Missing Alabama wife, mother presumed dead after burning SUV found; Mechanic charged with premeditated murder
A southeast Alabama woman missing since Sunday is presumed dead, and the owner of a Phenix City auto body shop is charged with capital murder in her disappearance and death.
Michelle Whittaker-Hogg, a 54-year-old wife and mother, was last seen leaving her home in Sale around 1pm on Sunday, November 5, in her 2016 Chevrolet Equinox. She has not been seen or heard from since.
Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor announced Friday the arrest of Kenneth Eugene Lawhorn, 58, on a capital murder warrant. Lawhorn was charged earlier this week with theft of property and arson in connection with Hough’s Equinox.
Taylor said Hogue was last known to be at an auto repair shop in Lawhorn, where she was trying to find a car to buy for her son.
“He did work on her cars, and she was working with him about finding a car for her son,” Taylor said. “We are still looking into the extent of their relationship, but they knew each other.”
“We know she arrived at his job and never left,” Taylor said.
Hough’s husband, Stephen Hough, reported his wife missing to sheriff’s officials Monday morning. He said he had not seen her since the afternoon of the previous day, and an investigation was immediately opened.
Taylor said they quickly determined that the car fire they responded to Sunday night on Carver Road in Sale was connected to her disappearance.
Although it was burned, investigators found a hidden VIN number and determined the burned car was Hough’s Equinox.
Court records show investigators “sent a message” to Hogue’s cell phone and showed her last location was in the area of 10th Avenue South and 12th Street in Phoenix. This location is about 100 yards from the Lawhorn body shop.
Investigators were able to obtain surveillance video from a nearby business and that footage showed Hough’s Equinox entering the Lawhorn business at 1:41 PM on Sunday.
The video also showed Lawhorn loading Hough’s car onto a trailer that was attached to a white Chevrolet 2500. The truck then drove off with Hogg’s car towed.
Taylor said Lawhorn was driving the truck that was towing Hogg’s car.
“We were able to determine that he actually took the vehicle and drove out into the county,” the sheriff said. “Within an hour, the car was found burned out.”
Authorities arrested Lawhorn on Tuesday on charges of theft of property and arson.
“Since then, the investigation has taken a different direction,” Taylor said.
Late Thursday, sheriff’s officials charged Lawhorn with capital murder during a kidnapping and murder during a robbery.
“We’re still missing Ms. Hogg. We think she’s dead,” Taylor said. “We think Mr. Lawhorn did something to her body.”
He said they had evidence indicating that she had been killed, and that her remains were not inside the burned car.
On Friday, Taylor released photos of Lawhorn’s vehicle taking Hough’s Equinox away, and the car he later showed up with at his auto body shop.
“This is an ongoing case and it’s a difficult case because right now we don’t have a body,” Taylor said. “We believe he disposed of the body, and he did not cooperate with us when we put him in the county jail.”
Taylor described Lawhorn’s interactions with investigators as “combative” and said he had a violent criminal past.
“We hope we can close this open door for the family,” Al-Sharif said. “Families in these circumstances need closure, and closure comes in many ways.”
“Part of closure is bringing the person who committed the crime to justice,” he said. “We believe we have the person who committed the crime.”
“The other part, in this particular case, is finding the body and being able to bring closure to the family with a proper burial and a proper memorial for their loved ones,” he said. “We hope to be able to do this in the coming weeks.”
The photos posted Friday are of Lawhorn’s red Expedition truck and a white pickup truck with a trailer. Investigators are asking anyone who saw those vehicles on Nov. 5 or 6, or has any information about the case, to contact Sheriff’s Detective Ramon Ortiz at 334-664-9846 or Lt. Jarrod Barr at 334-664-9851.