Donnie Forte found guilty of killing minister; returns to prison

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 19, 2013 

For executing the Alabama minister who’d just served as a young woman’s savior, Donnie Forte will spend the rest of his life in prison.

His record shows he will not be in unfamiliar surroundings.

A jury Friday found Forte, 55, guilty of murder in the March 8, 2011, fatal shooting of the Rev. Blanchard Thomas, who that day had rescued a lost and distraught 19-year-old from Seale, Ala., where she said she had been kidnapped and raped.

Blanchard gave her a ride to her grandparents house on Sixth Street near Columbus’ Booker T. Washington Apartments, where an outraged mob of friends and relatives hearing of the teen’s distress turned on the minister, demanding he drive them to where her alleged rapist might be.

Instead he was forced to drive to Broadway’s dead end under the Oglethorpe Bridge, where Forte shot him in the right cheek with a .380-caliber handgun and ran, leaving Thomas to die in the driver’s seat of his Ford Expedition. Passersby later found his lifeless body slumped over the steering wheel, his seatbelt still fastened.

For acting like the “Good Samaritan” in the Bible from which he preached, the minister was put to death.

After two days of testimony, the jury deliberated about three hours before delivering its verdict just after 2 p.m. Friday. “It’s a burden lifted,” Thomas’ sister Joan Gibson told Superior Court Judge William Rumer, before he sentenced Forte. “I know my brother. He was a preacher. He served the Lord,” she said.

Forte was convicted of murder, kidnapping with bodily harm, using a firearm to commit a crime and possessing a drug-related object, a crack pipe he had when police arrested him the day after he killed Thomas. Besides his sentence of life without parole, to be served concurrently for murder, kidnapping and having a crack pipe, he got five additional years on the firearms charge, to be served consecutively.

After the sentencing, Senior District Attorney Don Kelly noted Forte already has spent much of his adult life in prison. His record includes convictions for two counts each of burglary and armed robbery in 1975, for which he was sentenced to 15 years; one count each of criminal attempt armed robbery and aggravated assault in 1988, for which he got a 20-year sentence; theft by receiving stolen property in 1985, for which he got four years to serve; and possessing cocaine in 2011, for which he was sentenced to five years, Kelly said.

In summarizing the case in his closing statement Friday, Kelly retraced the complicated journey that led to Thomas’ murder: His sister was dating a man known by the nickname “New York,” a drug user who regularly took his girlfriend’s truck and rented it out for drugs. His dealer was the young woman he allegedly kidnapped.

On the night of March 7, 2011, he took the truck and loaned it to the 19-year-old, then called her early the next morning for a ride. Around 7 a.m., the woman called a friend and said New York would not let her out of the truck. The friend passed that on to her family, sparking the storm of anger that followed.

Meanwhile, Thomas’ sister was trying to find her vehicle, and New York wasn’t answering his cell phone. She finally got his bondsman to call, and New York answered, telling her the truck was in Seale, where his mother lived.

The sister, Shendora Thomas, got her brother to drive her to Seale to find her truck. They found New York there at his mother’s house, but the truck was not where he told them it was, so they had to return to his mother house to ask again.

While they were there, the visibly shaken young woman walked up, holding Shendora Thomas’ keys. She told the Thomases she would take them to the truck. On the way, she told them New York had raped her. Unfamiliar with rural Russell County, she was lost.

When they got to the truck, it would not start. Shendora Thomas decided to wait there for a tow truck. Blanchard Thomas offered to give the young woman a ride home to Columbus.

“He had no idea what he was driving into,” said Assistant District Attorney Matt Landreau.

Back in Columbus, the anger over the woman’s alleged rape was reaching a peak. Her family had called police. The officer responding found 20-30 people outside her home so unruly he had to call for backup to control the mob.

While he was there, the young woman called and said she was on her way to her grandparents’ house, which was just around the corner from her parents’ home. The police officer said the angry mob ran there before he could drive over.

The officer left the grandparents’ house before Thomas arrived with the teen.

Around 2:30 p.m., the minister pulled up, and the teen went into the house, crying, shaking and saying she’d been raped. Relatives rushed her to the hospital. Outside the house, Thomas was surrounded by men yelling at him, asking, “Where’s New York?”

Forte, a neighbor to the young woman’s family, got into the front passenger’s seat beside Thomas. Michael Ingram, another neighbor, got into the back seat behind Forte. Joel Thomas, the young woman’s cousin and no relation to the preacher, got in the back seat behind Blanchard Thomas.

The minister was ordered to drive them to find New York. “It’s going to be you or him,” Forte told the minister.

Two more of the young woman’s relatives, Jody Perry and his sister Keedra Brummitt, followed the minister’s SUV in Brummitt’s Buick Regal as it went from Sixth Street to Eighth Street, west to First Avenue, south to Fourth Street, and then west to Broadway.

At a stop sign along that route, Joel Thomas and Ingram got out of the SUV and into Brummitt’s car, leaving only Forte with the minister.

On Fourth Street at Broadway, Brummitt stopped and waited while the SUV turned south on Broadway, went under the bridge and parked in a diagonal space facing Golden Park. Brummitt turned north on Broadway, and heard a gunshot. She stopped, but her passengers told her to drive on. Looking back, she saw Forte leave the SUV and run east on Fourth Street.

A security camera at a nearby business recorded him dashing by. A worker there also saw him, but later could not identify him, having been too focused on locking his truck door and cranking its windows shut because he feared Forte might car-jack him.

Initially five suspects — Joel Thomas, Ingram, Brummitt, Perry and Forte — were charged with Blanchard Thomas’ murder. All but Forte arranged plea deals with prosecutors. Perry pleaded guilty Tuesday to aggravated assault. Rumer sentenced him to 20 years in prison with seven to serve. Kelly said the others likely will plea and be sentenced next week.

On the Tuesday afternoon he was executed for saving a young drug dealer who told him she had been kidnapped and raped, the Rev. Blanchard Thomas was 44 years old. He was pastor of the Mt. Missouri Baptist Church in the Rutherford community near Pittsview, Ala., and lived with his elderly mother in Phenix City.

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