Topping Columbus’ 2017 news in criminal justice was the one crime statistic that this year appeared to exceed previous records:
As of Wednesday, when 68-year-old Joseph Howard Johnson III was killed in a shootout during an attempted armed robbery around noon at the Columbus Pawn Shop, 2241 Fort Benning Road, the total for the year stood at 35, according to police.
In Georgia Bureau of Investigation statistics dating back to 1980, that’s a new high, the previous record having been 32 in 1993. The only other year coming close was 2008, when Columbus had 30.
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Ranking No. 2, because it affects almost everyone charged with a crime, is the change in how Columbus Recorder’s Court handles its preliminary hearings.
The change came partly in response to a lawsuit over the court’s charging victims of domestic abuse a fee if they declined to prosecute. Acting on behalf of a woman assessed a fee of $150 in 2016 for refusing to press charges against a boyfriend, the Southern Center for Human Rights and local attorney Mark Post filed a class-action lawsuit the city settled for $75,000 on March 1, when Columbus Council repealed the law authorizing such fees.
Other changes followed: The public defender’s office took over the task of representing defendants, offering its services on request, and a new clerk and new full-time judge were appointed.
Coming in at No. 3 in crime news is a case many Columbus residents today are too young to remember, but one those old enough to recall will never forget: The Columbus “Stocking Stranglings” of 1977 and ’78, when seven older women were beaten, raped and strangled by an intruder police then seemed incapable of catching.
In 1984, they arrested Carlton Gary. In 1986, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
But his appeals dragged on for years, stretching beyond his first scheduled execution date of Dec. 16, 2009, when the Georgia Supreme Court issued a stay and ordered a Muscogee Superior Court judge to consider DNA-testing strangling evidence.
That testing yielded mixed results. After repeated hearings on Gary’s motion for a new trial or new sentencing, he was denied. This past Dec. 1, the Georgia Supreme Court rejected his final appeal, setting the stage for a second scheduled execution.
Ranking No. 4 this year was gang violence, which was highlighted in the April trial of three Crips convicted in a vengeance killing last year at Columbus’ Peachtree Mall. Prosecutors said they gunned down Anthony Meredith to avenge the death of Christopher Twitty, reportedly a senior Crip.
Responding to followup reports, authorities in September said 400 of 1,066 inmates in the Muscogee County Jail – about 37 percent – were gang members, around 300 of them Gangster Disciples.
Prosecutors also alleged a man killed last year at Columbus’ Double Churches Road Park was dealing cocaine for the Bloods street gang.
Ranking No. 5 were the killings of witnesses in previous murder cases, among them Travis Porter, gunned down Sept. 4 in a Farr Road apartment. He was a key witness in the 2016 murder trial of Reginald Jackson, who was acquitted after Porter recanted his account of having seen Jackson fatally shoot Dior Cheney in 2013.
Porter, 35, was facing perjury charges when he was killed. He was to have been in court the next day.
In September, Reginald Jackson was arrested again, after he was wounded in an Aug. 28 shooting on Morris Road. He now faces murder charges in the shootings of Brandon Scott and Michael Fleming, both 34. Police refused to disclose the names of witnesses in Jackson’s case to ensure their safety.
On Nov. 16, police found Steve Phillips fatally shot in the woods off Winston Road. Phillips, 30, was the star witness in the June trial of Kevin Babe “Cali” Henderson, found guilty in the execution-style killing of Chad Herring on Nov. 12, 2014. Herring was alleged to be a Gangster Disciple.
At No. 6 in this year’s crime news were fatalities related to police chases, and a high-speed collision resulting in a death now counted among the city’s murders.
On May 18, a Columbus police officer ran down Deonte Marces Giles after Giles collided with a police vehicle and lost control of the car he driving, wrecking out on Cusseta Road. Investigators said Giles, 22, was pointing a gun at police when Officer Ryan Vardman ran him over, killing him.
Police were trying to capture Giles because he was a suspect in the April 1 fatal shooting of Dudley Jones Jr., 44, on Ticknor Drive.
Just a week before Giles’ death, a grand jury in Russell County cleared a Columbus police officer who on Nov. 6, 2016, fired 21 shots into a car police had chased into Phenix City, killing 17-year-old Christian Redwine and wounding two passengers.
That officer, Alan Brown, later resigned from the police force.
On June 5, 72-year-old Frank McLemore of Smiths Station was killed in a Phenix City crash caused by two teens who were fleeing Columbus police in a stolen Honda CRV. On Aug. 2, Jennifer Sisk, 42, of LaGrange, Ga., was killed in a five-car collision from which the driver at fault ran. That suspect, Courdia Bellamy, has been charged with murder.
Ranking No. 7 in court news were some significant civil awards, among them a jury’s awarding $26 million to Sandra Williams, who was disabled in 2012 after neck surgery at St. Francis Hospital. The jury announced its decision on Dec. 11.
On Nov. 8, a Russell County jury awarded $7.5 million to Henry Walker, who at age 59 in 2015 was buying a watermelon at a Phenix City Walmart when his foot got caught in a wooden pallet and he fell, breaking his hip.
In August, a Columbus jury awarded $4.5 million to the family of Markese Hodge, fatally shot Aug. 6, 2014, at Cross Keys Apartments, 3816 Baker Plaza Drive. The suspect charged with Hodge’s shooting was acquitted, but the parents sued McCorlew Realty Inc., claiming it knew the apartments needed better security but neglected to act.
In September, a jury here awarded $950,000 to a woman falsely detained by a bounty hunter working for Ace Bonding Co.
At No. 8 in crime news were drug busts and overdoses, some serving as evidence of the country’s opioid epidemic.
On May 13, a 29-year-old Smiths Station man was found dead from an apparent heroin overdose outside the Georgia welcome center at 1751 Williams Road in Columbus.
On Oct. 17, the Columbus Police Department’s Vice and Narcotics Unit and Special Operations Unit announced the seizure of $1 million in cocaine and $24,000 in cash. Two suspects, one from Phenix City and another from Columbus, were charged with trafficking the drug.
On Dec. 6, the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office announced its officers had seized more than 14 pounds of heroin and 33 pounds of methamphetamine on Alta Vista Drive, where a man and woman were arrested. The drugs’ combined street value was estimated at $7.6 million.
Ranking No. 9 was news related to another sordid human craving, the exploitation of women and children held in sexual servitude.
On Nov. 13, authorities announced the arrests of 21 suspects ranging in age from 22 to 55, each charged in a sting called “Operation Hidden Guardian,” in which undercover agents posed as children online.
The suspects were lured to various locations where they expected to have sex with children, investigators said. Some also transmitted obscene material, exposed themselves or asked for child pornography, police said.
The operation involved local, state and federal agencies.
On Oct. 19, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced the arrests of 60 Georgia sex-trafficking suspects in its “Operation Cross Country” sting.
As the year draws to a close, Columbus residents are confronted with issues involving the buildings that house its criminal justice operations.
This ranks as No. 10 in crime and court news, and it may make the list again in years to come, depending on what Columbus Council decides to do about its infrastructure needs.
On Oct. 1, city leaders revealed the kitchen at the Muscogee County Jail was so in need of immediate repairs that it had to be shut down and a temporary, mobile kitchen from California brought in to substitute.
Of the kitchen floor, city administrators said: “The floor is cracked/chipped, missing grout, and has areas of pooling with standing water and continues to deteriorate.”
On Dec. 12, Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson’s “New Government Center and Judicial Building Commission” recommended the city demolish the Government Center complex currently housing most of its courts and build a new judicial center.
The commission proposed city leaders ask voters to approve a sales tax to fund the project, which could cost an estimated $124,147,320, depending on whether other city services in the complex can move into existing office space.
Built in 1969, the Government Center tower lacks modern fire protection measures, has inadequate holding cells for inmates going to court, and has failing utility systems. Its large windows have no insulation, and interior temperature control is so problematic that offices on one side of the structure can have temperatures 30 degrees higher than those on the other side.
If council approves, voters could be asked to decide on a sales tax for the project in 2020.