my true goodness by recalling what a sweet and gentle child she was.
The Associated Press reported that sometime in the early evening of Thursday, December 18, Scotty and Pamela Sue had walked alone into the woods near the government housing development where they both lived, looking for kittens. Pamela Sue loved kittens. They got into an altercation, during which time Scotty choked and knocked the wind out of her. He then retrieved a knife from his mother’s kitchen, and returned to stab Pamela Sue 17 times in the abdomen and throat. The Yearta family reported her missing around 7:30 p.m., and their daughter was discovered by a search party member in a tangle of winter kudzu about an hour later. Police were tipped off that Scotty might have been involved, and they found and arrested him soon after.
It was that night, of course, when the phone rang so late at my house. Talk went flying that Scotty had fled into the woods lining my street, so a frightened neighbor had called up to share the news and warn us. Although Scotty was already in custody by then, a few local snoops had been tuning into police reports on CB radios and had gotten the details mixed up. A whole community slept uneasily that night, a week before Christmas, surely envisioning the wild-eyed Scotty McTaggart running loose through the forest with a bloody steak knife in his hand.
For the next several weeks, rumors circulated with the special depravity of small-town gossip. Had he really strung her up in a tree? Many speculated that Scotty’s actions had been inspired by the popular 1996 thriller “Scream,” in which a disemboweled Drew Barrymore is slashed and hung outside her home. Had he raped her? Some of my neighbors seemed to think so. Had Scotty’s mother really washed his clothes and tried to go for a cover-up? Supposedly — but who could say for sure? It became so difficult to separate truth from fact. Pamela Sue’s parents pleaded for privacy and closure, but I don’t think we gave it to them for quite some time.
All I knew was that it was scary to live so close to the place where a real murder had happened.
It occurred a few hundred yards from my home on Collier Street. Our school bus stop was right beside the crime scene, where Scotty had once offered to get marijuana for me and a gaggle of other kids as we all waited under an awning one rainy morning several months before the murder. None of us thought he actually had marijuana to give, but we all knew that he liked for us to wonder.
When I walked down to catch the bus in January after Christmas break had ended, as Scotty sat without bond 60 miles south at the detention center in Columbus, a few threadbare lines of police tape still hung near the thicket where Pamela Sue’s body was found. I was shaken, but also curious in the way that only a very young and naive person can be when something like that happens. I couldn’t grasp the magnitude of what Scotty, one of a rotating cast of childhood characters in my world, had done; perhaps I still can’t.
He had been a neighborhood nuisance for as long as I could remember, a scoundrel even. Skinny, blond and foul-mouthed: That was Scotty. Somebody who would plan a little tussle with someone’s cousin’s friend after school — you know the kind. He was the kid who liked to intimidate people, who probably never played on a baseball team himself but circled the field during others’ games on his bicycle, watching. Parents were unnerved; I can’t think of one friend who had been given permission to spend time with him. Usually, he just kind of showed up and tagged along if other kids were playing by themselves.
Scotty is pictured in my spring 1997 yearbook, about six months out from his crime, sandwiched between a McManmon and a Miller. At first glance, he appears to be any old middle schooler: hoodie, baby face, cowlick. His gaze, however, just off to the left, is something startling.
Whatever became of Scotty McTaggart? Although his story has faded in the memories of many of my classmates, none of us have forgotten him entirely. His name surfaces in conversation every now and then, but each time we ask the same thing: Where is he now?
Scotty was tried as an adult in 1998, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison at the age of 15. In the years following, his name in Hogansville was somewhat synonymous with menace and brutality, submerged in a mythos of fear not unlike that of the boogeyman. If Scotty ever got out of prison, would he return to Hogansville to seek revenge on the community that prosecuted him for his abominable deeds? Don’t play outside too late at night, children — mean old Scotty McTaggart might come back and get you.
As I look into the past through the lens of adulthood, however, I see Scotty not merely as a bad seed or a bully gone wrong; I think of him as a deeply unstable young man who might have been better served in a psychiatric hospital than Milledgeville’s Bill Ireland Youth Development Center, where he was sent for a probation violation earlier in 1997. At the very same time Scotty was there, this juvenile boot camp was being investigated by the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division for abuse allegations, inadequate mental health care, and poor educational instruction. In a report addressed to former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, the investigation team stated that more than 60 percent of youths entering the Department of Juvenile Justice system’s paramilitary boot camps had diagnosable psychiatric disorders, and that residents with these conditions were consistently disciplined with isolation, restraint and excessive force.
Scotty was released from the center in August 1997, about four months before committing his crime. In an initial interview with authorities, conducted with his mother by his side, Scotty stated that after choking Pamela Sue he feared she would tell on him — and that he would ultimately be sent back to boot camp. So, instead, he decided to kill her. Make sense? Of course not. And that’s the point: Scotty had legitimate issues. Serious, deadly ones that boot camp was almost certainly not fit to help mitigate.
Could things have been different for Scotty under some other course of action in those months leading up to December 1997? More importantly, could things have been different for Pamela Sue Yearta? Hogansville will never know. The state of Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice will never know. I won’t know either, and yet this is the question that lingers in my mind when I think of their story.
When news of his life sentence broke in the papers in 1998, Scotty was quoted as telling the judge: “I’m really, really sorry. If I could take back what I’ve done, I would.”
Many people believe Scotty was eventually killed by another prison inmate in the years after his sentencing. Many people also hoped he would be killed by another prison inmate in the years after his sentencing, so perhaps this theory was just wishful thinking disguised as hearsay.
Recently, my curiosity got the best of me. I opened my computer, googled the Georgia Department of Corrections, and entered the name Scotty McTaggart in its online inmate search. I entered information for several other fields as well: gender, race, age. Age? I thought for a moment. Scotty would now be a grown man in his mid-thirties. I clicked “Submit,” and waited.
There he was. McTaggart, Scott Eugene. YOB: 1983. Race: white. Gender: male. 5 feet 7 inches, 140 pounds, blue eyes, brown hair. Offense: murder. Maximum possible release date: life. That was him, alright. Scotty was alive and serving his sentence at the medium-security Coffee Correctional Facility in Nicholls, Georgia. I studied his photo, remembering him from my yearbook. The cowlick had been replaced by a widow’s peak, but the stare — just off to the left — was the same.
Scotty and Pamela Sue. A twofold tragedy of death, suffering and immeasurable waste; of questions without answers. For me, their story is one that is steeped in nearly as much speculation and sorrow today as it was almost two decades ago. For these reasons, I would like to rescind the call for capital punishment that I made in my seventh-grade diary. If I may, I would prefer instead to declare that I do not have any idea what kind of punishment a boy like Scotty deserved. No idea at all. Do you?
For now, I’ll leave my old diary in a box by my nightstand. It doesn’t provide further insight into the case anyway. After detailing Pamela Sue’s grisly murder in that December 20 entry, I moved on pretty quickly, and the topic was never mentioned again. That weekend, I wrote about something that any 12-year-old might want to do on Christmas break: going to the movies with my best friend. We saw “Scream 2,” and I still can’t believe our parents let us go.