Neither the murderer’s contrition nor the forgiveness of the victim’s family could mitigate the ugly details of Heath Jackson’s fatal shooting on Sept. 7, 2010.
Once facing the death penalty, Ricardo Strozier pleaded guilty to Jackson’s homicide and a string of related crimes today before Judge Gil McBride. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
As part of his plea agreement, he also relinquished any right to appeal.
After Heath Jackson’s family and friends detailed the depth of their loss and the promising life the Christian radio disc jockey and musician had before his death, Strozier briefly addressed the court, speaking first to the Jackson family, and then to his own.
“I hope and I pray that you will find forgiveness in your hearts for me,” he told Jackson’s friends and relatives, before telling his own: “I appreciate all of your support, your being there for me. And I apologize for putting you through this.”
His mother sobbed.
Though previous news reports had some details of the case against Strozier, the first full accounting was delivered this morning by District Attorney Julia Slater, who described Strozier as a serial burglar who once operated in the North Highlands area before targeting homes near Lakebottom Park.
He hit homes in the daytime while residents were at work, and Jackson was not the first to come home and confront him.
On Aug. 6, 2010, a 45-year-old man left his apartment on 15th Avenue off Hamilton Road to run errands. When he returned about 3 p.m., he noticed a window open near his back door.
Strozier came to that window from inside, pointed a pistol at him and ordered him to climb in. Strozier tied the man up with a sheet, blindfolded him and put his dog in a dishwasher. He gathered the man’s valuables, including a set of autographed Atlanta Falcons jerseys, then made a cell phone call for someone to come pick him up.
Such details became pertinent to Jackson’s case, as Slater described how the murder happened.
Around lunchtime that Tuesday after Labor Day, Strozier broke into Jackson’s 1667 Carter Ave. home by smashing a window on a side kitchen door, reaching in and unlocking it. He had begun to gather valuables to take, piling them on beds, when Jackson came home.
Armed with a five-shot, snub-nose, .38-caliber revolver taken in an earlier Lakebottom-area burglary, Strozier held Jackson at gunpoint in a bedroom, and, as he’d done before, began to tie Jackson with a sheet.
But Jackson struggled free, and Strozier, who never had a car when committing burglaries because a strange car would arouse neighbors’ suspicions, feared he could not afford to let Jackson get away, Slater said.
So he shot Jackson — repeatedly, emptying the gun as Jackson fled.
Jackson was shot three times in the back, once in the back of his left arm and once in the back of the head. He got out the kitchen door and down the steps, and made it to the front of an adjacent carport before he collapsed and died, a sheet still tied around his wrist, Slater said.
The alarm went out immediately. Jackson’s roommate arrived home in time to hear the shots, see Jackson fall, and see Strozier run. The 911 report of shots fired came in at 1:20 p.m.
From Jackson’s home at the corner of Carter Avenue and 17th Street, Strozier fled south and east, his path later retraced by reports from witnesses. Three blocks away, on Summit Drive, he hid in a garage, where at 1:30 p.m. he texted his girlfriend to say he was in trouble and needed to be picked up at Lakebottom Park. Having taken Jackson’s wallet, he hid it in the garage between a wall and door jam. Then he ran for the park.
Strozier’s girlfriend later told police she got Strozier’s text at his 212 Railroad St. apartment, just east of Second Avenue near 16th Street, and immediately asked his accomplice and driver, Wiley Martin, to drive her to rescue Strozier.
Meanwhile witnesses marked Strozier’s passage: On Eberhart Avenue, one block east of Summit, a resident saw Strozier sprinting by. A block east from there, Strozier crossed Cherokee Avenue at Poplar Drive and nearly ran into a jogger circling Lakebottom Park.
Slater believes Strozier dashed to Weracoba Creek and followed it north through the center of the park to the tennis courts off 18th Avenue. There witnesses saw a silver Acura stop and honk its horn before Strozier got in and the car pulled away.
Among those to speak during Strozier’s sentencing was police Lt. Lynn Joiner, who also contributed to that day’s narrative, saying that besides the initial reports from witnesses, police began getting other tips that day around 5:30 p.m. Of particular value was an informant who gave police Strozier’s name and said he was known to carry a gun while burglarizing homes around Lakebottom Park.
Detectives went to where Strozier was living, and found the silver Acura. Witnesses identified it as the one they’d seen at the park.
Before dawn the next day, a police SWAT team raided Strozier’s apartment. His girlfriend took them to a cinderblock outside, in which Strozier had hidden the gun. Ballistics and DNA testing matched it to Strozier and to the bullets that killed Jackson.
Among the burglary loot police found Strozier had stashed away were Jackson’s iPod, several guns taken from various homes, and autographed Atlanta Falcons jerseys.
Were there any doubt Strozier stole the jerseys, he removed it himself: Police also found photos of Strozier and Martin wearing the shirts.
More evidence fell into place on March 16, 2012, when a man working on the Summit Drive garage found Jackson’s wallet and gave it to the homeowner, who did not realize its significance until he Googled Jackson’s name, Slater said.
The murder investigation revealed just how busy a burglar Strozier had been.
The Aug. 6, 2010, burglary off Hamilton Road was just one in a string of summer break-ins Strozier committed while living in that area, Slater said. The second string started around Lakebottom when later he moved downtown.
Along with those to which he pleaded guilty Friday — which included the break-in during which he took the Falcons jerseys and an Aug. 11, 2010, burglary on Virginia Street, where he stole the handgun used to shoot Jackson — Strozier in 2010 is believed to have burglarized these residences:
402 49th St., on June 30.
1002 43rd St., on July 24.
10 Hemlock St., Apartment B, on July 28.
3804 First Ave., on Aug. 2.
4219 17th Ave., on Aug. 3.
4315 Third Ave., on Aug. 11.
1900 Hill St., on Aug. 12.
1260 Munro Ave., on Aug. 26.
Beyond life without parole for Jackson’s murder, McBride gave Strozier a consecutive life sentence for armed robbery and two five-year consecutive sentences for using a firearm to commit a crime. Other sentences were to be served concurrently with his life sentence. Attorneys said the end result is that Strozier, 24, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
He was charged with malice murder for intentionally shooting Jackson “with malice aforethought,” felony murder for committing the felony of burglary during the homicide, burglary for breaking in, armed robbery for taking Jackson’s wallet at gunpoint, aggravated battery for “disfiguring” Jackson by shooting him, and possessing a firearm during the commission of a felony, for having a gun during a burglary.
He was charged with burglary, armed robbery and using a firearm to commit a felony for breaking into 4215 15th Avenue and robbing the resident, and with burglary for the break-in at 1402-A Virginia Street, where he stole the murder weapon.
Most of today’s court session was devoted to hearing from Heath Jackson’s family and friends, who spoke of his Christian music ministry, his vibrant personality and his compassion for others.
His younger sister Hannah conveyed her feelings in a video sent from Australia, where her brother’s death inspired her to be a missionary.
She recalled that just days before his death, they sat together to watch a movie, the 2009 comedy “I Love You, Man,” starring Paul Rudd. Though her brother often shrugged off her affection, that day they snuggled together as they watched, she said.
On her video message, she began to cry. “I didn’t know this would be the last time I got to see him,” she said.
She remembered he had always been her bulwark in times of crisis. Having himself lost a girlfriend in a car accident, he consoled her when her boyfriend died in a wreck in 2006.
After her brother's death, she began living “moment by moment,” she said. She had been living with Jackson and his roommate, but could not go back after his murder. She moved in with a friend, then lived alone in an apartment. Then she remembered that her brother had wanted to go to Australia.
That was a turning point. “I had to grow up and decide things for myself,” she said. She went to Australia.
Cousin Lindsey Stone recalled that Jackson never drank, smoke or cursed, yet he was always the center of any social gathering. “If you put him into a group of people, he would have them smiling and laughing in moments,” she said.
Connie Jackson Crowe, sister of Jackson’s father David, recalled having to tell her 83-year-old mother her grandson was dead, and having to tell her brother he would never see his son again.
Jackson’s older sibling Hunter said his little brother had a smile that was “part mischief, part sincerity, part confusion.” He listed all the things he would miss about his brother, including, “Thinking anything I said, no matter how dumb, was hilarious.”
The last time they spoke, he couldn’t get his brother off the phone: “It was like you knew it would be the last time,” he said.
To Strozier, he said: “I forgive you, and I know that my family forgives you.”
But David Jackson, the father, was less conciliatory. He sat on the witness stand so that he could look Strozier in the eyes. He recalled that he had retired just six days before his sister told him his son was dead. The time he had hoped they would have together was gone.
His son was named David Heath Jackson because they shared a birthday, March 19. Now that day will forever remind him of his loss, he said.
When McBride asked whether the father supported the plea agreement, David Jackson said, “I’ll accept it.”
Heath Jackson’s parents are divorced. His mother, Allen Elementary School Principal Angi Yarbrough Idel, said she had remarried just three weeks before her son’s murder. From the moment she heard the news, all she could say was “Help me, Jesus,” she said.
She once wanted Strozier’s family to suffer the same loss. Were he sentenced to death, they would experience the suffering and the void left behind.
“As time went on, my heart changed,” she said. She quoted the Bible, Luke Chapter 6, Verse 37, the full text of which is: “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”
But forgiveness does not absolve all, she said: “We’ve each got to answer for what we do here on Earth.”
It was Joiner, the police lieutenant, whose tone differed significantly.
He recalled learning that after killing Jackson, Strozier later took a taxi to visit his mother, then came home to sleep naked with his girlfriend.
When taken into custody that night, Strozier had a smirk on his face, Joiner said: “He didn’t care.... I could tell there wasn’t a single ounce of conscience in his body.”
Yet the detective fully supported the life sentence, saying it is worse than death.
“Ricardo ain’t going to have a gun and six friends with him when he goes to that prison,” Joiner said.