MANOKIN -- Somerset County Detective Sgt. George Wilson was always perplexed about the disappearance of 31-year-old Rhonda Lee Parks two years ago. Despite a history of drug abuse and a fractured family life, Parks would never skip town without trying to contact her three children, Wilson said.
"It looked for a while like she might have been hiding out from some upcoming court cases she was facing," said Wilson, a member of the county sheriff's office. "But as time went on, with no contact with her kids, we thought it was going to turn out something worse."
Parks' burned body was found two weeks ago in a steel drum in the yard of a vacant house in this tiny, rural community about 15 miles from Crisfield. A man with ties to the area who has been living in North Carolina has been charged with her murder. Police said he told them where to find Parks' remains.
Joseph Olandis Walter Hayman Jr., 35, is being held in Charlotte, N.C., awaiting extradition, Wilson said.
News of his arrest surprised neighbors; official word of Parks' death after a troubled life confirmed what her family and friends had feared.
"Over these two years, they have suspected that all this would end with bad news. She lived hard," Vivian Bradshaw, a friend of the Parks' family, said yesterday. She said Parks had been released from jail a short time before she disappeared. Court records show Parks served time on drug charges and was also convicted of prostitution.
"Rhonda was planning to go straight; she wanted to get into nursing," Bradshaw said. Parks' children, now 17, 10 and 3, are in juvenile or foster care, authorities said.
Hayman's family lived in Manokin, according to police, and neighbors say the property where Parks' body was discovered had been owned by Hayman's grandfather, who died about two years ago.
The house has been vacant, said Dorine Johnson, who lived across the street from the white-shingled bungalow.
"It was a shock to everyone in the community," Johnson said of the discovery of the body and the charges against Hayman.
"He seemed like a nice young man, and his grandfather, who was 90, was a pillar in the community. The police were here with canines for over two days and never told us a thing about what was happening."
Police are unclear about the relationship between Parks, a Smith Island native who lived in Crisfield, and Hayman.
"I wouldn't call Hayman her boyfriend," said Wilson, the detective. "She apparently was living with someone in Ocean City. ... I'd call him an acquaintance."
Parks was reported missing in February 2006, last seen at a Dash-In convenience store about three miles from the Hayman family house. She was identified by the state medical examiner through dental records.
Parks had a record of run-ins with the law, ranging from a guilty plea to a prostitution charge in 2002 to a criminal conviction on drug distribution charges in 2003, both in Wicomico County. The latter offense brought her a five-year sentence, with about three years suspended.
Court records show that after serving her term on the drug distribution count, she was arrested in 2005 in Somerset County on multiple drug charges.
Parks had also been involved in several child-support cases over the years, including two in which she won judgments from fathers of her children. But court records show she later became a defendant in such cases after giving up custody to others.
Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.