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Nurse Sydney Sutherland loved jogging near her home, but with her unpredictable shift patterns, she had no set routine.
The 25-year-old just pulled on her trainers whenever she got the chance and enjoyed the freedom as she pounded the familiar rural roads in Arkansas.
With her blonde hair and striking brown eyes, petite Sydney certainly turned heads, but everyone she met knew she was just as beautiful inside as she was on the outside.
After passing her exams, Sydney was a registered nurse at Unity Health Harris Medical Center in Newport. Colleagues and patients alike benefited from her warm, compassionate and positive personality.
Sydney made everyone happy. She lived with her boyfriend of four years, Alex Nicholson, and her dogs in Grubbs, 15 miles from Newport.
She also loved spending time with her family. Her nieces affectionately called her Sassy and she was very close to her two brothers and her parents, Dion and Maggy.
In August 2020, she had just returned from a family trip to Destin in Florida, where she’d loved spending time on the beach.
On 19 August, Sydney went to visit her mum. As she left, Sydney said she was going home to bake some “brownies or cookies”.
But when she got back, she pulled on a white tank top and black athletic shorts, and headed out for a run on the Jackson County Road between Grubbs and Newport.
Hours later, she hadn’t returned home, and Alex alerted her family that he was worried. Sydney was reported missing and a large-scale search began. Police used sniffer dogs and helicopters to cover the area.
Hundreds of locals volunteered to look day and night. Many knew Sydney and had watched her grow up. They hoped that there was a simple explanation for her disappearance. Had Sydney injured herself? Had she got lost?
But as the hours ticked by, concerns grew that her vanishing was down to foul play. Sydney would never have let her loved ones worry.
Sydney’s family set up a Facebook group to try to gather information and to coordinate the searches. Police quickly found Sydney’s iPhone abandoned in a field, a quarter of a mile from her home.
In the meantime, Quake Lewellyn, 29, a married farmer from Jonesboro, came forward to say that he’d seen Sydney running the day she’d disappeared.
Quake said he’d driven past her. It was an important bit of information to put together a possible timeline.
Police used data from Lewellyn’s phone to try to get more information on Sydney’s possible whereabouts and discovered that he had been in the vicinity of where Sydney’s phone had been found.
Coincidence? Investigators didn’t think so. They continued to use the data to find out where else Lewellyn had been.
Two days after she went missing, that information from Lewellyn’s mobile phone led police to Sydney’s body in a makeshift grave in a rice field. An autopsy revealed that she had died from multiple blunt force traumas.
Lewellyn was arrested and confessed that he had killed Sydney.
It had seemed as though he had come forward with information to help find her, but he’d done it to avoid suspicion – knowing that someone might say he’d been driving down that road.
Even his family had asked him if he’d seen Sydney as it was the route he always took to check on the farmland.
Disturbingly, it turned out that Lewellyn had even joined the Facebook group that was dedicated to finding Sydney, while all along he was the only one who knew what had happened to her. As the community mourned, a memorial was created near where Sydney was found.
Lewellyn was known in the community. He had attended the same high school as Sydney – although a few years apart. And he was part of a respected, three-generation farming family in the area.
The family had 5,800 acres across four Arkansas counties and Lewellyn also had a farm of his own. In 2016, they were even recognised as the “Jackson County Farm Family Of the Year”.
But everything quickly fell apart for Lewellyn. His wife filed for divorce as he was charged with kidnap, murder and rape. He was facing a jury trial with a possible death penalty.
There were tensions over such a high-profile case. Initially he pleaded not guilty but after Sydney’s family agreed, he was given a plea deal.
Last month, he pleaded guilty to rape and murder charges. Sydney’s family packed the courtroom. In the build-up to facing a jury, Lewellyn had been interviewed to see if he was mentally fit to stand trial. It was determined he was, and his confession was shared with the court.
“It was all just a blur,” he had told the psychologist. The stepfather-of-three said that he had been driving to check some wells and rice fields when he’d seen Sydney walking down a gravel road.
He said that when he’d turned his car around, it had kicked up dust and dirt – and he couldn’t see her. Then he realised he’d knocked her over.
“I felt her hit my truck, so I slowed down,” he said. He claimed he then got out to ask if she was OK, but she didn’t answer.
Lewellyn said he’d presumed she was dead and panicked, so he loaded her into his pick-up and drove her to the field. He then removed her clothes and tried “messing with her a bit”.
When pressed for details, Lewellyn’s legal representation said that he shouldn’t say any more about that sexual assault. Afterwards, Lewellyn had dug a hole in the rice field and buried her. He then admitted he’d gone about his usual routine and tried to “forget” what he’d done.
He’d carried on checking the rice fields and wells, ate dinner at home – and went to bed. He even went to work and followed his usual routine the next day.
“I knew I didn’t kill her on purpose,” he told the psychologist, but he admitted he thought he would be in trouble for running her over.
His lawyers said it was a “horrible accident and nothing about it was intentional”.
The prosecution dismissed his version of events. They said that Lewellyn had seen Sydney and turned his truck around to abduct her. He had, they claimed, deliberately run her over, raped, killed and buried her.
The courtroom was filled with Sydney’s family wearing pink T-shirts – her favourite colour. They read “Maggy’s Girl”, a reference to Sydney’s mum. Maggy made a statement and demanded that Lewellyn look her directly in the eye – which he did.
“She was not yours to take,” she told him. “Satan is real.”
The judge sentenced Lewellyn to life imprisonment without the chance of parole. Outside the court, Sydney’s mum told reporters, “True justice for Sydney, my daughter, would be for her to be here.”
Yet another woman had been killed while out jogging. The young nurse had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time when she was targeted by an opportunistic killer.
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