Break in ‘Satanic cult’ cold case murders: Fingernails, blood, hair, and audio recordings found almost 30 years after teens were killed

Almost three decades after two Texas teenagers were murdered, police have named a person of interest and found evidence in his home that could implicate him in the chilling crime — one that some had speculated may have been tied to a Satanic cult.

Sally McNelly and Shane Stewart, one-time high school sweethearts who had reunited around Independence Day in 1988 after a brief separation, vanished after watching a Fourth of July fireworks display together. Shane’s car was found abandoned the next morning, and both skeletal bodies were found that November near a lake about 17 miles from where Shane’s car was abandoned.

Because of the condition of the bodies, investigators had limited forensic evidence, but reportedly determined that both victims died of a gunshot wound to the head.

According to the Standard-Times, police arrested John Cyrus Gilbreath, 47, after a June 12 traffic stop during which they found a firearm and half a pound of marijuana in the car as well as body armor in the trunk.

Gilbreath’s passenger, a 41-year-old female, told police that Gilbreath ran a marijuana distribution operation in Tom Green County, and that investigators could find further evidence of this at his home.

Police obtained a warrant to search Gilbreath’s home, reportedly “attempting to locate ledgers used in the criminal offense of narcotics trafficking.”

But according to an affidavit obtained by the Standard-Times, they discovered much more that that.

Investigators reportedly found “biological substances including but not limited to hair; blood; fingernails and other biological substances that constitute potential evidence of a double homicide, which occurred in Tom Green County, Texas, on or about July 4, 1988.”

Police also found writings believed to be connected to the double homicide, along with three audio tapes labeled “S.S.” — the first initials of the victims.

Gilbreath has not been charged in connection with the double homicide, and was reportedly released on $175,000 bail on June 19.

In a 1991 Unsolved Mysteries episode devoted to the case, friends and family of the couple said they had been involved with a group of people with links to Satanic cults, and that Sally in particular attended parties where Satanic rituals took place.

In March of 1988, four months before the couple vanished, Sally reportedly called a sheriff’s deputy and admitted her involvement with a cult, and said that one member had given her and Shane a gun that had been used in an armed robbery that ended in murder. Sally handed over the gun to the Sheriff’s department, and police determined that the weapon had been reported stolen, which a sheriff’s deputy said in the episode lended credibility to their story.

As documented in the Unsolved Mysteries episode, Shane and Shelly briefly separated several weeks after that conversation with police. During that time, Shelly called her friend Helen, frantic, and said she was terrified someone was going to kill her.

It is not known if Gilbreath, who would have been roughly the same age as the victims when they died, has any ties to the purported cults.


Feature photo: Tom Green County Sheriff Department