After grisly murder, emotionally 'destroyed' family trying to recover

Donna Dempsey (WRDW-TV) Photo courtesy Tracey Dempsey
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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Monday, Nov. 11, 2013

BARNWELL, S.C. (WRDW) -- The pain of loss has left a family feeling destroyed, helpless, and confused.

"She would tell me not to have hate in my heart and vengeance," says Loy Mitcham, fiance of the late Donna Dempsey. "We're all just devastated. It's an unbelievable loss. It's insurmountable."

"It's just so mind-boggling," adds Dempsey's daughter, Tracey. "I can't even wrap my head around it."

When Loy Mitcham opened the door of Donna Dempsey's Barnwell home on the morning of November 1, a blanket of black smoke rushed out. Seconds later, he found his fiance of seven years, Dempsey, dead on the kitchen floor.

"There's so few things to be grateful for at this point, but the two things I can say for sure is that I'm grateful for knowing her, and I'm also grateful no one else had to see that," he says.

Barnwell County Coroner Lloyd Ward says smoke inhalation from a fire killed 56-year-old Dempsey and her two dogs, Billy and Butterbean. However, on Friday, the coroner told News 12 the case was upgraded to a homicide investigation. Before the smoke inhalation, Ward says the autopsy showed she suffered trauma to the head.

Investigators with the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) and Barnwell Police Department now believe two men sexually assaulted Dempsey before leaving her for dead.

"No matter who she met, within a few minutes of talking to them, it's like she had known them forever. She'd do anything for them. She'd give them the last five dollars she had in her pocket if they were hungry," Tracey Dempsey says of her late mother.

On Sunday, SLED and Barnwell Police arrested 36-year-old Michael Paul Buckmon and charged him with Criminal Sexual Conduct (First Degree), Kidnapping, Murder, Arson (First Degree), and Conspiracy.

For members of Dempsey's family, Buckmon has a familiar face. He lived next door to Dempsey. Family members say Dempsey occasionally helped Buckmon financially. She also had him over for dinner sometimes, family members say.

"I knew him myself," says Tracey. "I knew him personally. I have his cell phone number, and when I heard that he was suspected of having involvement, it ate me up inside."

Buckmon was convicted of killing an employee of Barnwell's China Express restaurant back in 1997. But in 2001, the South Carolina Supreme Court reversed that conviction, along with a conviction for Attempted Murder. Justices decided that there wasn't enough hard evidence, so his sentence of life in prison was overturned.

In addition to Buckmon, on Monday, police captured 23-year-old Matthew Bolen in Anderson County in connection to the murder.

With the two men behind bars, now the family is just left with one question: Why?

"I know she never got to meet her grand-baby, but I know she's met him now. I know she'd be proud," says Tracey.

"I just want to tell her I love her, and I miss her, and I want her back," says her fiancee. "I just want to hold her."

After being engaged for seven years, Mitcham says he had planned to give Dempsey a marriage license for a Christmas present. Now, instead, Mitcham says he'll just stand strong and support his family during this tough time.