Details of Disappearance
Stewart was a freshman at Texas A&M University in College Station at the time of her disappearance, studying civil and chemical engineering. She was home for spring break when she vanished from Houston, Texas on March 15, 2007.
Her ex-boyfriend, Timothy Wayne Shepherd, said he last saw her at his second-floor residence in the Red Oak Place apartment complex in the 17700 block of Red Oak Drive off F.M. 1960. A photograph of Shepherd is posted with this case summary.
Stewart was reported missing on March 19 and police went to Shepherd's apartment to question him. He said they'd gotten into an argument between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m. on March 15 and Stewart walked out of his apartment angrily, carrying a cellular phone, and this was the last time he had seen her.
Shepherd and Stewart had a volatile relationship with many arguments, and she was reportedly afraid of him. They began dating when she was a sixteen-year-old high school junior. Her loved ones describe him as jealous, possessive and controlling of her. At one point Stewart told her sister Shepherd had choked her and threatened her life.
During Stewart's first semester at college, Shepherd called her several times a day. She began seeing someone else while she was at college, and Shepherd stopped contacting her for awhile after the end of the first semester. However, by February 2007, he was calling her regularly again and Stewart said she was afraid to go home to Houston for spring break because she thought Shepherd might follow her around. In spite of her reservations, however, Stewart came home and made plans to spend the time with friends.
Early on the morning of March 15, Shepherd had picked up Stewart from the apartment of one of her female friends. She left her cellular phone behind with her friend and said she would return later that day. She never came back, and never showed up for a concert she planned to go to.
Her younger sister was the last person to speak to her; they spoke at about noon on March 15 and Stewart said she was Shepherd. She has never been heard from again. Shepherd did not participate in the subsequent search efforts.
On March 20, five days after Stewart was last seen, police asked Shepherd to come to the station for questioning. He consented to a search of his home and car. When authorities checked his apartment, they discovered it had been cleaned with ammonia and bleach and some parts had been freshly painted. In spite of this, blood traces were found on the bathroom light switch, on the edge of the tub and at the base of the toilet.
Shepherd was questioned by the police and released. The next day, March 21, he spoke to Quanell X, a local community activist and the leader of the Black Panther Party in Houston.
Quanell X has a history of liaising between the police and the African-American community and had been involved in the search for Stewart. He met with Shepherd and the two men went to Shepherd's apartment, and Quanell X urged him to tell what he knew. Shepherd began crying and said he was afraid he would get the death penalty. Eventually he agreed to show Quanell X where he had put Stewart.
After a phone conversation with his attorney, Shepherd contacted the police and lead Quanell X and a police officer to a in the 14600 block of Ella Street and said he had placed Stewart's body there. No evidence could be recovered, however, as by then the dumpster had been emptied.
He was then arrested, and confessed to Stewart's murder after he got back to the station. He said he'd strangled her during an argument, put her body in a plastic tote bag and left it in the dumpster. Following his arrest, Shepherd made an unsuccessful attempt at suicide.
Authorities came to believe Shepherd didn't put Stewart's body in the Ella Street dumpster and instead dismembered it and burned it on two barbecue grills on his balcony.
Shepherd owned one of the grills; the other belonged to a neighbor and friend who grilled at Shepherd's apartment so often that he just kept the grill there. They normally shared each other's barbecued food, but when Shepherd's neighbor noticed him grilling and asked about it, Shepherd said he was making food for a wedding and could not share.
Neighbors noticed an offensive smell and thick black smoke coming from the burners and saw Shepherd barbecuing day and night, which was uncharacteristic of his behavior. Although it was cool outside, Shepherd had his patio door and all the windows open, fans running inside his apartment, and the air conditioner on. Someone called 911 on the evening of March 16 after the flames from the grills almost touched the roof of the balcony, but when police and firefighters arrived, Shepherd told them everything was fine.
He reluctantly allowed a police officer and a firefighter inside the apartment. They did not see a fire but they noticed several pieces of meat, including rib bones, floating in the bathtub and some burned meat chunks, one of which was still smoking, on the stove in the kitchen. Neither of them saw anything they considered strange.
During this period, neighbors also heard Shepherd's bathtub faucet running continuously for two days and his garbage disposal running for several minutes at a time, long enough for the neighbors to notice and think it was unusual.
A day or two after the police and firefighters came to his apartment, a neighbor saw Shepherd carrying a grill and smoker to a nearby trash bin. Both grills were later found to be missing from Shepherd's balcony and his neighbor never saw his own grill again.
When police checked Shepherd's garbage disposal after his arrest, they found fragments of bone and tooth enamel. Burned bone fragments with cut marks on them were also found under Shepherd's patio. They were too small or badly burned to yield DNA or even for it to be certain they were human.
At Shepherd's trial in October 2008, he claimed he strangled Stewart after she attacked him with a knife. His attorney argued it was a crime of passion and he should be sentenced to no more than 20 years in prison. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to the maximum term of 99 years in prison.
Stewart is one of six children and grew up in the Aldine, one of the poorest communities in the Houston area. Her father died when she was six.
She graduated from Nimitz High School in the top ten percent of her class, managed the girls' basketball team and participated in other extracurricular activities, as well as working part-time from her freshman year onward. In 2005, she was one of fifteen students out of hundreds of applicants to win a scholarship for Houston-area students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Foul play is suspected in her case due to the circumstances involved.