Homicides past and present led Columbus crime news in 2013

Prominent murder cases end as Strozier and Registe plead guilty

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.comDecember 25, 2013 

Homicides led the local crime news this past year, as authorities concluded old cases in the courts while fresh cases occurred on the streets, where public shootings had police concerned innocent bystanders would get hit by stray gunfire.

Two prominent murder cases, one in which prosecutors had sought the death penalty, came to a close with guilty pleas: Facing lethal injection if convicted of the Sept. 7, 2010, fatal shooting of 25-year-old Columbus radio DJ Heath Jackson, Ricardo Strozier, 24, pleaded guilty on May 24 and was sentenced to life without parole.

Two weeks earlier, on May 10, Michael Jason Registe, who internationally became a "most wanted" fugitive after the July 20, 2007, execution-style slayings of 21-year-old Randy Newton Jr. and 20-year-old Bryan Kilgore, pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and was given two concurrent life sentences.

Other killings that came to court this year included those of Kelley Leggett and Blanchard Thomas, each a mistaken target of greed or anger.

Leggett died in an attempted home invasion in which the intruders intended to rob three women of drugs and money, but attacked the wrong apartment the evening of Nov. 9, 2010.

Responding to their knock at his front door, Leggett opened the door, saw guns and pushed it shut as a blast of buckshot fired through the door blew a gaping hole in his forehead. A barrage of gunfire from outside the house followed, wounding his brother and fiance.

Five suspects were arrested. Two pleaded guilty. Two await trial. The alleged triggerman, Rodger Scales, was acquitted of murder but convicted of convicted of six counts of aggravated assault.

On March 8, 2011, the Rev. Blanchard Thomas was shot in the face after he rescued a distraught 19-year-old woman who told him she had been kidnapped and raped.

He gave her a ride from Seale, Ala., 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 the possible location of her alleged rapist.

Instead he was forced to drive to Broadway's dead end under the Oglethorpe Bridge, where wounded he was left to die in the driver's seat of his Ford Expedition.

Five suspects were arrested. All made plea deals with prosecutors except Donnie Forte, who was convicted of Thomas' murder on Oct. 18.

Meanwhile the number of new Columbus homicides passed the 17 reported in 2012, reaching 22 as the year comes to a close. Many were street or nightclub shootings, some with multiple gunshots, prompting concern such reckless gunplay could result in multiple casualties among bystanders.

The first homicide of the year was a notable example: Charles Foster Jr. was in the Majestic Lounge on Cusseta Road Jan. 1 when gunfire erupted. Foster was killed; six others were wounded.

Also egregious was the Sept. 19 slaying of 34-year-old David Lee Scott at Coolidge Avenue and Seventh Street, where a gang of would-be robbers fired more than 30 rounds at the car Scott was driving, wounding one of their own. Hit in the head, Scott died the next morning.

Half of the 22 homicides reported before Christmas were public shootings.

Other crime and court news this year included:

Toms slaying cleared

On July 25, Columbus police charged Michael Jerome Johnson in the Nov. 15, 2011, slaying of Gold & Silver Trading Center manager Steve Toms, ending two years of suspense and suspicion surrounding the high-profile case.

Credited with clearing it was Detective Andrew Tyner, who began questioning Johnson after he was arrested Aug. 22, 2012, for that day's armed robbery of the La Mexicana de Columbus, a restaurant and grocery store at 3305 Victory Drive.

Tyner's investigation proved Johnson's alibi for the day of Toms' slaying didn't pan out, and cell phone records showed Johnson was in the area the day Toms, 63, was gunned down inside the 3717 Gentian Blvd. jewelry store.

Officer cleared

On May 14, a grand jury cleared Columbus police Officer Vincent Lockhart Jr. in the Sept. 6, 2011, fatal shooting of Tony Carr, a Fort Benning fire inspector Lockart shot along with suspected bank robber Alrahiem Tolbert.

Lockhart had chased Tolbert from a robbery at the 2944 Macon Road MEA Credit Union through backyards to a house Carr rented at 2907 Gardenia St, There Tolbert got into a government truck Carr had left running in the driveway as Carr ran from the house and got into the truck's passenger seat.

Ignoring Lockhart's orders to halt, Tolbert tried to back over the officer, prompting Lockhart to open fire.

Jail deaths

On Nov. 12, Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr summoned the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to probe the deaths of three county jail inmates between Oct. 24 and Nov. 8.

The first was Lori Carroll, 46, whose autopsy showed she had broken ribs, a punctured lung and facial wounds. What caused such trauma remains a mystery.

The second was Maurice Grier, 21, of Columbus, who died of an brain aneurysm on Oct. 29 at Midtown Medical Center.

A cell mate faces a murder charge in the third death: Issac Kindred, 57, was pronounced dead at in his fourth floor cell, where corrections officers found his body stuffed halfway under a bunk, bloody cloths over his face.

Authorities charged Jeffrey McKinney, 25, with Kindred's homicide.

Officer dies in wreck

Midsummer headlines were dominated by a July 30 collision that killed Metro Narcotics Agent Keith Slay, a Columbus police corporal, and injured Agent Brad Evans, a Russell County deputy.

The case remains controversial as locals debate whether police should have charged the other driver, a 74-year-old arrested Sept. 18 on misdemeanor traffic offenses that include vehicular homicide.

With blue lights flashing and the siren blaring on an otherwise unmarked Ford F-150 pickup truck, Slay and Evans were bypassing slower traffic as they sped north on Veterans Parkway.

The other driver also was northbound, trying to get to the 7550 Veterans Parkway Marvin's Market. Having missed his right turn into the market entrance, he tried to turn left to go back. Moving into the center turn lane, his 2011 Ford Ranger sideswiped Slay's truck, sending it sliding into a utility pole.

Evans, 27, a passenger, survived the crash, but Slay, 53, died at the hospital.

Russell Co. case drags on

Twisted around the already tangled tale of Russell County's capital case against Lisa Graham was the health of Judge George Green, whose ailments led to his retirement.

Witnesses had told Chief Judge Al Johnson that Greene fell asleep during Graham's trial, prompting Johnson to inquire of Greene's health the morning Greene declared a mistrial on Sept. 25, 2012.

On May 3, the defense moved to dismiss the case, claiming the mistrial was unnecessary and that trying Graham again would be double jeopardy. The Alabama Circuit Court of Appeals rejected that Oct. 2.

Graham is accused of hiring Kenneth Walton, a family worker, to kill her daughter, Stephanie Shea Graham, 20. Walton shot Graham six times before leaving her body on Bowden Road near Pittsview on July 5, 2007.

Greene retired Dec. 1.

Hughes case appealed

A case that could set a state precedent in the prosecution of vehicular homicide took two different turns this year as a Columbus judge ruled for the defense and the Georgia Court of Appeals overturned that decision.

The appeals court rejected Judge Gil McBride's ruling in favor of Jack Hughes, who at age 17 caused a June 27, 2011, two-vehicle collision that killed Army medic Jerome Curtis Owens.

The appeals court overturned McBride's Feb. 27 ruling that police had no probable cause to test Hughes' blood for intoxicants after the accident at Macon Road and Elm Drive, where at 5:19 a.m. Hughes' eastbound Ford F-150 pickup truck ran a red light and T-boned Owens' Nissan Altima.

Officers could see Hughes was slow to answer questions and seemed unsteady on his feet, and his eyes were red.

But they did not try to determine whether he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol until they arrested him on a misdemeanor homicide by vehicle charge, based on his having run a red light.

While searching him, they found pills in his pockets. Suspecting he was under the influence of drugs, they persuaded Hughes to submit to a blood test, which showed the presence of drugs and alcohol in his system. He subsequently was charged with five separate counts of felony homicide by vehicle.

Word compensation

The case of an innocent man wrongly convicted 13 years ago was the subject of legislation that passed both houses of the Georgia General Assembly during its 2013 session.

Legislators agreed to pay Lathan Word $400,000 for the 11 years he spent in prison after being wrongly convicted of a Columbus armed robbery in 2000.

Word heard his compensation was on its way. But it was not, because the money was not budgeted.

It will be added when an amended or supplementary budget takes effect in January, said state Rep. Richard Smith. Smith said the money will be appropriated automatically, so legislators will not have to vote on Word's compensation again.

Stranglings DNA

The continuing saga of convicted Columbus "Stocking Strangler" Carlton Gary took yet another sharp turn on Nov. 21 when prosecutors announced a DNA test that had appeared to clear Gary in one of the heinous serial killings of 1977-78 was wrong.

Prosecutors said the GBI in a report dated Nov. 14 found the male DNA profile attributed to evidence tested from Martha Thurmond's Oct. 25, 1977, rape and strangling "is actually the result of contamination from a quality-control sample."

The revelation could remove the primary exhibit supporting Gary's motion for a new trial, now set for a Feb. 10 hearing before Judge Frank Jordan Jr.

GBI fire probe

The GBI also was in the news June 15 when agents decided no one had tampered with Columbus fire department records related to a 2010 home day care fire that killed one child and injured three others.

Investigators serving a search warrant Feb. 12 at the Public Safety Center headquarters of the Columbus Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services seized the documents at the behest of District Attorney Julia Slater, who asked them to probe accusations fire department administrators altered files on the 5629 Mill Branch Road day care fire to conceal evidence the first fire engine to respond was dangerously understaffed.

A second allegation was that records were altered to show fire safety inspections were conducted at schools when in fact they were not. That remains unresolved.

Two adults and nine children were in the day care Feb. 26, 2010, when the blaze raced from an adjacent carport into the house. Four children were seriously injured, and one of them, 23-month-old Michael "Mikey" Dubard, died from third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body the next day at a burn center in Augusta, Ga.

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