Episode 063: Alexis Murphy

January 2, 2023

When a high school senior goes on a shopping trip but doesn’t return home, investigators have to unravel a complicated web of digital clues to find the truth. What happened to Alexis?

Episode Media
Alexis Tiara Murphy (Twitter)
Alexis Murphy (Facebook)
Alexis at the Liberty gas station on August 3, 2013 (FBI)
Alexis at the Liberty gas station on August 3, 2013 (FBI)
Alexis’ car found at the Carmike Cinema in Charlottesville (WSET)
Randy Taylor’s camouflaged GMC suburban
Important case locations (Google Maps)
Randy Taylor (FBI)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you the story of a young woman on the verge of a new chapter in her life, one that unfortunately ended in tragedy. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In August of 2013, seventeen-year-old Alexis Murphy was enjoying the last few days of summer break before starting her senior year at Nelson County High School in Lovingston, Virginia. Alexis was excited about the year ahead of her – she was about to take her senior pictures, she had a list of colleges she wanted to apply to, and she was finishing her high school career as the captain of the volleyball team. She had a lot to look forward to in the weeks and months ahead.

Outside of school, Alexis spent a lot of time curating her social media presence, posting dozens of times a day on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Vine. Like most teens, Alexis used these platforms as a way to chronicle her daily life through pictures and videos.

Saturday, August 3rd, was no exception. According to posts on her Twitter account, Alexis was fighting a toothache that had kept her up most of the night. Between the hours of 1 and 4, she appeared to be wide awake, tweeting back and forth with other Twitter users before presumably falling back asleep. Then, around 9am, Alexis tweeted that she was late for work – she had a part-time job at a consignment shop in Charlottesville, about 45 minutes north. She continued to tweet throughout the day, at one point lamenting, “I feel like I’m always on the go.”

But that didn’t slow her down. After work, Alexis returned home, showered, then told her mom that she was going to drive down to Lynchburg to do some shopping. It’s unclear why Alexis chose to drive another 40 minutes south instead of shopping in Charlottesville after work, but according to her mom, Alexis promised she would be home by midnight.

At 6:04pm, Alexis tweeted, “burg bound!” to her 11,000 followers. After that, she tweeted only a few more times. At 6:23 she tweeted, “If you don’t like what you see, don’t look.” Seventeen minutes later, a final tweet: “I actually look cute right now.”

Sadly, that would be the last anyone heard from Alexis Murphy.

When she didn’t return home that night, her family knew something was wrong. Alexis may have been an independent young woman, but she always checked in, and she wouldn’t miss curfew without an explanation. Their concern increased when Alexis didn’t respond to text messages, and her calls went straight to voicemail.

Early Sunday morning, Alexis’ mother headed straight to the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office in Lovingston and filed a missing persons report. A case file was opened, and Lieutenant Billy Mays was assigned to be the lead detective on the case. He began by interviewing Alexis’ family members and others in her immediate circle, and he quickly realized that Alexis was not a runaway teenager – she had a supportive family and plans for the future. It was clear that Alexis had not gone missing on purpose.

The family believed that Alexis’ phone might reveal some clues about her activities on Saturday. Her iPhone 4 was connected to the family’s phone plan, so they activated the Find My iPhone feature, which allowed them to ping the phone in an attempt to find its most recent location. To their surprise, the phone pinged off a tower in the Oak Ridge area, just a few miles south of Lovingston.

The sheriff’s office launched a search of the immediate area, but Lovingston is a very small town, and the department’s resources were limited. They could only cover so much land. So Lieutenant Mays called for reinforcements from the Virginia State Police and the FBI. Hundreds of agents, including helicopters and K-9 units, were able to extend the search area to a 30-mile radius around Lovingston. But there was still no sign of Alexis or her iPhone.

On August 5th, two days after Alexis left home, the sheriff’s office announced in a press conference that they were looking for tips from the public, especially from anyone who had seen Alexis or the 2003 white Nissan Maxima she had been driving on Saturday evening. They believed she was last spotted at a Liberty gas station in Lovingston.

Word of Alexis’ disappearance quickly spread in the small town and surrounding communities. Volunteers joined the search, and tips began to pour in. Within 24 hours, investigators had a break.

On Tuesday, August 6th, someone called into the tipline saying that Alexis’ car was parked outside a Carmike Cinema in Charlottesville. The tipster had seen the news reports and recognized the vehicle from its description. By 9pm, investigators were processing the scene. When they opened the car door, the alarm went off, suggesting that the last person to drive it had locked it behind them with the key fob. But according to local news reports, none of the movie theater employees could recall seeing Alexis in the days leading up to the car’s discovery, and there were no cameras at the theater’s entrance.

However, there were cameras from other businesses in the area that were pointed at the parking lot. Investigators reviewed hours of footage searching for the white Nissan, and they finally found what they were looking for. Around 10pm on August 4th, the day after Alexis disappeared, the car can be seen pulling into the parking lot. Unfortunately, the quality of the video was too poor to make out the driver. All investigators could see was a small, grainy image of a person getting out of the car and walking away. There was no way to tell if it was Alexis or not.

The location of the vehicle was intriguing in its own right. The Carmike Cinema where it was found was nearly 40 miles away from the gas station in Lovingston where Alexis was last seen, in the complete opposite direction of Lynchburg, where she had been headed on Saturday night, but it was just 2 miles from the consignment shop where Alexis worked and literal yards away from an apartment complex where several members of her extended family lived. When the car was found, K-9 units led investigators from the car to that apartment complex, and it appeared to be a potential lead towards finding Alexis. But in the end, investigators couldn’t make the connection, and it seemed to just be a bizarre coincidence.

Officials did confirm that they found several items of interest inside Alexis’ car, but they wouldn’t say exactly what. There was no blood in the trunk or any obvious signs of a struggle, so they eventually towed the vehicle away for further forensic processing. Then, investigators turned their attention to Route 29.

Running almost the entire length of Virginia from north to south, Route 29 is a major highway in the state. It’s also earned a dark reputation over the years. Since 1996, at least 9 young women have gone missing or been murdered along the Route 29 corridor, and many of their cases remain unsolved to this day. Reports of a man flagging down female drivers and then assaulting them turned the “Route 29 Stalker” into a real fear for locals. In August of 2013, investigators wondered if Alexis Murphy may have fallen prey to this unknown individual as well.

After her car was discovered, detectives pulled footage from every available surveillance camera along Route 29. Since Alexis’ iPhone was no longer pinging any towers, investigators needed to be able to track the white Nissan.

On August 8th, the FBI released surveillance images from the Liberty gas station in Lovingston. In the pictures, Alexis can be seen entering the convenience store wearing a pink shirt, floral leggings, and brown boots, a small purse in her hand.

Although authorities only released a few images to the public, behind the scenes, they were combing through the surveillance footage, and they saw something very important.

As Alexis approached the convenience store, a man held the door open for her, then turned back to watch as she entered before he walked away. Investigators questioned the clerk who had been working that night, hoping she would remember some details about the man, and she did – he had a distinctive tattoo of Daffy Duck on the left side of his neck.

The clerk described the man as white, middle-aged, and kind of rough-looking. She told investigators that she remembered Alexis and the man having some sort of brief conversation in the parking lot that lasted a few minutes. Then, the man drove off in a large white suburban wrapped in camouflage. Moments later, Alexis’ white Nissan was seen on surveillance video following behind. Both vehicles were headed down Route 29 towards Charlottesville.

This was a major break for detectives, but it didn’t make sense. How was this man connected to Alexis? What did they talk about in the parking lot, and why would Alexis follow him, especially in the complete opposite direction from where she had been planning to go?

Whatever the reason, investigators knew they had to find this man. They began showing his picture around, and soon they had their answer. Employees at an adult video store recognized the man immediately – he was a regular customer named Randy Taylor. Investigators pulled the store’s surveillance video, and there he was. About an hour before he interacted with Alexis at the gas station, Randy Taylor was buying DVDs at a sex shop in Charlottesville.

Detectives tracked Taylor to his property in Lovingston just a few miles away from the Liberty gas station. He was living in a small camper, his camouflaged truck parked in the yard. Lieutenant Mays questioned Taylor, but he denied knowing anything about Alexis – in fact, he said he’d never seen her before. But the surveillance video from the gas station proved he was lying, and it was enough for a judge to grant investigators a warrant to search Taylor’s property.

During the search, a forensics team uncovered several disturbing clues. A long strand of black hair, a lip ring, and a torn-off fingernail were stuck in the carpet of the camper. And just yards away from the front door, nestled in some brush, was a smashed iPhone 4. Within 48 hours, the FBI forensics lab confirmed that all of those items belonged to Alexis Murphy.

On August 11, 2013, Randy Taylor was arrested and sent to county jail to await his arraignment. But even when confronted with the evidence, he was adamant that he had nothing to do with Alexis’ disappearance. Actually, he said he knew who did.

According to Taylor, he wasn’t the last person to see Alexis on August 3rd. He admitted to seeing her at the gas station, but in his version of events, Alexis approached him and started making small talk. He said that she made a comment about marijuana, and Taylor said he’d like to smoke some. Alexis then said she knew a guy who could get weed for them. She told Taylor to meet her at another location in Lovingston, which was why their cars had been headed in the same direction after leaving the gas station.

Taylor claimed that he and Alexis had met up with another man who he described as a black male with cornrows in his mid-20s. According to Taylor, the three of them had driven separately to Taylor’s camper, where Taylor then purchased $60 worth of marijuana and they all smoked and drank together for a few hours. Taylor then claimed that Alexis and the man had left together around 8pm, and that was the last he ever saw of them.

Although Taylor’s story seemed unlikely, detectives did their due diligence and looked into his claims. In her social media posts, Alexis often mentioned smoking marijuana, so was it possible that she had gone with Taylor and this other man under the pretense of getting some weed?

Investigators managed to identify the man in Taylor’s story as Dameon Bradley. He worked at the local McDonald’s and knew Alexis, but he denied ever meeting Randy Taylor or going to his property. In fact, he had a solid alibi for that night. However, it was a small town, and people tended to recognize each other. Randy Taylor could easily have seen Bradley at McDonald’s and decided that he would be a good scapegoat. Ultimately, investigators tested Bradley’s DNA against the items found in Taylor’s camper, and he was cleared of any suspicion.

On August 13th, Randy Taylor was arraigned and charged with felony abduction. Because Alexis had not been found, prosecutors were hesitant to push for murder charges until they could build a stronger case.

In the days and weeks following Taylor’s arrest, investigators continued to search his property, hoping for more clues that might lead them to Alexis. Dive teams searched nearby creeks, and the small camper was processed from top to bottom. In one of the searches, crime scene investigators discovered a bloody t-shirt – the same shirt worn by Taylor in the surveillance videos from August 3rd. Inside the balled-up shirt were long black hair extensions and a set of fake eyelashes. Once again, the DNA was a match to Alexis Murphy.

With this new evidence in hand, prosecutors were able to finally charge Randy Taylor with first-degree murder. His trial began on May 1, 2014. Throughout the trial, Taylor maintained his innocence, repeating his story that Alexis had been in his camper, but that she had left with Dameon Bradley. The defense claimed that investigators had planted the DNA evidence in the camper and that they hadn’t properly looked into other suspects.

But the prosecution came out swinging. Commonwealth Attorney Anthony Martin told the jury, “The biggest problem in his story — and it is a story — is that she left alone and was fine. Is it reasonable to leave without her hair extension, her nail, her blood and cell phone?”

The story laid out by prosecutors painted a very different picture of Alexis’ last hours. Liberty employees testified that Randy Taylor would often sit in his truck at the back of the gas station parking lot and watch young women who entered the store. Investigators believed that Taylor saw Alexis when he held the door open for her, then called her over to his truck while she was pumping gas. He then lured her to his property – perhaps with the promise of weed – where he then assaulted her and strangled her.

Prosecutors told the jury that Taylor then disposed of Alexis’ body, tossed her phone in the woods, and waited until the next day to dump her vehicle. He drove the white Nissan to Charlottesville, left it in the movie theater parking lot, then walked to a nearby Applebee’s where he ordered a few beers. The bartender testified that Taylor asked him to call a cab – his buddy was passed out in their car and he needed a ride home. The cab driver corroborated this story, and the timeline matched up to what investigators had seen on surveillance video on August 4th.

During the week-long trial, jurors watched hours of footage, including Taylor’s multiple interviews with law enforcement. Experts testified about the DNA evidence, and multiple eyewitnesses were called to share their statements. Finally, on May 8, 2014, the jury found Randy Taylor guilty of first-degree murder and abduction with intent to defile, and they recommended that he serve two life sentences. After the verdict was read, Taylor reportedly got up from his chair and walked out of the courtroom, mumbling, “I can’t be in here.”

During his sentencing hearing, Randy Taylor maintained his innocence, but he also tried to make a deal – he would reveal the location of Alexis Murphy’s body in exchange for a sentence of twenty years. The prosecution – and the Murphy family – refused to negotiate. Attorney Anthony Martin said, “Alexis’ life is worth more than 20 years.”

Randy Taylor was given two life sentences, which he is currently serving at Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia. He has filed multiple appeals, all of which have been denied.

Just days after Randy Taylor was convicted, the Murphy family was invited to accept Alexis’ diploma at the Nelson County High School graduation ceremony. Her classmates wore pink ribbons in her memory, and some decorated their caps with her name. It was a poignant reminder of all Alexis was and could have been.

Over the years, law enforcement and members of the Lovingston community continued to search for Alexis, believing that she wasn’t far from home. Finally, in late 2020, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office took Randy Taylor into state police custody and brought him back to Nelson County. There, he led search teams to a piece of land off Route 29, not far from his old camper. On December 3, 2020, seven years after she disappeared, investigators finally recovered the remains of Alexis Murphy.

In a statement to the press, the Murphy family thanked the community for their support. “Our family is so grateful for the continuing love, support and prayers for Alexis and our family over the past 7 years. While we have been grieving the loss of Alexis since 2013, we remained hopeful that she would be found alive and well. Alexis was the fashionista, athlete and joker of our family; we were blessed to have loved her for 17 years and her memory will continue to live on through us all… During this time, we ask that you continue to lift our family up in prayer and in the words of Alexis, ‘Keep Hope Alive’.”

As the years have passed, Alexis’ family continues to keep her memory alive, partnering with the non-profit organization Help Save the Next Girl to provide resources to families with missing loved ones and help prevent more young women from becoming victims of violent crimes. In 2016, they started their own organization – The Aware Foundation – which focuses on missing persons cases and educates young people about personal safety.

In June of 2021, on what would have been Alexis’ 25th birthday, her family gathered at Nelson County High School for a celebration of her life. Family and friends shared memories of Alexis, remembering her for her joy, kind spirit, and sense of humor.

Her family also thanked law enforcement agents for their diligence and dedication to finding Alexis. Her aunt, Angela Taylor, said, “You all kept your promise from the very first day. You brought Alexis home.”