"There's no handbook for this. You keep their memory alive. You let them live on through you." - Chessie Wood, Brittney’s mother, to Mobile-Press Register.
"You don't want to ever give up hope, I mean, even as bad as it looks." - Stephanie Hanke, Brittney’s stepmother, to AL.com.
It was a typical hot and humid Alabama evening when 19-year-old Brittney Wood left her mother’s house on May 30, 2012, between 7:00 and 7:30 pm, saying she was going to see a friend. Chessie Wood vividly recalls standing in the front yard of her house on Lenardo Drive in Tillman’s Corner near Mobile as Brittney came out of the front door with pink or teal tote, walked across the front yard and down the street until Chessie could no longer see her. That was the last time Chessie saw her daughter. Brittney has neither been seen nor heard from since.
It's difficult enough to tackle motherhood at the youthful age of 17, but Brittney Nicole Wood was apparently used to facing bigger challenges than that in her young life. Brittney endured what no child should have ever been forced to experience; at an early age, she was molested by her maternal grandmother's boyfriend, who was sentenced to life in prison as a result. Sadly, the mistreatment of this young girl did not stop there. Eventually, a full-blown child sex trafficking ring within her own family would be uncovered in a subsequent investigation, which would result in a total of eleven Wood family members and close friends of the family facing sex-abuse allegations in the Mobile Bay area. Unfortunately, a common outcome for victims of sexual abuse is substance use disorder and, according to Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Nicki Patterson, Brittney did not escape that fate either.
Regardless of economic status, family situations can either be a safe, secure haven or a dark, toxic hell from which to escape or - most frequently - something in between. As a child, Brittney was surrounded by relatives in her large extended family and as a teen was considered somewhat of a free spirit, bouncing from one relative's home to another. When asked about her upbringing, Chessie now says that, in hindsight, she would have been "safer in a crack house" than the environment in which she was raised.
Despite the situation, there were bright spots in Brittney’s life. Brittney was both loving and loved – is still loved. As Chessie’s oldest daughter, Brittney and Chessie had a special relationship. Chessie has been and continues to be very vocal in her efforts to search for Brittney. Brittney also had a great relationship with her father, Wally Hanke, and stepmother, Stephanie Hanke, who often helped care for Brittney's daughter and remains a staunch advocate. In addition, Brittney has numerous family members and friends who continue to assist in search efforts and raising awareness. One sentiment that is echoed throughout the documentary and across social media is that Brittney was a fighter, and she didn’t want to see those she loved hurt. Brittney’s cousin Corbin has said, as so many knew, Brittney adored children, especially her own daughter. Her daughter, turning 12 years old in 2022, dearly misses her mother and deserves to know what happened.
In the fall of 2021, Peacock released “Monster in the Shadows,” a docuseries which features Chessie, along with other family members and friends, explaining the details and circumstances surrounding Brittney’s disappearance and how the case has evolved over the years. Though neither Mobile Police Department nor Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office participated in the documentary, former BCSO detective Eric Winberg gave an independent interview.
“I promised her that I would not give up ever until I take my last breath and if this documentary is it which we’re praying it may be, we were willing to give it a shot,” Chessie told Fox10 just prior to the release of the docuseries.
"I'd like to find my child," Chessie says in the series. "My goal has always been to find Brittney Wood."
The Day of Brittney's Disappearance
Not much is known about Brittney's activities prior to her disappearance. In early interviews, Chessie stated Brittney was in a good mood and seemed fine when she left their home. However, Chessie later stated in the docuseries that Brittney seemed aggravated or frustrated when she left, telling Chessie that she "wouldn't understand" and that she would be back later.
Although Brittney originally indicated she was going to visit a friend, the family would later discover Donnie Holland, Brittney’s uncle, picked her up at the end of Lenardo Drive and they traveled approximately an hour to a home near Styx River in Robertsdale where Holland was staying at the time. Brittney's phone records indicated she was communicating with friends via text messages and phone calls throughout the day and evening, but communications seem to have stopped around 11:30 pm. At 11:36 pm, all incoming calls began going to voicemail. Brittney's phone pinged for the last time at 1:47 am in Grand Bay, which was back in Mobile County and closer to her home on Lenardo Drive.
Two Days After Brittney Disappears
On June 1 - two days after Brittney was last seen - Holland was found inside his SUV in a secluded area of the woods near his home with a gunshot wound near the back of his head. He was airlifted to a hospital in Pensacola, Florida, but did not survive. His death was officially ruled a suicide, although many - including Chessie - suspect he was murdered given the location of the gunshot wound. He is believed to have been shot with Brittney's handgun, which was found along with her cell phone battery in the vehicle. A friend confirmed that Brittney had obtained the gun "for protection" shortly before she vanished. Interestingly, Holland was found approximately 30 minutes before he was scheduled to meet with former Baldwin County Investigator Eric Winberg to discuss the ongoing sex-abuse investigation.
After receiving the news about Holland, family members began calling Brittney to let her know what had transpired. When those attempts were unsuccessful, the family called the friend Brittney had mentioned she was going to see. The friend confirmed that Brittney had not visited that day; she had instead gone with Holland to Styx River, in Baldwin County. Still unable to reach her, the family began to worry and filed a missing person report on June 2.
“I miss seeing her and (Brittney’s daughter) together. I miss seeing them smile together and love on each other,” Wally Hanke told Fox10 news in a special about Brittney almost one year after she vanished.
In 2018, the local NBC news affiliate WPMI had spoken to Wood's then 8-year-old daughter on what would have been her mother's 26th birthday. “I would give her a balloon. I can't give her a hug, I wish I could,” the little girl told them. “I miss her.”
Where Brittney's Case Stands Today
In the nearly 10 years since Brittney went missing there have been multiple tips and searches, with little result as to information regarding her whereabouts. In 2014, the Mobile Police Department processed evidence from a car found a few months prior that was thought to be related to Brittney's disappearance. However, nothing came of this effort or from subsequent investigation. In July of 2020, new hope emerged when a tip based on an age-progression image of Brittney led to an investigation of a residence in Grand Bay, Alabama. Cadaver dogs picked up a scent in the area which led to them digging at the site, but hopes were dashed when nothing significant was discovered.
Today, Brittney's case remains open and is being managed by the Mobile Police Department. Authorities strongly suspect she is no longer alive; however, she is still officially listed in databases as missing. To date, neither she, her phone, or any items she left the house with that day have ever been found. Investigators continue to follow up on tips and information as they are received. In an interview with a local news outlet Fox10 just prior to the release of the docuseries, Chessie stated she had started planning a funeral for Brittney in May of 2022. As of the time of this writing, April of 2022, no arrangements had been shared yet.
"I want to make sure Brittney's name will always be known. If nothing else, I don't want anyone to forget the name 'Brittney Wood.'" - Stephanie Hanke
While the focus of the investigation into Brittney's case should remain squarely upon her disappearance and eventual recovery, it is impossible to fully separate the sexual abuse aspect of the case. Most of Brittney’s family feel like the criminal investigation and subsequent arrests overshadowed Brittney’s disappearance and took priority over finding her, and they also agree it’s hard to deny any connection between the two investigations.
“It’s more than just a missing person, something’s went wrong somewhere and I think they just need to take it more serious.” - Wally Hanke to Fox10.
Just days before she vanished, Brittney had exchanged Facebook messages with another abuse victim in their circle, and authorities believe she may have been ready to expose the child sex ring publicly, leading to her disappearance. Some family members believe that Brittney confronted Holland about the sexual abuse allegations and that he killed his niece to avoid being exposed and subsequently died by suicide rather than facing charges. Everyone agrees, however, that Brittney would never have simply walked away from her life - even to escape the awful situation she was trapped in - without her young daughter. For years Chessie has accused her sister Wendy Holland and now-deceased brother-in-law Donnie of killing her daughter.
Regarding the sexual abuse charges, Baldwin County ADA Teresa Heinz states the following: "You'd be surprised how many of them had prior allegations. Nothing happened. You have to wonder what wouldn't have happened to these children if something had been done. And Brittney might still be alive."
As mentioned above, Baldwin County Sheriff's Office began the sex abuse ring investigation just prior to Brittney's disappearance and following the events of May 30 – June 1, 2012, eleven Wood family members and friends were charged and convicted. For more information on the arrests and convictions, please click this link. https://www.al.com/live/2013/05/timeline_the_search_for_brittn.html
While law enforcement has maintained the investigation into Brittney's disappearance is not related to the criminal investigation, they have stated it could be indirectly linked.
Brittney is Caucasian, stands 5'1" and weighs 105 lbs., with a thin build. She was last seen wearing a blue tank top, blue denim shorts and flip-flops, and carrying a pink or teal tote bag containing extra clothing, a red curling iron, a makeup bag, and a cell phone. She has dirty blond/brown hair and blue eyes, with a lip piercing and the "Payton" tattoo on her left leg. There is a $1,700 reward for information that leads to locating Brittney.