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Family of autistic woman whose body was found in Yellow River fears foul play

Shanequa Sullivan went missing after leaving her job at the airport


For over a month, Sylesta Seabrum had been worried about her granddaughter. On Sunday, a phone call from a police detective confirmed what she most feared.

A body that had been found a week earlier in the Yellow River was identified as Seabrum’s 23-year-old granddaughter Shanequa Quanee Sullivan.

Newton County Coroner Tommy Davis said on Tuesday the cause of death is still under investigation. The family believes Sullivan, who was autistic, was a victim of foul play.

“I want justice. I want them to find out the person or persons who are responsible for the demise of my granddaughter,” Seabrum said. “She wouldn’t harm anyone. She didn’t have a fighting bone in her body.”

Sullivan was tiny at just 4 feet 11 inches. Her foot was a size 3. She could easily pass for a 10- or 12-year-old. When she was diagnosed as autistic, doctors said she would not progress beyond the level of a fifth-grader, Seabrum said.

Sullivan’s remains were cremated and returned to the family on Monday. Funeral services are scheduled for Sunday at Murray Brothers Funeral Home in Atlanta. 

Seabrum said she is grateful for the many people who helped search for Sullivan and who have sent well wishes from across the country, but she and other family members have many unanswered questions. 

On Feb. 4, Sullivan was running late for her job at ABM Janitorial Services at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Before Sullivan left their Forest Park home, Seabrum teased Sullivan, saying that she was keeping CEO hours. 

“She was very happy when she left home. There was no indication that there was anything going on that was wrong in her world,” Seabrum said.

Sullivan made it to work just after 9 a.m. She had been working at the job for about a year. Seabrum, her legal guardian, had been reluctant to let her work at the airport or use standard MARTA services instead of riding the MARTA Mobility bus she had previously used.

“I called myself letting her go, I thought I was crippling her. I decided to let her take the job at the airport to see how it would go. She was really making me proud,” Seabrum said.

Sullivan left work that afternoon just before 3:30 p.m. heading to MARTA, but she was unable to enter the gates. 

That's where things get murky. 

Sullivan’s cousin Whoopi Seabrum said MARTA has no record of Sullivan trying a second time to swipe her card for the train. MARTA shared video and tracking for her MARTA card with the family and authorities. Airport officials told the family they have no record of her on camera after she left MARTA. “We have been begging for help, but no one wants to help us,” said Whoopi Seabrum. 

Sylesta Seabrum said Sullivan was a creature of habit. “When you teach her something, she will stick to the script,” she said. The family believes she may have returned to the airport and may have been coaxed to leave with someone. 

Sullivan was a big social media user. She had only just started dating, said her grandmother. She had a few problems with co-workers who bullied her, said Whoopi Seabrum, who once filed an incident report on Sullivan’s behalf. But they could not imagine anyone would want to hurt her. 

A grainy image from MARTA was the last they saw of Sullivan. 

The Yellow River originates in Gwinnett County and flows south before emptying into the northern part of Lake Jackson along the Jasper/Newton County border. Authorities told the family that Sullivan’s body may have been in the river for as long as 30 days and was swept 40 miles south by the current. A fisherman saw her body and reported it to local law enforcement. It was unclear at what point her body entered the river. Sullivan was afraid of water and did not know how to swim, said Whoopi Seabrum. 

Family members were advised not to view Sullivan’s decomposed body. They have not seen any photographs. They do not know if any of Sullivan’s personal belongings have been recovered. 

Without having seen her, with nothing of hers in their possession, family members feel deprived of the opportunity to say goodbye. Some are not convinced that she is gone. 

Sullivan was a well-loved person, said Sylesta Seabrum. If she got angry, her most defiant act was to lock her bedroom door. She was very trusting and would not have had the ability to defend herself against someone who meant her harm. They hope they will soon know more about how Sullivan disappeared.

“I want to be 100 percent sure it is her. I want to know what happened. I want to see who she trusted,” Whoopi Seabrum said. “You never get closure, but we want to know the truth.”


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About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.