Shendora Thomas wept on the witness stand Wednesday when shown a photo of her slain brother as she described the confusing chain of events that led to his homicide under Columbus’ Oglethorpe Bridge on March 8, 2011.
That morning her brother Blanchard Thomas had given her a ride to Seale, Ala., where her then-boyfriend told her he had left her car after using it overnight.
What she and her brother did not know was that the boyfriend allegedly had kidnapped and raped a 19-year-old Columbus woman whose outraged family and friends were hunting for the boyfriend and the woman.
The Thomases were looking for the car where the boyfriend’s mother lived in Seale when the visibly shaken young woman walked up, holding Shendora Thomas’ car keys. She offered to take the siblings to the car. Along the way, she told them the boyfriend had raped her.
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When they got to Shendora Thomas’ car, it would not start, no matter what they tried. Shendora Thomas stayed with the car, awaiting a tow truck. Blanchard Thomas offered to drive the young woman to Columbus.
It was the last time Shendora Thomas saw him alive.
Her brother, the pastor of a church in the Rutherford community near Pittsview, Ala., was found dead that afternoon, slumped over the steering wheel of his sport-utility vehicle, his seatbelt still fastened, a bullet hole in his cheek.
How his offer to be a “Good Samaritan” led to his death was a story other witnesses testified to Wednesday in the murder trial of Donnie Forte, who’s accused of firing the fatal shot.
The victim of the alleged rape, now 21, said she came to be in the boyfriend’s company when he called her early that morning and asked for a ride. After she picked him up, he wouldn’t let her out of the truck she was driving, she said. She was not questioned about details of the reported sexual assault, but said the boyfriend made her drive to an area of Russell County she wasn’t familiar with. Along the way she managed to call a friend and say she was being kidnapped. About 7:30 a.m., the friend informed her family in Columbus.
In Columbus, her mother called the police. The officer sent to investigate testified he found 20 or 30 “irate” people outside the family’s home when he arrived, and had to call for backup just to calm them down and find out what they had heard.
While he was writing his report, he was told the young woman had called the family to say she was on her way back to Columbus. The officer left before she arrived.
Driving her back to town, Blanchard Thomas tried to calm the distressed teen.
“He said he hated what happened to me, and he hoped I could get home safely to my family. I was in total shock,” she testified.
Because of Blanchard Thomas, she got home safely, but he did not.
He ventured into an angry mob seeking someone to blame for the alleged assault. As the young woman went into her grandmother’s house on Sixth Street north of Columbus’ Booker T. Washington Apartments, people outside surrounded Blanchard Thomas’ vehicle.
Inside the house, her cousin Joel Thomas heard yelling and saw the young woman hugging his mother, her aunt. “She was crying and shaking at the same time,” he said of his cousin.
Hearing of the alleged rape, he went outside. “I’m mad,” he said, when asked his feelings at the time.
Outside, he saw other men standing at Blanchard Thomas’ SUV, among them Forte and Michael Ingram, neighbors of his grandparents. What happened next varies according to which version witnesses tell.
Joel Thomas, who is not related to the minister’s family, said he and others wanted the preacher to take them to find the boyfriend. “It’s going to be you or him,” he said Forte told Blanchard Thomas.
Joel Thomas said he got into the SUV’s back seat, behind the minister. Ingram got in the back seat next to him, and Forte got in the front passenger’s seat. They ordered Blanchard Thomas to drive to Phenix City to find the boyfriend. Other relatives followed in a car driven by Keedra Brummitt, Joel Thomas’ cousin.
The westbound SUV crossed Veterans Parkway to Eighth Street and turned south on First Avenue, Joel Thomas said. At a stop sign he and Ingram got out of the SUV and got into Brummitt’s white Buick, which followed the SUV to Fourth Street and again turned west, headed to Broadway, he said.
What varies in his account is where another cousin, Jody Perry, is during the trip. At one time Joel Thomas said Perry was in the SUV until it got to Broadway; at another he said Perry was in Brummitt’s car following it.
When the SUV got to Broadway, it turned south and parked under the Oglethorpe Bridge, where everyone except Forte and Blanchard Thomas got into Brummitt’s car, Joel Thomas said. They were 80 to 100 feet from the SUV when they heard a gunshot, he said.
As they turned north on Broadway and sped away, they saw Forte running from the SUV, he said.
Initially police charged five people with the minister’s slaying: Joel Thomas, Ingram, Forte, Brummitt and Perry. All but Forte took plea deals and agreed to testify. Thomas said he will plead guilty to false imprisonment. Perry pleaded guilty to aggravated assault on Tuesday, when Judge William Rumer sentenced him to 20 years with seven to serve in prison and the rest on probation. Other suspects are expected to plead to reduced charges after Forte’s trial.
Forte’s defense attorney, Rick Samper of Newnan, Ga., told the jury his client is on trial because he’s “expendable,” as all the other defendants besides Ingram are related, and Ingram is the grandparents’ next-door neighbor and the grandfather’s daily drinking buddy. Forte, who lives two blocks away from the grandparents, makes a convenient scapegoat, Samper said.
He grilled Joel Thomas on the varying accounts he gave police after his arrest, with his story repeatedly changing. Samper alleged Joel Thomas wasn’t honest in his statements to police.
The witness readily agreed: “I ain’t never honest with the police,” he said.