The 2004 cold case of a 79-year-old Columbus man whose son shot him three times in the head to dodge fraud charges for using his father’s identity has ended in a guilty plea.
Judge Maureen Gottfried sentenced John Bernon Roberson Jr. to 15 years in prison with 10 to serve after he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the Nov. 9, 2004, fatal shooting of father John Roberson, who was 79.
Defense attorney Richard Hagler said his client entered a “best-interest plea,” meaning he never admitted killing his father, but acknowledged that strong evidence could lead to his conviction at trial.
Attorneys and others who were in the courtroom said the defendant maintained his innocence, telling Gottfried his father loved and trusted him and knew he would not commit such a crime.
“I thought it was interesting that he never said he loved his father,” said police Sgt. Randy Long, who investigated the cold case.
Around 9 a.m. that day in 2004, a friend who had been helping care for the father found him on the floor by the rear, sliding glass door of his 3748 Caspian Drive home.
During a subsequent court hearing, she testified the glass door was protected by metal bars the elder Roberson needed two keys to unlock, and he always kept it secure at night. She said the son typically came to the back door when visiting his father.
Police found no evidence someone had broken into the house.
Despite their suspicions, detectives lacked sufficient evidence to charge anyone, and the case languished for 10 years before Roberson was arrested in April 2014.
Long said the son’s maintaining a credit account with his father’s identity was a crucial factor leading to his arrest, and the suspect later helped police amass more evidence by jailhouse confessions to two other inmates, and by making a recorded jail phone call asking a girlfriend to provide an alibi for him.
Prosecutor Kimberly Schwartz said Roberson asked the woman to tell police he was with her in Florida the day his father died.
Court records showed the son on March 24, 2000, had his name legally changed, from Johnny Lee Roberson to John Bernon Roberson Jr., writing in a court filing that “my father wants me to carry his name as his only son.”
Later court documents showed collection agents came looking for “John Roberson” to clear outstanding debts:
• On Feb. 11, 2003, Discover Bank filed a claim of $6,209 against "John L. Roberson," with interest accruing from Jan. 7, 2003. Sheriff’s deputies served notice of the claim at Pioneer Storage, 1444 Box Road, where Roberson worked. A manager told them Roberson was in Kuwait. “Unknown when subject will return,” a deputy noted.
• On April 13, 2004, Supreme Investment, doing business as Global Recovery on behalf of Charge Off Partners #4, claimed John Roberson was indebted to MBNA American Bank N.A. for $14,941, plus interest and attorneys’ fees.
• On April 14, 2004, sheriff’s deputies again served notice on "John Roberson" at Pioneer Storage, where a manager told them “subject is stationed overseas," they noted.
• On June 4, 2009, a state court judge dismissed the Supreme Investment claim for lack of action over the intervening years.
• On March 17, 2010, a second judge dismissed the Discover Bank claim for lack of subsequent action.
Long got a warrant for Roberson’s arrest in the summer of 2013. Authorities first jailed Roberson in the Philippines before returning him to Columbus on April 6, 2014.
Schwartz said authorities believe the father and son had a confrontation over the outstanding debts the son had incurred using the father’s Social Security number. Witnesses said the father already had paid some bills to keep the son out of trouble, but had vowed to pay no more.
“We felt like we had a strong case,” Schwartz said Tuesday, but the evidence was circumstantial, which made the plea deal more appealing. Roberson cannot appeal it, and at age 70, he likely will spend most of his later years in prison.
“A 10-year-sentence is a substantial portion of the rest of his life,” Schwartz said.
Hagler agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment of the evidence: “Frankly the case was extremely circumstantial,” he said. But the recorded jail call Roberson made to set up an alibi crippled his defense, Hagler acknowledged.
“He maintained his innocence,” the defense attorney said.
Schwartz noted that during his sentencing Monday, Roberson said he one day will return to Columbus to find out what really happened to his father. He would have to wait 15 years for that, as Gottfried banished him from the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit as a condition of his probation, the prosecutor said.
A case timeline for John Bernon Roberson Jr.
- Nov. 4, 1946: born John L. or Johnny Lee Roberson
- March 4, 2000: changes name from Johnny Lee Roberson to John Bernon Roberson Jr., lists address as 3748 Caspian Drive, Columbus.
- Feb. 11, 2003: Discover Bank files a claim of $6,209 against John L. Roberson, with interest accruing from Jan. 7, 2003. Sheriff’s deputies serve the notice at 1444 Box Road, a commercial storage facility where the manager tells them Roberson is in Kuwait. “Unknown when subject will return,” a deputy noted.
- April 13, 2004: Supreme Investment, doing business as Global Recovery, on behalf of Charge Off Partners #4, claims John Roberson is indebted to MBNA American Bank N.A. for $14,941 plus interest and attorneys’ fees.
- April 14, 2004: sheriff’s deputies again serve notice on John Roberson at Pioneer Storage, where the manager tells them “subject is stationed overseas,” one notes.
- Nov. 9, 2004: John Bernon Roberson Jr.’s father, John B. Roberson, 79, is found shot in the head in his 3748 Caspian Drive home.
- June 4, 2009: a state court judge dismisses the Supreme Investment claim for lack of action over the intervening years.
- March 17, 2010: a second state court judge dismisses the Discover Bank claim for lack of subsequent action.
- April 6, 2014: arrested in the Philippines, Roberson is returned to Columbus to face charges.
- May 12, 2015: a Muscogee grand jury indicts Roberson for malice murder, felony murder, and theft by deception. The indictment lists his aliases as “Johnny Lee Roberson,” “John Klein,” “John Waldrop,” and “L. Eleno.”
- July 10, 2017: in a plea agreement, Roberson pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter. Judge Maureen Gottfriend sentences him to 15 years in prison with 10 to serve. Roberson is 70 years old.
Source: Muscogee County court records.