FATAL FEUD: Before manhunt, troubled attorney Richard Dodelin sent warning signs

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 29, 2012 

  • Editor's note: This is part one of a three-part series. Here's what to expect from our special report.

    Sunday: Tensions between two men mount before deadly shooting at 84 Lumber

    Today: Manhunt begins with early-morning gun battle, ends with muffled shot

    Tuesday: Authorities reconstruct suicide, evaluate tactical response to crisis

Richard F. Dodelin sat in a local hair salon one Friday last January, blowing off steam and giving his stylist an earful about the mounting tension in his personal life. He griped about William Bullard, his girlfriend’s ex-husband, and said he knew how to be aggressive because he was an attorney.

As he prepared to leave, Dodelin’s boasting took on a more serious tenor.

“He doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” he said. “I’ll shoot his ass.”

The rant may have seemed like barbershop hyperbole at the time. But in hindsight, the irritated attorney had foreshadowed a tragedy Columbus won’t soon forget.

Dodelin made good on his threat three days later, according to police, when he met Bullard about 11 p.m. in front of the 84 Lumber on Fortson Road, a “neutral ground” the men had chosen to address their differences.

Dodelin casually returned home after the shooting and holed up inside his Hubbard Road house all night, attracting a massive police presence by daybreak.

On Feb. 1, 2011, as a SWAT team was gearing up to enter, Dodelin walked out the back door, fired a 12-gauge shotgun at police officers and managed to escape into a densely wooded area, prompting an hours-long search.

The event that became known as “the manhunt” sent shock waves through Columbus, gripping a community at once worried by school lockdowns and road closures and confused by the unexpected outbreak of violence. The search for Dodelin finally ended before 4 p.m., as a sniper spotted him roaming near a skeet range in a bright red University of Georgia jacket.

After a volley of gunfire with deputies, the troubled attorney turned his weapon on himself and pulled the trigger.

While authorities quickly pegged Dodelin as Bullard’s killer, their investigation into the slaying was just beginning. Over the next several days, detectives interviewed witnesses such as Dodelin’s hair stylist in an effort to piece together the events that precipitated the shooting.

This account of the manhunt stems from several interviews, hundreds of pages of police reports, 911 transcripts, crime scene photographs and other documents from three law enforcement agencies. The review of the case a year later -- from the events before Bullard’s death to the investigation that cleared the officers who fired at but missed Dodelin -- offers new details of the murder-suicide and the subsequent search for answers.

Columbus police last week declined to discuss details of the case. Maj. Gene Hillhouse, who heads the department’s investigative bureau, said he didn’t know of any “loose ends” in the case.

“Our major focus revealed that there was a mutual combat; one became the victor, and at a point later on, he ended his own life,” Hillhouse said. “There’s nothing to substantiate that anybody else was a part of that, and (investigators) looked at it for months.”

Mounting tension

The problems between Dodelin and Bullard came to a head in the weeks before the shooting. The men had crossed paths through their very different relationships with Rebekah Hardy, Bullard’s ex-wife.

While they’d been divorced for years, Bullard maintained a close friendship with Hardy, and he was inseparable from Bliss, their 14-year-old daughter. Bliss said she saw her father everyday. He took her to school and picked her up, and many days they would go eat together.

“He and my mom had a complicated relationship, but anyone could tell you that they really loved each other no matter how much they fought,” wrote Bliss, now 15, in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer. “They could always rely on one another.”

Hardy said she met Dodelin through her work in real estate in 2010, and what began as a business relationship became more serious in the weeks before the shooting. Dodelin and his wife were separated and going through a divorce, Hardy said, and he was going through a hard time.

Dodelin slept with a small handgun under his mattress and kept several firearms in the house. Bullard eschewed weapons and never felt comfortable around them. One friend said Bullard was “too liberal” to anticipate someone bringing a gun to a contentious encounter.

“People were afraid of Richard,” Hardy said, “but William wasn’t scared of anybody.”

Bullard had become increasingly concerned about Dodelin and the way he perceived him to be treating his daughter, and he had been enraged by an incident that happened more than a week before the shooting.

Late one Saturday, his daughter went with some friends to a motel on Macon Road. She became uncomfortable at the sight of alcohol in the room and called a trusted family member to pick her up.

The family member was pulled over for speeding on the way, but the officer agreed to follow her to the motel to verify her urgency.

Once there, the officer admonished the teens about the dangers of being out so late, but the sternest warning the girls received was from Dodelin, who insisted they be driven to his house after the episode, where Hardy was waiting.

Several witnesses would tell police that Dodelin lectured the girls using cuss words and, at some point, warned them that they ran the risk of being perceived as “sluts” because of their behavior. Hardy, in her first interview since the murder-suicide, told the Ledger-Enquirer last week Dodelin’s words were exaggerated by the time they reached Bullard.

Bullard was deeply angered that Dodelin had acted as his daughter’s “legal guardian,” according to police reports.

Dodelin had his own reasons for being upset with Bullard. He told his hairstylist he felt like Bullard was harassing Hardy and “needed to leave her alone.”

Hardy told police Dodelin was “extremely possessive” and jealous any time she had contact with other men, and that he may have viewed Bullard as a threat because of their strong friendship.

Even Hardy’s husband, Victor, a reserved man who told police he “minds his own business,” knew something was brewing between Dodelin and Bullard.

“I first noticed the two were arguing and saying they were going to fight about a month ago,” he told police after the shooting. “But nothing really ever happened -- they just talked about it.”

There were other signs of tension. Hardy said Bullard left Dodelin a message calling the attorney “a midget ambulance chaser.”

The night before the shooting, Dodelin followed a friend of Bullard’s thinking he was in the vehicle “as if he wanted to fight,” said Bobby Jaramillo, Bullard’s best friend.

“It was a clear indication to me that the guy may be a little more dangerous than I thought he may have been,” Jaramillo, a law enforcement officer in Tallapoosa County, said in a phone interview last week.

Fatal shooting

On the night of the shooting, Hardy had “put Richard to bed” about 10 p.m. and gone home to eat a spaghetti dinner cooked by her husband. Bullard was waiting on Dodelin at the 84 Lumber and called shortly before 11 p.m. wanting to speak to Hardy.

She refused the call because they had been arguing.

Bullard’s daughter took the call and tried to talk him out of the meeting, telling him he was behaving “like a high school student.” Bullard insisted on meeting Dodelin, saying he was tired of the man “talking crap.”

Dodelin suggested the meeting and Bullard chose 84 Lumber because it seemed like a “neutral ground” in between their residences, Hardy said. While she wouldn’t talk to Bullard, Hardy spoke with Dodelin and implored him not to go to the lumber company.

A few minutes after 11 p.m., Dodelin called Hardy back and sounded upset.

“William is at 84 Lumber,” he said before hanging up.

Hardy said it seemed like time froze. She scrambled for a pair of shoes but couldn’t find any.

Her daughter wanted to ride to the lumber company, too, but Hardy locked the car door so she couldn’t get in. On the way there, she assumed Dodelin had beaten Bullard up.

She saw Bullard’s car when she arrived and then his body, lying “perfectly straight” in the drive, she said. He wore blue jeans and a blue “warm-up” top. A gunshot wound oozed over his eye, and he had cuts on his face.

Shell casings lay between the body and the front gate. Bullard’s vehicle -- a four-door Mazda Protégé -- was parked backwards at the front entrance on the grass.

Hardy said she approached her ex-husband and called out to him. But she knew he was dead.

“Wake up,” she said. “Wake up.”

Hardy recalled that she dialed 911 and said “her husband” had been shot. Then she drove two miles to Dodelin’s house. She said she would have stayed with Bullard had she noticed any signs of life, but she didn’t. She said she had no fear of confronting Dodelin -- and that’s what she did.

Hardy said Dodelin greeted her “like nothing happened,” though he acknowledged shooting Bullard.

“He was as calm as he could be with me.”

Days later, Hardy would call a friend, Lt. Donna Tompkins of the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, to talk about the events of that night. Tompkins took seven pages of notes from the conversation and later gave them to police.

According to Tompkins, Hardy was convinced Dodelin wanted her to be the one who discovered Bullard’s body.

“It was like a cat killing an animal and bringing it to the doorstep,” Tompkins said Hardy told her. “It pisses you off, but they think they did something good.”

Hardy pleaded with Dodelin to turn himself in. She telephoned his father, who told her to call police and hung up on her.

She called defense attorney Richard C. Hagler, who later went to the scene of the standoff hoping he could talk Dodelin into surrendering. Dodelin refused.

Hardy said her paramour made a startling “confession” that night. According to Hardy, Dodelin claimed to have killed two other people before Bullard but didn’t say whom.

Hardy told police about the confession a few days after the shooting, but said she didn’t think authorities gave it much credence.

Neither did Hagler. “I’m not conceding he said it, but if he did, it’s something that would be false bravado in the bizarre events of that evening,” Hagler said. “I have no reason to believe there would be any truth to it.”

Back in Dodelin’s house, Hardy could see she wasn’t getting anywhere. “That night, when I looked at him, there was something about him,” she said. “His eyes were different.”

Hardy spotted an empty suitcase and feared Dodelin might try to flee the country. She recalled he’d been looking for his misplaced passport and talking about a trip to London.

“I told him, ‘Please turn yourself in,’” she said. “It was like trying to negotiate with a terrorist.”

Hardy said she was furious over the shooting and didn’t want Dodelin to “get away with it.”

“You know they’re going to come for you, right?” she told him.

She could already hear the sirens in the distance.

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