As Search for Man Lost in River Goes on, Skepticism Grows

Possible river drowning raises suspicions of Arkansas cops as search drags on.

July 8, 2010, 4:26 PM

July 12, 2010 — -- On a chilly Sunday in Northern Arkansas in February 2008, Det. Alan Roberson of the Cumberland County Police received a call about an accident at an isolated vacation spot called the Little Red River.

"There had been a report that a gentleman -- Matthew Sheppard -- had fallen off the dock into the river and had disappeared," Roberson said.

The call was placed by Monica Sheppard, the Mexican-born wife of Matthew Sheppard, 42. The two had gone to the river for a weekend getaway with their 7-year-old daughter, Chariss.

On the day of the accident, Sheppard said, she and her husband took a walk outside their cabin with their black labrador, Fluke. But just as they reached the end of the dock, their peaceful weekend came to a sudden end.

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Fluke fell into the water and, Sheppard said, her husband reached over the dock, attempting to grab the dog's collar. Then he lost his footing and fell into the water himself.

He was able to push the dog to safety but quickly found himself overtaken by the river's strong current, his wife reported.

"At first I thought he was playing with me, trying to scare me, and I said, 'Come on, get out of there,' and he said he couldn't breathe," Sheppard said. "Then he went down and I didn't see him again. So I just ran to the cabin and grabbed my phone and called 911."

When police arrived at the scene, they were immediately concerned by the conditions they found. The freezing river was 12 to 15 feet deep where Sheppard reportedly fell in. Jagged timbers and logs lurked under the surface.

Word of the accident soon spread. Residents of Searcy, Ark., the small town where the Sheppards lived, mobilized to join the search effort as soon as they heard of the disappearance.

"We had sonar, we had underwater cameras, we had at the peak probably 60, 70 people searching for Matthew Sheppard," Cumberland County Sherriff Marty Moss said.

Even if Sheppard had perished in the river, searchers were expecting to recover his body.

"From the dive teams, people who have dealt with those situations, they say you'll usually find the body within 40 to 50 feet," detective Roberson said. "It will go directly to the bottom at first."

Matthew Sheppard: An Ominous Discovery

The water flow at a huge dam several miles upriver was completely stopped for the first time in years so the river could be made shallower and the search easier. And then, late in the day after Sheppard disappeared, searchers made what seemed like a breakthrough.

A hat, which Monica Sheppard told the police her husband was wearing when he went into the water, was found 30 yards downstream from the dock.

Searchers now believed it was only a matter of time before Sheppard's body was recovered from the river.

But even if they had recovered it, Monica Sheppard would not have been there to see it. In a move that roused suspicion in Roberson, she left the river the morning after her husband's disappearance.

"Usually, the relatives seem to want to stay," he said. "You can't make them leave. They just refuse to go, but she, around 9:30 or 10, went home."

Monica Sheppard said she left the scene of her husband's accident to try to maintain a sense of normalcy for her young daughter. But this would be the first in a series of odd developments Roberson found in connection with Matthew Sheppard's drowning.

When Roberson visited Matthew Sheppard's employer, the Eaton Corp., in Searcy, he found auditors at the company had recently uncovered $40,000 in unauthorized charges on Sheppard's company credit card. The charges were for everything from gas to gadgets, and even a washer and dryer.

Roberson also discovered that Sheppard had raised his life insurance policy to the company maximum one month before his accidental drowning. Monica Sheppard now stood to collect more than $1 million in insurance money from her husband's untimely death.

As Roberson continued to dig, he found there was a darker side to the seemingly well-liked and affable Matthew Sheppard. Although he made a good salary, Sheppard was deep in debt. While at Eaton, he had used two different Social Security numbers -- and he had a criminal history.

"There were forgeries, auto theft, and theft of government property," Roberson said.

Matthew Sheppard: Vanished

Confused by Monica's behavior and with his suspicions growing about Matt, Roberson issued a nationwide missing persons alert for Matthew Sheppard. He also asked U.S. customs to be on the lookout for Sheppard's passport and contacted a host of other government agencies as well.

"We contacted criminal investigations with the IRS, put him in every database you can find, but nothing. He vanished into thin air," Roberson said.

One week after Sheppard's disappearance, Roberson uncovered something: Phone records revealed that Sheppard's company-issued cell phone had sent text messages hours after he supposedly drowned.

"The numbers we checked turned out to be pre-paid cells. They're basically untraceable," Roberson said. "And text messages, all you can get is the numbers. You can't get content. At that point, I was pretty well convinced that he wasn't dead."

With a dogged detective who was unwilling to accept that this drowning was a simple accident, the question now became: Would Matt Sheppard ever be found, dead or alive?

Watch the full story Tuesday on "Primetime: Family Secrets" at 10 p.m. ET

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