Thirty-three years ago a grotesque eruption of violence took the life of a Phenix City preacher trying to help parishioners with their mentally ill son.
The Rev. Barto Roberts of Gaines Chapel AME Church had come to Columbus' Southside Court Apartments off Cusseta Road to help Otis Reid Sr. and his wife persuade their son, Otis Jr., to keep a doctor's appointment.
The son, who'd previously been treated at West Central Georgia Regional Hospital, had agreed to keep an appointment before, if the minister went along. Perhaps he would again.
As they talked in the apartment, the son twice got up and walked back to his room. The second time he came back with one hand behind his back.
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When Roberts again asked him to leave with them, the son brought a .22-caliber revolver from behind his back and started shooting.
As the father sprinted from the house, the pastor fell wounded by the front door. The son walked out and shot Roberts in the head.
Witnesses would never forget the minister's lifeless body lying on the apartment porch, where Columbus police dodging bullets stepped around it as they forced their way in to capture the killer.
That was Feb. 25, 1982. Roberts died at age 50. Reed, who spells his last name differently than his father did, was 20 years younger.
Born in 1952, he's now in his early 60s and still in prison, sentenced to life after he pleaded guilty but mentally ill, reportedly the first defendant in Muscogee County to do so after a change in the law allowed it.
Now he's coming up for parole, and the state cannot find anyone from Roberts' family to notify.
Nor can workers with the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit's Victim-Witness Assistance Program, whom the state Board of Pardons and Paroles' Office of Victim Services asked for help.
Reed is not the only "lifer" whose case is so old it precedes the creation of victim services programs, which keep families informed of offenders' upcoming parole hearings and other updates.
Shelly Hall, director of the six-county judicial circuit office, said her agency started in the mid-1990s, years after these lifers up for parole were sentenced.
Because she has no victims' families on file, she's struggling to find and inform them of the parole hearings.
Sometimes she has only about a week before the hearing. With nothing on file, she must seek records from city archives, she said. Retrieving those can take 10 days, she said.
"On top of our being understaffed and trying to operate with the little resources that we have, this with giving us less than a week to pull something from an archive and contact these family members, it's not possible," she said. "It's liteally not possible."
So far this year, two inmates sentenced to life were paroled before she could find victims' families:
George G. Christian Jr., convicted in the Feb. 21, 1986, murder and armed robbery of Edwin T. Borgert, a clerk at a Majik Market. Christian, who began serving his sentence Nov. 17, 1986, was paroled Feb. 16.
Willie James Riggins, convicted in the Christmas 1987 murder of Earl Thomas. Riggins began serving his sentence April 27, 1988, and was paroled April 13.
The parole board
The reason the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is seeking victims' families is because it, like Hall and her staff, also has no record of any, said spokesman Steve Hayes.
It does not have to try to find them, he said. "The board isn't required to do this." But it knows victim services weren't available decades ago, and it wants to do all it can to compensate.
The regional victim-witness programs may ask the board for more time to find families when it can't locate them right away, Hayes said.
"The parole board wants to identify any unregistered victims, in these life sentenced cases, get them registered if that's their desire, so that the board members have their information, including victim impact statements to consider, before making a parole decision," Hayes said.
The board isn't obligated to do that, but it is obligated to hold hearings for these inmates, because they've been denied parole before.
When the board denies parole, it sets a date for reconsideration, from one to eight years in the future, Hayes said. It must hold to that schedule.
These decades-old cases precede changes in state law allowing judges to sentence defendants to life without parole. Under the old law, inmates serving life sentences were eligible for parole in seven years. Typically these inmates have been denied parole repeatedly.
And they may be denied again, Hayes said. Of the notices Hall has, he added, "It shouldn't be inferred that these cases she's giving you will be paroled."
Of 710 lifers who came up for parole last year, 133 were granted and 577 were denied, he said.
Hayes added that those paroled are not left unsupervised, free to do as they please.
"For lifers who are paroled, it is standard for them to have additional supervision through increased face-to-face meetings with the parole officer. It would be standard for these cases to be placed on GPS monitoring," Hayes wrote in an email.
Among the requirements parolees face are:
Pay any fees or restitution, including a monthly parole fee.
Get a job or actively seek employment.
Earn a high school graduate equivalency degree or attend vocational-technical classes toward earning a certificate.
Allow authorities at any time to search them or their property.
Leave the state only with permission.
Own no weapons and break no laws.
Obey all instructions from parole officers.
A little help
Finding family for one of the cases on Hall's list quickly was remedied:
The victim was a Columbus police officer. Law enforcement officers do not forget colleagues lost in the line of duty.
On Aug. 7, 1994, Officer Ed Osborne found a 15-year-old violating curfew and took the teen to be released to his parents.
Osborne gave the youth a pat-down before putting him in back of the police car but missed a handgun the teen had concealed in his crotch. At the corner of Bell Street and Henry Avenue, Osborne got the teenager out and leaned into his police cruiser to check the back seat.
The boy pulled the gun from his pants, shot Osborne in the back of the head, then took the officer's sidearm and fled.
Telly Shermaine Jett began serving his life sentence Nov. 3, 1995. Born in 1978, he's in his 30s now.
When police heard the parole board had no family contact for Osborne, they rushed to find his daughter and got the Fraternal Order of Police involved. The board will hear from them.
Hayes, the parole board spokesman, said Jett won't come up for parole again until 2019, so the board sent Hall that notice well in advance.
Now Hall has other cases to follow up on, and more to come.
Call for contacts
She asks that anyone connected to an old case contact her office, so she can have the person's information on file rather than rushing to find it on short notice.
Victims' families can call 706-653-4426 or email her directly at email@example.com.
She began collecting family contacts a year ago, but her file is far from adequate, she said.
"There are too many blank spots in my database, so any homicide that's ever happened, I want to have somebody, even if it's a grandchild."
'LIFERS' UP FOR PAROLE CONSIDERATION
These are among the cases for which the Victim-Witness Program seeks family contacts:
James R. Everett, born in 1952; Nov. 4, 1974, murder and armed robbery; victim Datrell Ward. Began serving May 30, 1975. Released March 1, 1991, but returned to prison on a parole violation Dec. 9, 2008.
Winston Edward Green, born in 1958; Jan. 31, 1979, murder, armed robbery; victim James Buckley, a clerk at Fork's Package Store, where he was killed with a piece of pipe. Began serving July 22, 1980.
Otis Reed Jr., born in 1952; Feb. 25, 1982, murder, aggravated assault (two counts); victim Barto Roberts, a preacher shot while trying to help Reed, the son of a church member. Began serving Nov. 3, 1982.
Ron M. Nesseth, born in 1968; Oct. 13, 1984, murder; victim Angelo Barello Jr. Began serving May 29, 1985.
Donald Eric Ross, born in 1960; Feb. 6, 1989, rape, aggravated sodomy of a woman he abducted in his car. Began serving Aug. 22, 1989.
Matthew E. Lewis, born in 1952; Aug. 24, 1989, murder, armed robbery; victim Thomas W. Glenn. Began serving Sept. 26, 1990.
Terry Walton, born in 1965; March 14, 1993, murder; victim Stanley Jones, killed outside while waiting on his wife to get off work. Began serving Oct. 6, 1994.
Telly Shermaine Jett, born in 1978; Aug. 7, 1994, murder; victim Officer Ed Osborne. Began serving Nov. 3, 1995.
Clifford Cowart, born in 1941; Nov. 29, 1995, murder; victim William J. Miller, shot as Cowart tried to rob a dancer at the Lucky 7 Lounge. Also Nov. 29, 1995, aggravated assault (three counts), attempted armed robbery. Began serving July 1, 1997.
Cornelius Reese, born in 1972; Dec. 25, 1996, five armed robberies; also on Dec. 21, 1996, six robberies; Dec. 20, 1996, burglary; Dec. 25, 1996, theft by bringing stolen property into the state; Dec. 28, 1996, hijacking a motor vehicle. Began serving April 21, 1997.
Willie James Riggins, born in 1968; Dec. 25, 1987, murder; victim Earl Thomas. Began serving April 27, 1988. Paroled April 13.
George G. Christian Jr., born in 1967; Feb. 21, 1986, murder, armed robbery; victim Edwin T. Borgert, clerk at a Majik Market. Began serving Nov. 17, 1986. Paroled Feb. 16.
CRIME VICTIM MEMORIAL SERVICE
To mark National Crime Victims' Rights Week, the Victim-Witness Assistance Program will hold a Crime Victim Memorial Service at 3 p.m. Sunday on the plaza of the Columbus Government Center, 100 10th St., followed by a 5 p.m. procession to the homicide victims' brick memorial off Lumpkin Boulevard.