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Folly Beach is a barrier island, six miles long and one-half mile wide. It is the closest beach to historical Charleston, South Carolina, twenty minutes away. During the War Between the States, Folly Island was the staging area from which the Union troops attempted to take back Charleston from the Confederacy, and in 1934 George Gershwin rented the bungalow at 708 West Artic Avenue and composed the music for Porgy and Bess.
A small town with a population of just over 2000, Folly Beach is a low-scale community which is primarily a residential and family vacation beach it also happens to have the one of the best surf areas on the east coast at the washout on the east side of the island. It also boasts to have the fastest surfcam in the world. During the busy summer season, Folly Beach is cherished by tourists as a slower paced, less commericalized resort and during the off season, the locals cherish the return of their all-American small town. It is certainly not a place one expects to find a monster living with a view of the surf and dunes.
Wednesday, May 23, 1973. Thirteen-year-old Alexis Ann Latimer and her fourteen– year-old friend, Sherri Jan Clark, told Mrs. Latimer they were going out for a walk. They left the Latimer’s Folly Beach cottage in the mid-afternoon, and never returned.
When the girls had not returned by dark, Mrs. Latimer immediately reported the girls missing and got no help from the Folly Beach police. She recalled that the police ”thought I was just an overwrought mother.” The police assumed the girls had run away. It was more than two weeks before the they took any action and began an investigation. They admitted to being baffled. None of the Charleston papers mentioned the girls’ disappearance.
During the following months, the family became frustrated by the lack of police urgency and success. They became frantic. They distributed leaflets about the girls and placed ads in local papers asking for any help. Mrs. Latimer went as far as consulting with famed Dutch psychic Gerald Croiset, Jr. Mr. Croiset, examined pictues of the girls and drew a fairly accurate map of Folly Beach, complete with bus stops, even though he had never been to the community. He told the parents that Alexis was dead and they should search the north area of the island near the Coast Guard station.
Saturday, Sept. 19, 1973. A nineteen-year-old woman picked up a sailor at the local naval base at a party and brought him back to her North Charleston apartment. Without warning, he suddenly savagely assaulted her. He pushed her, throwing her to the floor; she vainly fought back. He quickly tied her and bound her to the bed. As she struggled he undressed and greedily watched her. She summoned more courage than most would have in that situation. She challenged him, ”Well, if all you wants is a piece of pussy come on. I got things to do and places to go.” The man suddenly lost his erection. He carried his clothes from the room. She could hear him dress and soon he left. The next day she contacted the naval authorities. She was told to take her complaint to the local sheriff’s office so she let the matter drop.
February 14, 1974. Police discovered a teenaged girl bound, gagged and tied to a tree behind the James Island Shopping Center, six miles from Folly Beach. One week later, sixteen-year-old Mary Bunch was last seen walking down Center Street on Folly Beach, heading for her home, two blocks away. She never arrived.
Mr. E.D. Pickerall was walking his dog along the Folly Beach shore a month later. The dog became excited and begin to dig frantically in one spot. Mr. Pickerall walked over and noticed the area where the dog was digging was bloody and full of maggots. Assuming it was the carcas of some dead sea creature washed into the sand, he dragged the dog away from the spot.
April 12, 1974. A Folly Beach policeman was investigating a beach complaint on the northern end of the island. As he was walking the beach he heard a call for help coming from a nearby vacant vacation cottage. As he approached the raised cottage the officer realized the cries were coming from beneath the cottage. He discovered three sixteen-year-old girls bound and gagged. One of the girls had managed to slip her gag and began to scream for help.
The girls told the officer they had ditched school to come to the beach from Summerville, a town 30 miles away. While they were sunbathing on the deserted beach, a man had approached and pulled a gun. He told the girls he had killed two policmen and if they didn’t do what he said, he would kill them. He forced them into the outdoor shower room beneath the house where he tied and gagged them. Then their abductor left.
The girls provided police with an excellent description of the men, he had a beard and mustache and one very distinctive feature – a birthmark on his ankle. By the next week, the composite drawing was in wide circulation throughout the area, and many people began to make uneasy connections to past events. Mr. Pickerall began to wonder about the odd incident with his dog and on Tuesday, April 16 he contacted John Wilbanks, Folly Beach city manager and voiced his concerns. The two men went the spot on the beach where the dog had been digging; it was only several hundred feet from where the three girls had been abducted.
Pickerall and Wilbanks began to dig through the sand with shovels and discovered a piece of clothing. Next, they contacted a local who owned a bulldozer who began to scrape away sand in the area. On the third pass, a body was unearthed beneath two feet of sand. The body was clad only in underwear and due to the fact that it was only skeletal remains, the gender could not be determined. The body was bound with the same kind of nylon clothesline that had been used on the three recently rescued girls. The next day the coroner was able to identify through dental records as Mary Bunch.
After the body was discovered, digging continued through the night and into the next day. Huge floodlights were erected and could be seen throughout the entire island. Locals arrived to stand in silence along the dune to watch the police conductr their dig . . . with the unspoken fear that more bodies would be discovered, thirteen-year-old Alexis Ann Latimer and fourteen- year-old Sherri Jan Clark, foremost in their minds. People who lived in nearby houses allowed officers to use their bathrooms, telephone and supplied drinks to the workers.
Police set up a roadblock on the one highway and bridge off the island, and conducted a house-to-house investigation, asking questions, gathering information. Navy jets surveyed the island beach with infared sensors, and the police composite sketch of the assailant on the three girls was distributed throughout a three county area. They had held back on key piece of information, the birthmark on his ankle, which police hoped would make a positive ID easier.
The young woman in North Charleston who had survived the attack from the sailor saw the composite drawing and she contacted naval authorities. She was shown photos of navy personnel stationed at the base and she made a positive ID. Charleston County police officers were dispatched to the home of Richard Valenti, a six-year radar operations specialist on the rescue submarine Petrel.Valenti, age 31, was renting the beach house across the street from where the beach excavation was taking place. In fact, officers already knew Valenti, he had been one of the specators on the beach, and had offered them drinks. When Mary Bunch’s body was discovered, Valenti told the neighbors, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right.”
Valenti had just recently shaved his beard and mustache.
He was arrested at 6:40 P.M. and within one hour he had admitted to the attempted rape of the woman in North Charleston, the kidnapping of the three Summerville girls and that of Mary Bunch, and also, the kidnapping and murder of Sherri Clark and Alexis Latimer. He took police to the beach and pointed out a section of sand to where he claimed the two girls’ bodies were buried. He then lead police to the place where he killed the girls – the outdoor shower room beneath his beach house and described the abduction of the two Folly Beach girls. The police found their bodies in a common grave later that night.
Valentio said he enountered the two girls on the beach and immediately had the urge to tie them up. He walked to his house and got a toy gun and forced them into the outdoor shower room. Inside he tied their hands and feet and made them stand on chairs while he tied nooses around their necks. He then partially undressed them and fondled them. In their attempts to get away from his groping the fell from their chairs and strangled to death. Valenti sat and watched, masturbating as the two girls gagged and struggled and finally died.
Before he was taken back to jail, Valenti was allowed to go to his house and pick up two Bibles.
The small community was in shock. One of their own was a monster! Everyone remembered Valenti and his family as “quiet people who seemed so good.” He was described as a “straight dude” and a “Jesus Freak”. One person recalled that “He seemed to be a super-Christian . . . the one time I visited their home, they were singing Christian songs and talking about the Bible.”
May 27, 1974. Richard Valenti was charged with three counts of murder, four counts of assualt and battery with intent to kill, and one count of assault and battery with intent to ravish. He was held without bail.
During the trial Valenti’s wife testified. She said that it was in 1969 that she discovered a hidden stash of pornographic magazines that featured women bound and gagged. She claimed that his hidden (and shameful) desires caused him to attempt suicide on once occasion. She also claimed that she had allowed her husband to tie her up to satisfy his desires, but it did not seem to work. When they moved to Charleston, they both became Christians and Mrs. Valenti thought the crisis had passed.
Valenti had grown up in a dysfuntional house, with a domineering, all-controlling mother, which planted in him the desire to reverse the domination which led to only reaching sexual gratification through domination and control.
The trial lasted four days; the jury took less than an hour to find Valenti guilty on both counts of murder. He was given two life sentences to be served consecutively. Two dogwood trees were planted at the Harborview Elementary School as a memorial to Alexis Ann Latimer and Sherri Jan Clark. The trees still bloom each spring.