More than 35 years after a teenage girl came home to find her family brutally slain in their resort cabin, police say the cold case is heating up. Subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now, for more on this case.
Sheila Sharp has purposefully pushed the horrific images out of her mind.
“I guess I don’t want to relive that,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue of the memory 35 years ago when, at age 14, she opened the front door of her family’s northern California cabin to find their bloodied bodies on the living room floor. Dead were Sheila’s mother, brother and a family friend.
Sheila’s sister was missing — her remains were found in the woods three years later.
“There’s times I think, Gosh, should I go get hypnotized to see what I remember?” says Sheila, now a 50-year-old mother of three and grandmother of two. “But do I really want to remember?”
“I want to remember the happy times,” she says.
‘I Came Back Screaming’
The mystery endures about who brutally murdered the Sharp family — single mom Sue Sharp, 36; her son Johnny, 15; daughter Tina, 12; and Johnny’s friend Dana Wingate, 17 — in the small Sierra Nevada community of Keddie, California. The onetime mountain tourist stop’s forests, pond and river made it appear idyllic to kids, but it had fallen on hard times.
Now the murder mystery is getting a fresh look, thanks to Plumas County Sheriff Greg Hagwood and a special investigator, Mike Gamberg. The two say they’ve zeroed in on longtime suspects, and they believe they’ve discovered new evidence — and re-discovered old evidence that was either forgotten or overlooked — that could point to a resolution.
For Sheila, it’s a mystery she’s never been able to escape and a loss that defined her.
• Watch our new true crime show, People Magazine Investigates, which continues with an episode on the Keddie cabin murders on Monday at 10 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery.
She’d spent the night at a friend’s cabin next door to her family’s cabin 28 in Keddie and was returning home on the morning of April 12, 1981, when she discovered the unimaginable. The three bodies on the floor had been bound, stabbed and beaten with a hammer.
RELATED VIDEO: Exclusive Look at People Magazine Investigates — the Keddie Murders
Amazingly, Sheila’s two little brothers, Greg and Rick, then 5 and 10, were asleep and unharmed in an adjacent bedroom, along with a friend.
“The most vivid image I have is of my brother laying there,” she says. “The neighbors say I came back screaming. They said I said it was Johnny. But I don’t remember that.”
“It’s a little bit confused,” Sheila says of her recall after more than three decades. “It could have been that I blocked it out, and the shock of it all, too.”
She waited and prayed for Tina to be found and reunited with her siblings — a dream she held onto until 1984, when Tina’s severed skull turned up in the deep woods some 50 miles away from the Keddie cabin, in another county.
“She’s a hard one to talk about,” Sheila says. “Not knowing where she’d been for three years, or even what happened to her, it’s been really, really tough.”
Years of No Answers — and a Theory of the Crime
After the slayings, Sheila, Greg and Rick were sent out of state to live with an aunt. But because the aunt already had several children, the Sharp kids were eventually placed in foster care — first together and later apart.
Living far away from Keddie, Sheila felt a growing hopelessness that someone would ever be made to answer for what happened to her family.
“I didn’t know what I was supposed to do,” she says. “I thought the adults would do something. After I got older, you call the sheriff’s department every once in a while, and you hear, ‘No new leads, nothing’s going on.’
“What was I supposed to do?”
In 2012, Sheila wrote a book with her husband, Richard Whittle: How to Survive Your Visit to Earth. She describes it as “more or less a self-help book, kind of how I dealt with issues that have happened in my life.”
But it also recounts the killings and Sheila’s theory that they were carried out by a neighbor, Marty Smartt, and his ex-con friend “Bo” Boubede, in part as revenge for Sheila’s mom siding with Marty’s wife in a marital dispute.
The two men, both now dead, are also the primary suspects in the narrative taking shape by the revived investigation, although the sheriff at the time, Doug Thomas, tells PEOPLE that no evidence tied either to the crimes when they occurred.
• Watch the full episode of the People Magazine Investigates After Show on the Keddie case, available Nov. 28 on People/Entertainment Weekly Network (PEN). Go to PEOPLE.com/PEN, or download the app for Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, Xumo, Chromecast, Xfinity, iOS and Android devices.
“I have always talked about the situation,” Sheila says. “But rarely did I speak to the family about it. They just kind of kept it hidden. I wanted to protect my brothers from it. I didn’t think it was fair that they would have to go through it — I didn’t think it would be good. I guess it was the mother in me trying to keep them safe.”
But the void has stayed with her. She has never surrendered her hope the case would be solved, if only to rescue her family’s reputation — and by extension her own.
Kindness ‘May Have Ultimately Been Her Downfall’
Sue Sharp had envisioned a new life when she moved near her brother, Don, from Connecticut to northern California with her five kids in the late 1970s. She left behind a broken marriage with a military man, now deceased, whom Sheila says was abusive to his wife and two daughters.
In her book, Sheila wrote, “My mom’s character has been subject to all manner of cruel supposition including accusations that she was a drug addict, drug dealer, prostitute, or at the very least an unfit mother.”
“For the record, she was none of these things,” Sheila wrote. “She was a kind and loving mother who was doing her very best to raise five children alone. She was dutiful in her attention to each of us, and while we lived in relative poverty, we also lived in a home of love.
“My mother’s kindness and grace also extended beyond her own family, which may have ultimately been her downfall.”
Sheila tells PEOPLE that Sue would have been 71 this year, at the end of March. “Even still today I sit here and think, What would my life be like with her here?” she says.
With the killings of her family members, “I didn’t have the big brother to look up to, and I lost my only sister, and we were close,” Sheila says. “I struggle with that. And I go through my moments of, I start crying for no reason.”
“But then it’s also, I think, made me stronger,” she says, “because I’ve had to look out for my two younger brothers. They’re the ones that have kept me going.”
“To have this solved would finally give my family some closure, some answers as to why it happened and why it took so long to solve,” Sheila says. “I don’t think there really is any type of final closure in a murder case. We still have to live on without our loved ones.”
Of her mother, Sheila adds, “I miss talking to her, going to her if I have an issue. And also, as I’m growing older, what can I expect in my later years?”
“She did at least get to see her first grandchild born. But she doesn’t get to — the great-grandkids, she doesn’t have that. My kids don’t know who my mom is.”
What would she want them to know?
“I would like my kids and grandkids to know that she was a very caring and kind person,” Sheila says of Sue. “She would have done anything for them — and probably spoiled them rotten.”
People Magazine Investigates‘ episode on the Keddie cabin murders airs Monday (10 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.