One year ago, scores of police officers and volunteer searchers traipsed through rural parts of Georgetown and Charleston Counties looking for a teen who had vanished in Myrtle Beach.
It was unusually warm, and the bugs were aggressive. Wild boars and alligators lurked just out of sight. The dangers to searchers and their dogs were real. It was no place for a 17-year-old girl to be.
But there were reasons to believe Brittanee Drexel, the spring breaker from Rochester, NY, may have been there, and detectives were running against the clock as they tried to find her.
Just before 9:00 p.m. on April 25, 2009, surveillance video caught Drexel leaving the Blue Water Resort on Ocean Boulevard. She was heading back to where she was staying, the Bar Harbour Motel, but she never made it.
By Monday, the search for her concentrated in that rural area around the Santee Rivers because detectives tracked her cell signals there.
They had determined Brittanee, who was a fervent cell phone user, sent her last text message at 8:58 p.m. on Saturday while still in Myrtle Beach. She never made another call or text, and by 10:18 p.m., her cell phone was pinging on a tower along the Georgetown/Charleston County line.
Not only did that alarm detectives, but it sent her mother into a panicked frenzy.
"I was frantic because you never think this is going to happen to your child. Ever," said Dawn Drexel during an interview on the anniversary of her daughter's one-year disappearance.
Brittanee had gone to Myrtle Beach, against her mother's will, with a group of friends, and she had met up with other Rochester kids while on spring break.
In fact, she was with a group of guys at the Blue Water Resort just before she vanished. In the beginning, police homed in on one of those men, Peter Brozowitz, a nightclub promoter from Rochester.
In the court of public opinion, Brozowitz was eyed suspiciously when he hired a lawyer and when it was found out he drove back to Rochester just hours after Brittanee vanished.
However, as the weeks dragged on, detectives ruled out Brozowitz and dropped the "person of interest" label he had been assigned from the beginning.
Meanwhile, the searches continued for Brittanee or any evidence of her along the Santee Rivers and even back in Myrtle Beach, but after weeks and months of intense searching, nothing turned up.
By early Fall, detectives had classified the case as becoming cold, and Drexel began to fade from the headlines. then something changed in late December when some sunglasses were found along a riverbank.
They resembled a pair of glasses Brittanee was wearing the day before she vanished. After being sent off for forensic testing, detectives said they were unable to determine if, in fact, they belong to Brittanee.
New People and Location of Interest
In January 2010, after no major breaks in the case, there was a task force formed, made up of detectives from Myrtle Beach, and Georgetown Charleston Counties.
They have worked out of Georgetown County Investigator Chris Bailey's office since the beginning of the year, and they say the case is heating up.
Bailey credits an early December tip as the one that turned the case around and generated new leads. He wouldn't elaborate on the tip, but says it's been enough to obtain search warrants which have led to several people of interest.
"They're suspected of being present with Brittanee (and) knowing her whereabouts or possible whereabouts," Bailey said of the people of interest during an interview a few weeks ago.
No names were released nor was information on what was searched, but Bailey and the other investigators said they feel confident they're looking at the right people.
"All of our little pieces of evidence ... they're all pointing in the same direction towards certain people," said Myrtle Beach Investigator Vincent Dorio.
Detectives said they feel they're handling a homicide investigation and fear Brittanee is dead, but her mother, Dawn, holds out hope and refuses to accept her daughter is dead.
"I just hope, when I'm at home or sitting down or just doing something, that Brittanee is going to walk through that door."
If you've got information on the case, you're asked to call the Georgetown County Sheriff's Office at 843-436-6058 or Myrtle Beach Police at 843-918-1382. You can remain anonymous.
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