Seated in his office in the Brown County Sheriff’s Office, Chief Deputy of Enforcement James Stroope spoke quietly about the one-year-old unsolved murder case in a North Lake Brownwood neighborhood. A hint of sadness betrayed Stroope’s normally stoic demeanor.
Chantay Blankinship was 25 when she was last seen on the evening of May 13, 2016 — a Friday — walking near her home in the Tamarack Mountain/Thunderbird Bay area of Lake Brownwood. Searchers found her body two days later on property off County Road 424, about five miles from the home where Blankinship lived with her grandfather. It’s a narrow, unpaved road that passes through isolated countryside with heavy vegetation.
An abandoned and dilapidated house, said to have been a gathering place for young people, is prominently visible on the property. Investigators have declined to say precisely where Blankinship’s body was found.
A gate, adorned with items including a teddy bear, a ribbon, a heart and flowers in honor of Blankinship, blocks a dirt driveway that leads to the house.
Blankinship died of blunt force trauma, investigators have said, declining to comment further on what caused her death. Investigators have recovered what they believe was the murder weapon but have not disclosed the weapon and have not revealed details about any other evidence.

‘A black cloud’

No one has been arrested, and there are no suspects. Sheriff’s investigators, assisted by state and federal agencies, are working the case and following up on leads.
“It haunts us every day — everybody that works here,” Stroope said. “It’s a black cloud that follows you around. With it going unsolved, it wears on you. You don’t want to leave this unsolved and stones unturned — especially on a case of this magnitude.”
There is a $5,000 Crime Stoppers reward in the case.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Bird entered Stroope’s office, and both said they could never have imagined, after the murder, that it would be unsolved after a year. They believe the murder will be solved.
“We haven’t turned over the right rock yet,” Stroope said. Investigators work any new tips or leads “like it’s Day One,” he said.

Candle lighting,
remembrance planned
    
At 8 p.m. Saturday, community members will gather outside North Lake Community Church, where Blankinship attended, for a candle lighting and remembrance. Community members will be invited to share their memories of Blankinship.
The church’s pastor, Ron Keener, preached Blankinship’s heavily attended funeral in the church. Keener said he expects a large turnout Saturday night.
“She is still very significantly involved in the hearts and minds of our church,” Keener said. “A lot of our people kind of felt like they were her mother or her grandmother.”
The church is at 3131 Harbor Drive.

A birthday gathering

Stroope held the rank of captain of operations at the time of the murder, and George Caldwell was sheriff. Vance Hill, who is now sheriff, was chief deputy.
Stroope recalled the Sunday afternoon — May 15 — when he was notified about the missing young woman. Stroope was preparing that afternoon for a get-together to celebrate his 37th birthday, which was the next day.
Stroope was on the phone with Hill about the missing person report when investigator John Fincher called him. Blankinship’s body had been found, Fincher told Stroope, who abandoned his birthday plans and drove to the site.
Investigators have not revealed any details about the site or the condition of Blankinship’s body.
“You try to put on the cop face and go on, but how do you do that?” Stroope said. “You’re human. Any time you see a person die of non-natural causes, it’s disturbing.”
    
‘I take it
personal’

When Stroope looks at a photo of his teenage daughter that’s mounted on a wall in his office, he sees Blankinship.
“If you don’t take it personally, you’re not human,” Stroope said. “You find yourself questioning, what have you missed? I take it personal. You do this job … you can recover stolen property and you can protect (citizens) from this or that. You realize you can’t protect every person every day.
“Knowing I have a daughter, and thousands of people in this community have daughters … we’re trusted by the community to take care of everybody’s mother, brother, father, daughter, sister, son …”
Stroope said he sometimes drives out to the County Road 424 site and looks around, trying to see if there is something investigators missed, looking for “anything.” He tries to adopt the killer’s mindset. “You come up with all kinds of stuff,” Stroope said.
He’s thought of some scenarios that might have occurred, which he did not share.
Bird, speaking with Stroope about the case, reiterated that investigators won’t stop searching for Blankinship’s killer.
“We have never stopped working on this case,” Bird said. “Somebody lost a life … All of us have had sleepless nights over this. We need justice for the family and for Chantay.”

Making a difference

People go into law enforcement hoping to make a difference, Stroope said, but some cases — including the Blankinship murder — make him ask if he’s making any difference at all.
Stroope found out recently, he is.
Stroope answered a cell phone call from California, and the caller stated his name. “Do you remember me?” the caller asked.
“I sure do,” Stroope replied. The caller was a man Stroope had arrested and testified against in a drug case. The man wanted to tell Stroope he was out of prison and doing well. Stroope had made a difference in his life by treating him with respect when the two were on opposite sides of the law, and the man had thought about that every day in prison.
 That phone call made Stroope’s day, and  he realized “you did make a difference. It’s not every day that you can, and not every day that you’re told that. It builds your fire and gets you ready to go again.”