Editor's Note: This is the latest in a continuing series about missing persons in Horry County.
Dawn Drexel is still waiting for tomorrow.
“Mom, I’ll see you tomorrow, I love you,” is the last thing her daughter Brittanee said to her, five years ago.
Brittanee was 17, on spring break, and against her mother’s wishes, came to Myrtle Beach from Rochester, N.Y.
It was 80 degrees in Rochester that week, and her family thought she was with friends at nearby Charlotte Beach in New York State, and that they would, indeed, see Brittanee the next day.
But Brittanee left Rochester with friends on Wednesday, April 24, and arrived in Myrtle Beach on Thursday. She spoke with her mother that day and the day after, still leading her to believe she was in New York.
Dawn Drexel said three friends joined Brittanee for the trip.
A Myrtle Beach Police Department incident report identified those friends as Jennifer Oberer, Phillip Oberer and Allana Lippa. They stayed in room 301 of the Bar Harbor Resort in the 100 block of North Ocean Boulevard.
“She was here for 60 hours and vanished without a trace,” Dawn Drexel said.
She’d had a premonition, as mothers do, and she told her daughter so.
“I told her I didn’t know the kids, there was no parental supervision, and I told her if she came to Myrtle Beach, something would happen to her,” she said.
Something did happen, and Dawn Drexel, and her parents, Carol and Al Wagner – Brittanee’s grandparents – are convinced Brittanee was snatched and trafficked.
“Trafficked,” Dawn Drexel explained with one hand over her mouth, as if to stop the words from forming, means “sold into slavery, probably sexual.”
She’s thought that, she said, since day one.
“Nobody has been ruled in or out…”
A Myrtle Beach police report states the last person in Myrtle Beach to see Brittanee Drexel before she disappeared was Peter Brozowitz.
“He was a promoter at a club back home [in Rochester],” Dawn Drexel said about Brozowitz. “He was 20, Brit was 17, and he took her to Club Kryptonite.”
Club Kryptonite was a Myrtle Beach nightclub located at U.S. 17 Bypass and 29th Avenue North. It closed in the fall of 2009.
Four individuals – identified in a police report as Anthony Schimizzi, Phillip Watson, Keith Cummings and Matthew Abrams – said in the report that they were sharing a room with Brozowitz at the Bluewater Resort in Myrtle Beach.
The four men staying with Brozowitz told police they briefly met Brittanee at Club Kryptonite on Friday night, April 24, 2009. They said in the report that they didn’t know Brittanee, but that she was a friend of Brozowitz’s from Rochester.
The report also says Brittanee met the five men the following morning on the beach near the Bluewater Resort between 11 a.m. and noon April 25, and again in the group’s room at around 8 p.m., also on April 25.
Brozowitz checked out of the Bluewater Resort the following morning around 1 a.m. April 26, though the other four men remained, another police report stated.
Drexel has not been seen since she left the Bluewater Resort around 8:10 p.m. No charges have ever been filed in the Brittanee Drexel case.
Capt. David Knipes, spokesman for the MBPD, said all persons named in the police report have been interviewed.
Knipes verified previous reports that Drexel’s cell phone pinged near the Georgetown County/Charleston County line shortly after her disappearance on April 25. It pinged more than once, he said, but declined to discuss the pings in greater detail, citing the ongoing investigation.
Knipes also confirmed that police searched an apartment unit at Sunset Lodge in Georgetown County in 2011 in connection with the Drexel case.
Police, he said, obtained a search warrant, but no charges or official suspects were identified as a result of that search.
“Everybody has been questioned, everybody involved has been questioned,” Knipes said. “Nobody has been ruled in or out and there are no persons of interest to report.”
Attempts to reach Brozowitz at a telephone number listed in the police report were unsuccessful.
A male identifying himself as “his secretary” answered the telephone, but refused to allow the Chronicle to speak with Brozowitz when the newspaper said it was doing a followup story about Drexel’s disappearance.
“You’ll have to contact his lawyer,” the man said. “I don’t think he wants to deal with any of that anyway, so he won’t want to talk about it.”
Brozowitz has appeared on several segments of the “Dr. Phil” TV show in which he denied any knowledge of Brittanee’s whereabouts, saying his name was being “dragged through the mud.
“You’re not the one being accused of being a person of interest,” he said to Drexel on one of the programs.
“I told him he wasn’t the one missing, my daughter was,” Drexel replied.
“We kept trying to call Brit’s cell phone, and nothing…”
Brittanee and her boyfriend, John Greico, who was in Rochester, had been in touch all day, texting and calling, but between 9 and 9:15 p.m. the night she disappeared, she stopped responding to his calls and texts.
Finally, he texted her that if she didn’t respond, he was going to call her mother and tell her that she was in Myrtle Beach.
When Brittanee didn’t respond, he did exactly that.
“We kept trying to call Brit’s cell phone, and nothing…” her mother said.
Dawn Drexel and Greico left New York State for Myrtle Beach, first asking a family friend in North Carolina to come to the beach and tell the police that something happened to Brittanee.
“We had Peter on the phone three or four times asking why he didn’t call the cops, and why he wasn’t out looking for her, and he just said he wasn’t a babysitter,” Dawn Drexel said.
The people Brittanee had come to the beach with were still in Myrtle Beach, and were questioned by the police. But, Dawn Drexel said, they never contacted her, never asked if they could help, or made any effort to look for Brittanee.
“I never spoke to them or any of their parents,” she said.
“She sees her when she dreams, she sees her.”
Brittanee was a cosmetology student when she disappeared, with aspirations of modeling.
A strikingly pretty teenager, she was a soccer player and as physically fit as she was attractive.
“Her biological father was Turkish, and she had a very distinctive look,” her mother said. “Very European looking.”
When Dawn Drexel describes her daughter, her sentences flow, and her conversation is animated. Other times, her comments are brief, without detail, and sometimes she stops short of even finishing her thoughts.
She’s obviously overwhelmingly sad. Brittanee’s grandmother, Carol, doesn’t change her facial expression, but her voice is telling. She seems to stay angry.
Her husband Al Wagner, Brittanee’s grandfather, appears genuinely befuddled that anyone would want to harm his grandchild.
“The answer is in Rochester. Somebody knows where she is,” he said.
Blind in her right eye, Brittanee has persistent hyperplastic primary vitreous, or PHPV, and had had several surgeries, the most recent about a year before she went missing.
To keep her eye from appearing to wander, she got contacts that made both eyes look the same.
“Her teeth were beautiful, she always looked good,” her mother said. “She shopped at Abercrombie and Hollister.
“She was a size zero zero, then a zero. Everything was perfect, her hair, her make-up.”
“She loved going out to eat,” her grandmother added.
Brittanee has a sister Myrisa, who’s 17 now, the same age Brittanee was when she disappeared.
Myrisa has recurrent dreams, seeing her older sister lying in a dark room, drugged.
“She sees her when she dreams, she sees her,” Carol Wagner said.
Brittanee has a little brother too, Camden, who was 5 years old the last time he saw his big sister.
Dawn Drexel moved from Rochester to Myrtle Beach last fall “to stay on top of law enforcement because I’m not going to stop searching for Brittanee until I find her,” she said.
Another reason for the move was to help with the search. Yet another is she feels closer to her daughter here, the last place Brittanee was known to be.
Now working at a pest control company, Drexel is also a state director and a volunteer with Community United Effort [CUE], a volunteer organization that searches for missing people.
Drexel’s parents, the Wagners, also moved to Myrtle Beach, and have had more than their share of grief since their granddaughter disappeared.
Last October, their 42-year-old son, Mark, who was Brittanee’s godfather, died.
The only bright spot in that tragedy is that they believe he’s watching over his godchild.
“My son is an angel that can lead her home,” Carol Wagner said.
Tracing Brittanee’s movements
Drexel said her daughter was encouraged to come to Myrtle Beach. She thinks Brittanee agreed to disobey her mother “because she was promised something” by somebody.
That might have been a modeling job, her mother thinks.
“Her mental stability wasn’t good,” she said. “I was losing my home, my ex-husband had moved out, and we were going through a divorce. She wanted security and stability.
“Maybe a modeling job … she always wanted to model. Girls can be lured, maybe they were grooming her.”
“She was lured here,” Carol Wagner said, emphatically.
A complainant in one of the Myrtle Beach police reports said Brittanee didn’t have her mother’s permission to travel to Myrtle Beach.
None of the reports filed in the case specify how Brittanee traveled between Bar Harbor and Bluewater the morning of April 25, 2009. They also don’t say how she made it to Bluewater later that evening.
One report did state that Brittanee left Bluewater on foot the evening of April 25, the last time she was seen.
Watson and Cummings, two of the men staying with Brozowitz at Bluewater, told police in an incident report that Brittanee had been arguing with one of her friends.
They thought this person was Jen Oberer. They told police the argument stemmed from Brittanee wearing a pair of shorts belonging to Oberer.
Watson and Cummings said in the report that Brittanee stayed at Bluewater about 10 minutes before walking back to her room to return her friend’s clothing.
What Dawn Drexel has been able to piece together was that after Brittanee spent the day at the beach near the Bluewater Resort, she was dropped off at the Bar Harbor.
Dawn Drexel said Brittanee received a text that she’d forgotten her flip-flops, so she walked 20 blocks back to the Bluewater Resort to retrieve them later that evening.
Brittanee stayed about 10 minutes, and then left the resort to walk back to her own motel, a distance of about 1.4 miles, police reports state.
Dawn Drexel said none of that made any sense to her, not then and not now.
“That wasn’t something Brittanee would do,” her mother said. “If she wanted to go to a friend’s house eight houses away, I’d have to drive her, Brittanee didn’t walk.”
“And Peter didn’t offer her a ride,” Wagner added.
When asked on the Dr. Phil program why he didn’t do exactly that, Brozowitz said he “wasn’t in Myrtle Beach to babysit.”
“We know there are people out there with firsthand knowledge who need to step up.”
Capt. David Knipes the Myrtle Beach police spokesman, said Brittanee’s disappearance is still being “actively investigated, but there is nothing new” to pass along.
“We have officers assigned to the case, they’re still talking to people, and they’re doing whatever they can to try to bring this case to resolution,” he said.
Knipes said it’s important to keep Brittanee’s case in people’s minds.
“It’s our general belief that there are people that know what happened that are not coming forward,” he said. “We’d like to get those people to come forward, not just to help with this case, but to bring this family some resolution.
“We know there are people out there with firsthand knowledge who need to step up,” Knipes continued. “That would be the big break we’re all looking for.
“You have to be able to pay for boots, back home you didn’t have gators.”
Monica Caison, the founder of CUE, doesn’t like to get too specific about searches.
“At the onset [when Brittanee went missing], we searched 11 days straight, sunup to sundown, non-stop,” she said.
For the first five or six months, there were large-scale searches every day, with from 200-500 people involved in each one. One particular weekend, there were 800 people looking for Brittanee.
But Caison explained that 95 percent of CUE’s searches haven’t been publicized in the media.
She said, “It’s not imperative for people to know where searches are being done, and sometimes it’s best if the public doesn’t know.
“And people think if a case isn’t in the media, it’s cold, but Brittanee’s case is far from that. A lot of times there’re just water searches, but there have been air, ground, water, sonar… everything you can think of has been utilized to try to find her.”
Caison said there is always hope of finding a missing person, and in Brittanee’s situation, “the mere fact that we don’t have a body gives us hope.”
Caison founded CUE in 1994. The organization is focused on finding the missing, advocating for their causes and supporting their families.
According to its website, www.ncmissingpersons.org, CUE has helped more than 9,000 families in what is often the most confusing and desperate times of their lives. In addition to providing services for the missing and their families, CUE offers college internships and youth mentoring programs.
It is funded by donations and staffed by volunteers, including Caison, who takes no salary.
Drexel has become a volunteer and a state director with CUE, and said one of the reasons she is in Myrtle Beach is the support she receives from the organization.
One of the biggest challenges in Brittanee’s situation, Caison said, is the terrain where searches have been held.
“We searched in the delta, the Santee area, Georgetown, areas in Charleston and McClellanville, places with alligators and snakes and wild hogs.
“We were in the thicket of the swamp dealing with all different types of wildlife,” she said.
Wagner, Brittanee’s grandmother, said one of the reasons she hopes people will continue to donate money to CUE is exactly that.
“They are all volunteers, but volunteers need to eat and sleep someplace, and if they bring in dogs, that costs money,” Wagner said. “You have to be able to pay for boots, back home you didn’t have gators.”
“We have nothing to show [human trafficking] has happened here or in this case.”
Betty Houbion, a CUE volunteer who helped pioneer a law that set up a task force to investigate human trafficking in South Carolina, said Brittanee’s case definitely sounds like one involving human trafficking.
“Traffickers take [the girls to different] places and teach them how to attract men … and they think they’re having a good time,” Houbion said.
The traffickers tell the girls they’ll be making a lot of money. It’s a business and the girls are a product,” Houbion said.
“I believe Brittanee realized what was going on, and maybe someone promised to take her back home.”
Vulnerability is the key for human traffickers, Houbion said, and girls as well as boys as young as 8 years old have been victimized.
“They come from every social and economic background, and anyone can be a trafficker and anyone can be trafficked,” she said.
Houbion said 51 percent of human trafficking is for sex, and 44 percent for labor. She also said there are between 21 and 30 million people being held in slavery worldwide at any given time.
Authorities in Myrtle Beach “have a tendency to say there’s no such thing as human trafficking,” Houbion said. “But we have roadways that cross state lines going in and out of trafficking hubs like Atlanta, [Ga.] Charlotte, [N.C.], and Jacksonville, [Fla.].”
She said to admit that human trafficking is a problem in a resort area such as the Grand Strand would definitely impact the hospitality trade.
Knipes, the Myrtle Beach police spokesman, said, “Anything is certainly a possibility until we know exactly what happened, but there’s no evidence to show that [human trafficking] has occurred.
“There’s nothing to show that, no rings or organized human trafficking.”
According to the MBPD’s administrative regulations and operating procedures, its statement about human trafficking states, “It is the procedure of the Myrtle Beach Police Department to accurately report and aggressively investigate all reports of Human Trafficking. The Police Department’s goals are to identify and assist the victims of human trafficking and to effectively identify, apprehend, and prosecute those engaged in trafficking offenses, with the help of state and/or federal government.”
“It’s certainly something our officers are trained on, but as far as any documented cases in our city, I cannot think of any,” Knipes said about human trafficking in Myrtle Beach.
Knipes said that while human trafficking “is a worldwide issue, we have nothing to show it has happened here or in this case.”
Human trafficking has happened in South Carolina, according to a recent investigation involving the FBI resulted in 168 teens rescued from trafficking. The nationwide sweep resulted in the rescue of one youth and arrest of two suspects in South Carolina, a June 23 news release said.
Law enforcement actions occurred in North Charleston and Columbia, the news release continued.
How to help
If you have any information about the disappearance of Brittanee Drexel, call the MBPD at 918-1300, CUE at 910-343-1131 or 910-232-1687 or the human trafficking hotline at 188-373-7888, or text BeFree (233733).
“You never give up,” Brittanee’s grandmother said.
Knipes said Brittanee’s case will be considered open until she’s found. “Our intention right now is to continue to work the case,” he said.
“We have no proof Brittanee is deceased, so we want people to continue to look for her,” Caison said. “There are still people out there who will hear something, who know something. Maybe they’ll get tips and they’re unsure if those tips made it to the investigation.
“I’d encourage them to make sure their tip was looked into. That might be the missing piece.”
In the meantime, Dawn Drexel waits for the tomorrow that hasn’t come.