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A decision to reopen an 11-year-old Hilton Head Island homicide case in 1999 led to a guilty plea Wednesday.'
The case marks the first conviction out of seven old homicide and missing persons cases the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office jump-started in 1999.'
On Wednesday, Eckerin Frazier, 37, of Hilton Head pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the 1988 shooting of Bertha Neaman of Bluffton. Frazier also pleaded guilty Wednesday in Beaufort County General Sessions Court to the December 1999 armed robbery of the Hampton Inn on Hilton Head.'
He was sentenced to 25 years in prison on each charge, but will serve both sentences at the same time. Judge Gerald Smoak said Frazier must serve 85 percent, or about 21 years, of his term before he is eligible for parole. He was given credit for a year and five months served in the county jail since his arrest in December 1999 for the motel robbery.'
Neaman, 63, delivered newspapers for The Atlanta Constitution, but on the morning of March 15, 1988, she never finished her route. Telephone workers found her body behind New Church of Christ on Spanish Wells Road. She had been shot three times in the head. Later that morning, her vehicle was found on Marshland Road.'
Lt. Bob Bromage of the Sheriff's Office resurrected the Neaman case in 1999 when he became the traumatic death investigator for the Beaufort County Coroner's Office. Bromage said he worked with the original detective handling the homicide, Lt. David Randall of the Sheriff's Office, to bring a murder indictment against Frazier in May 2000.'
Bromage said interviews with three witnesses, all of whom are prison inmates, bolstered the case in late 1999. Subsequent interviews with Frazier led police to charge him with the killing, he said.'
Neaman's son, Lonnie Neaman of Bluffton, said there were times over the past 13 years he felt his mother's death would remain a mystery.'
"I can't believe it's been 13 years," Lonnie Neaman said outside the courthouse Wednesday, "and the detectives stayed on it and solved it."'
Bertha Neaman's daughter, Donna Creel of Scranton, said she believed her mother's killer would be caught someday.'
"It's hard, when they tell you that if it wasn't solved in 72 hours (after the killing) it probably will never be solved," Creel said. "But as long as it's an open case, you just hope and pray it will be solved."'
Frazier was a suspect at the time of the shooting, but investigators lacked the proof needed to bring charges against him.'
"I was reluctant to accept the plea," Solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, prosecutor for the state's 14th Judicial Circuit, said in court Wednesday. "But I understand closure means an awful lot to the family."'
"Did you do it?" Murdaugh asked Frazier.'
"Yes, sir," he replied.'
Frazier initially was charged with murder in the Neaman case, but prosecutors changed the charge to voluntary manslaughter in exchange for a guilty plea. Prosecutors also dismissed charges of kidnapping and armed robbery in exchange for the guilty plea. '
Lonnie Neaman spoke to Frazier during the court proceedings Wednesday.'
"You've taken a big part of our life away from us," he said. "This has been pure hell for this family. I really hope you think long and hard about what you did."'