The pastor of a Pittsview, Ala., church had just given a woman a ride to the Booker T. Washington Apartments area on Tuesday when he was forced to drive to the Oglethorpe Bridge and was fatally shot, police said.
Joel Thomas, 24, faces charges including murder in the slaying of 44-year-old Blanchard Thomas. Arrested Wednesday morning in Phenix City, he now sits in the Muscogee County Jail awaiting his Columbus Recorder’s Court hearing today.
Police said that Joel Thomas, who’s related to the woman Blanchard Thomas drove to Columbus, likely isn’t the only suspect.
“It had to do with an issue with a girl,” Lt. Lynn Joiner said. “A girl was taken across the river and when she was brought back, (her friends and family) tried to figure out who took her. When she was brought back, they evidently thought (Blanchard Thomas) had some information.”
Blanchard Thomas, pastor of Mt. Missouri Baptist Church, had recently dropped off a young woman just north of BTW Apartments Tuesday afternoon. That’s when the suspect forced him to drive to Broadway near Golden Park, where he was shot in the right cheek, authorities state.
The suspect and Blanchard Thomas aren’t related, police said.
Joiner said Phenix City police are investigating an incident involving the woman that happened early Tuesday. He declined to say what police are investigating. Phenix City police couldn’t be reached Thursday night.
It isn’t known how much time passed between when Blanchard Thomas dropped her off and the suspect forced him to drive his green SUV to Broadway, Joiner said.
The pastor’s cell phone was taken during the shooting, reports state.
The woman’s family took her to the hospital, where Phenix City police met her. Joiner said the woman’s condition is fine.
Two men spotted the pastor slumped over inside his SUV parked in the southbound lane of Broadway around 4:20 p.m. Tuesday. The men are not people of interest in the case, Maj. Gene Hillhouse said.
An autopsy conducted Wednesday showed Thomas died of a gunshot wound to the head, Muscogee County Coroner Bill Thrower said, adding he ruled the death a homicide.
No weapon has been recovered, and no weapons were found inside the SUV, Hillhouse said.
The investigation led to Joel Thomas, who had an outstanding robbery warrant out of Columbus. They learned he might be at Riverview Apartments in Phenix City, where Columbus and Phenix City police found him on Wednesday, Joiner said.
Authorities took Thomas to the Russell County Jail, where he waived extradition and was taken to the Muscogee County Jail. He was charged Wednesday night with murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and weapons counts.
“I just knew him as a person who was always secondary to his community,” said the Rev. Dr. Larry Williams, pastor of Riverview Baptist Church in Columbus, who knew Blanchard Thomas for 24 years. “He put the community first.”
The victim was pastor at Mt. Missouri Baptist Church in Pittsview, Ala., though he would preach and sing at other churches. Williams said that when Thomas wasn’t busy with his own church, he would visit Riverview Baptist.
“He could raise hymns,” Williams said. “He could sing solos. It would electrify the congregation.”
Williams called Blanchard Thomas a personal inspiration and an asset to the local and national community.
“He was a good Samaritan,” Williams said. “If you needed him to walk with you one mile, he’d walk with you two. If he asks for your coat, give him your cane, also. I’m deeply saddened by his untimely demise.”
The Rev. Ralph Huling, pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church, knew Thomas well, primarily through the Columbus Clergymen Class. It meets Saturday nights and is a way for younger ministers to be trained by the older.
“I’m still sad and hurting from this tragedy,” Huling said.
Huling said ministers come to the clergy class to hone their preaching and hymn-singing skills.
“He was a regular member of the class,” Huling said. “He was very quiet, a very humble preacher, and he had a talent for singing hymns.”
Rosie Chambers, of Phenix City, first knew Blanchard Thomas as a teenager when he attended the church that she and her husband, Willie, used to lead -- Summer Hill Memorial Baptist in Seale, Ala. Thomas was friends with her son, Irvin, now deceased. They went to Central High School together.
“He used to come to my house, and I would feed him,” said Chambers, now a member of Higher Power Outreach Church in Phenix City. “He was a sweet person. I don’t see why anyone would hurt him.”
Joel Thomas was on parole for aggravated battery and drug charges out of Columbus when he allegedly shot the pastor. He pleaded guilty on April 14, 2008, to breaking a man’s jaw, as well as damaging the man’s 1995 BMW 318i, and was sentenced to three years in prison, followed by seven on probation. He also was ordered to repay Doctors Hospital $23,109, records state.
Joel Thomas pleaded guilty on Oct. 28, 2008, to two cocaine charges. He again was sentenced to three years in prison, though the sentence was to run concurrently with the first, court records state.
Thomas was paroled in January 2010, according to records.
Columbus police have asked anyone with information about Thomas’ death to call investigators at 706-653-3400.