Suspect in Hollywood woman's disappearance is sex offender accused, cleared of 2010 rape

"I just enjoyed being around her," said Regina Ouzts (center) about Julia Mudgett, who was reported missing May 6. She was remembered Wednesday night at a vigil in the parking lot of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in West Ashley. Buy this photo

A suspect named Wednesday in the disappearance of a 77-year-old Hollywood woman and the slaying of a 70-year-old Bluffton resident is a sex offender who was accused of robbing and raping another elderly woman four years ago.

How to help

Anyone who sees Julia Ann Mudgett should call 911. People with information in her disappearance can call sheriff's investigators at 843-554-2475. To be eligible for a reward, they can submit anonymous tips through Crime Stoppers at 843-554-1111.

Jerry Lee Manigault, 53, has been jailed since earlier this week on an unrelated charge of failing to re-register as a sex offender.

He had been living on Baptist Hill Road in Hollywood, court records showed. His address was a quarter mile from the Toogoodoo Road home of Julia Ann Mudgett, who was reported missing early last week.

Deputies from the Charleston County Sheriff's Office consider Manigault a suspect in Mudgett's disappearance, but he has not been charged in the case, Maj. Eric Watson said.

He also was seen Monday near the Bluffton home of Polly Ann Mitchell, who was slain the same day, said police there who are looking at Manigault as a suspect in the killing.

Mudgett was remembered at a vigil Wednesday night as an intelligent, well-spoken woman who loved to write letters to encourage friends.

"She was very, very special with words," longtime friend Ana Myer said. "She had a wonderful way of saying things that made you feel good."

About 200 people gathered between two big oak trees behind the West Ashley Mormon church she attended to remember her and light candles in her honor. Nobody prayed that she would be found, only that she didn't suffer and was happy now with her late husband.

"We are prepared for the likelihood that Julia has passed," longtime friend Chris Cooper said.

History of sex charges


Manigault's status as a sex offender stemmed from convictions in a July 1996 kidnapping and assault.

By the time Mudgett went missing, he had been labeled as an absconder. His whereabouts were last verified April 16, according to the state registry.

Manigault also had been accused of breaking into a Hollywood home where an 82-year-old woman was undressed in July 2010. He was charged with choking her as he demanded money. When the woman said she didn't have any cash, court documents said, her attacker raped her.

When the intruder again asked for money, the resident gave a him a roll of dimes and a can of soda.

But the case against Manigault soon fell apart.

The victim told investigators that she knew her attacker by a nickname, which helped lead authorities to Manigault, prosecutors said.

The woman had showered before deputies arrived at her home but she told investigators her attacker had demanded a towel after the rape to clean himself off, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said.

The towel containing bodily fluids was sent to the State Law Enforcement Division for DNA testing, but the results that came back excluded Manigault as a possible match, Wilson said. Prosecutors had no choice but to dismiss the charges, she said.

In his latest arrest, Manigault's bail on the sex-offender charge was set at $2,100, but he's also being held on an outstanding warrant from Beaufort County for cocaine possession, according to jail records.

He was arrested in Beaufort County by deputies and the U.S. Marshals Service on Monday, about two hours before Mitchell's body was found in her home on Buck Island Road in Bluffton.

Capt. Joseph Manning of the Bluffton Police Department said Manigault is known in Mitchell's neighborhood.

Before Mitchell's body was found, the police spokesman said, Manigault was seen near her property Monday and had been spotted throughout the area all weekend.

Investigators have not released details of Mitchell's death, including how she died.

"We're not solely focusing on him," Manning said. "The investigation is wide open. But there's enough there for us to look at him."

A search for clues


Manigault's criminal record dates to 1991, with previous convictions that also include armed robbery, crack cocaine distribution, criminal domestic violence, grand larceny, strong-arm robbery, third-degree burglary, unlawful carrying of a weapon, shoplifting and forgery, according to SLED records.

Manigault was most recently released from prison on April 2 after serving slightly more than half of a three-year sentence on a burglary conviction, Stephanie Givens, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, said.

Many of the details surrounding both Mitchell's death and Mudgett's disappearance remain a mystery.

Watson did not say how the detectives have linked Manigault to Mudgett's case.

A Sheriff's Office dive team on Tuesday searched water near the Broad River in Jasper County, where Mudgett's car was found a day earlier.

But the effort at the end of Tuten Landing Road east of Ridgeland, Watson said, revealed no clues.

Also on Tuesday, he added, authorities searched a wooded area off Big Estates Road in Beaufort County. The road runs northward from U.S. Highway 17 southeast of Yemassee.

That operation also turned up no significant evidence.

"We didn't find anything of value outside our jurisdiction," Watson said, "so we're focusing closer by her home."

No search efforts were happening Wednesday outside Charleston County, he said. Instead, deputies were looking for signs of the woman near her mobile home at 6739 Toogoodoo Road.

She was reported missing after a fellow churchgoer said she didn't show up for a Bible study meeting May 6. The friend went to her home and found an open door, a broken window and blood. Her 2002 Hyundai Elantra was gone.

At one point, Watson said, deputies looked at a next-door neighbor who had been accused of a past sex crime as a possible suspect in Mudgett's disappearance. But that man, Watson explained, was later ruled out.

Mudgett had a nursing degree but never pursued it after marrying musician Walter Mudgett, Cooper said at Wednesday's vigil. She carried oxygen tanks to breathe but still showed up for church service projects, according to church spokesman James Freston.

Several people had encouraged Mudgett to move into assisted living because of her declining health, but she rejected the idea, he said.

"She was fiercely independent," Freston said. "She said, 'I'll take my chances.'"

Glenn Smith and Dave Munday contributed to this article. Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.

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