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Columbus foster girl told brother she feared for her life. She ended up dead in Atlanta.

About two weeks before Dennetta Franks’ body was found riddled with bullets on an Atlanta roadway, her brother picked her up from a house on Victory Drive where she felt her life was in danger, he said in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.

Michael Franks, a 24-year-old Army sergeant at Fort Benning, said he wasn’t aware at the time that his sister had run away from the Holiday Inn Express located at 7336 Bear Lane in Columbus.

Franks, 17, had been living at the hotel as a ward of the state under the 24/7 supervision of a guardian with Cedar Tree Children and Family Services, a local agency responsible for juveniles awaiting placement into a home by the Department of Family and Children Services, according to Columbus police and DFCS officials.

“She called me at 3 a.m. in the morning — it was either Sept. 7 or 8 — on a work night,” her brother recalled. “I got up and she said she was in trouble, she was scared, she was afraid or whatever. I told her to tell me where she was. She sent me an address and said they weren’t going to let her talk on the phone long. So I needed to come very fast.”

Michael Franks said he picked up a friend and drove to the Victory Drive address that Franks had given him. She told him not to come directly to the house, so he picked her up across the street.

“We’ve always been close, so she’d always call me whenever something was wrong or anything like that,” he said. “So, I picked her up. She spent a week here with me, but she really wanted to spend time with my dad; she hadn’t seen him in a while. So once that Friday came, and I was able to get off work, we went to Atlanta.”

Michael Franks said he dropped Dennetta off in Atlanta on Sept. 15, and returned to Columbus that same night because he had to work the next morning. It was the last time he would see his sister alive. About two days later, his father, Michael Franks Sr., called and said she had run away.

The Ledger-Enquirer recently obtained through an open records request Dennetta’s DFCS records documenting the last four months of her life. Some of the information had been redacted to comply with HIPAA laws and other privacy protections, according to Susan Boatwright, communications director at DFCS.

The documents, along with her brother’s personal recollection of events, paint a vivid picture of a young girl prone to spontaneous flight while at the same time seeking a sense of security, to breaking the rules while aspiring to a better life.

Through it all, the young woman seemed haunted by dark secrets that kept her running.

Entering the System

Michael Franks said the family is from Atlanta, but his parents broke up when he and his siblings were young. His mother later moved to Carrollton, Ga. He said Dennetta stayed with her for a period of time, while he and two other brothers lived with their father in Atlanta. Dennetta visited them often, he said.

Dennetta entered the foster system about three years ago after alleging abuse by her mother and stepfather, according to DFCS records. Michael Franks said he has been in the Army for six years and wasn’t always around, so he doesn’t really know what happened.

“They all went to court, and (authorities) said (Dennetta and the stepfather couldn’t) be in the same house because of the allegations,” he said. “Dennetta was about 12 or 13 at the time, so Mom went to court and gave up all her parental rights.”

Michael Franks said he never got over that decision and remains estranged from his mother.

In a 2014 Child Protective Services report, a case worker wrote: “Parents admit using physical discipline but not to the extent of abuse. Mother and (maternal grandmother) stated they do spank. (Victim child) and other children in the home did not have any marks or bruises on them. None of the other children reported inappropriate touching. The child’s story has changed every time she is interviewed. (Law enforcement) will be closing this case and unable to prosecute.”

Still, Dennetta was removed from the home. In June of this year, Carroll County Juvenile Court Judge Tom Parmer signed an order stating: “... The child continues to be a dependent child, and that in considering the child’s health, safety, and best interest, the Court finds the child cannot be safely returned to the home of mother/father/legal guardian or custodian at this time. DFCS shall maintain legal/physical custody of the child.”

Dennetta was placed in the custody of Cedar Tree for temporary emergency placement in Columbus sometime in June after going AWOL from an Augusta foster home on April 30.

In that situation, Dennetta and a male friend had been inside the house watching TV, the foster mother reported to DFCS. They decided to go outside and stayed there for a long time. The foster mother sent her son to check on Dennetta. He called her name and she didn’t respond. When Dennetta returned to the house five minutes later, she told the woman that the guy she was with had put his hands on her.

The foster mother didn’t believe her and said: “Y’all outside doing something y’all had no business doing,” according to the report.

Dennetta walked out of the house and didn’t return until the next day.

The foster mother called 911 and reported her missing. A Richmond County police officer brought Dennetta back the next morning. When the foster mother told the officer what Dennetta said had happened to her, the officer said she was lying and it sounded like “bulls--t,” according to the foster mother.

In an interview with a DFCS worker, Dennetta said she ran away because a male peer had mistreated her.

“Dennetta stated that she was outside with the male peer and he accused her of cheating on him,” the report reads. “Dennetta informed him that she did not cheat on him, but did admit to talking to another male peer. According to Dennetta, the male peer then pushed her on the ground, spit in her face, and started to choke her.”

Dennetta stated that she heard the foster mother’s son calling her name, but couldn’t answer because the guy was choking her with a stick. She then heard her foster mother calling and asked him to get off of her so she could go in the house.

He allowed her to get up and said, “I know where you live, but you don’t know where I live. If you call police, I will kill you,” Dennetta told the DFCS worker.

MUG A1 Dennetta Franks
Denetta Franks

Dennetta said she became upset because the foster parent didn’t believe her and spent the night at a Waffle House.

Later, she informed the DFCS worker that she planned to leave the residence. The DFCS worker tried to calm her down, but Dennetta ran away. The DFCS worker and a police officer caught up with Dennetta and talked to her about running away.

Dennetta informed them that she didn’t want to return to the foster home and that she wanted the Carroll County DFCS to come and get her. She was taken back to the foster mother’s home, but the woman said she could no longer stay there because she would keep fleeing.

The DFCS worker contacted another foster parent who agreed to keep Dennetta for one night.

On May 2, a case manager wrote: “... Dennetta has exhausted all possible placement options for her in our Augusta office. We do not believe it is in the best interest for her to remain in her emergency respite foster home due to her respite parent having a 17-year-old son in the home as well. Dennetta may have some serious issues with male peers. Dennetta has an open assault charge pending against a male peer which resulted in her running away from her current foster home on Sunday, April 30, 2017. Due to her having flashbacks of the incident, she ran away from her foster care home, again on May 1, 2017.”

Prior to going to the Holiday Inn Express in Columbus, Dennetta was placed in at least one other facility, from which she ran away. Her next home was the hotel.

The Hotel Option

Boatwright, the DFCS communications director, said she couldn’t comment on any particular case, but said there are circumstances when foster children are placed in hotels.

“Generally a hotel is used as an option of last resort when a child needs a foster home that is certified for a specific level of care or therapeutic services, and on the day the child comes into care, we are not able to place the child in a home that meets the needs of the child right away,” she wrote in an email to the Ledger-Enquirer. “In those circumstances we will temporarily ... place the child with a full-time provider who stays with the child, gets the child to school and other appointments, until a placement is available.”

Boatwright said such placements generally last less than five nights. But in the case of Dennetta, she remained at the hotel under the supervision of Cedar Tree from June to September, according to DFCS records. While there, she ran away on at least two occasions, the last time just days before her death.

The Ledger-Enquirer contacted Cedar Tree Owner Michael Milford about the case after Dennetta’s death, but he refused to comment. The newspaper obtained details about the two incidents through Columbus police reports and DFCS records.

Dennetta first went missing from the hotel on June 14. In interviews with the two officers and a detective from the Special Victims Unit, she said she was upset that she was going to be placed in another home by DFCS. So, she waited until her Cedar Tree guardian went into the bathroom in their hotel room, and then she grabbed her belongings and met a female friend in the lobby.

She left the hotel at about 9 p.m., and the guardian reported her missing, according to authorities. Police were dispatched to the hotel at 9:45 p.m. in reference to the missing person case.

Franks told police that she and her friend were supposed to be going to the friend’s sister’s house but got into a car driven by her friend’s boyfriend.

Franks said the boyfriend, who was about 21 years old, drove them to a gated apartment complex near Whittlesey Boulevard, where he used some form of ID to get in, according to the report. Another man, who was about 25, met them.

Franks said she told her friend, “I thought it was going to just be us three.”

The friend said, “No, he has a homeboy. Why didn’t you wear something nice?”

Franks told her friend that she wasn’t there to impress anyone, but her friend insisted that she change once they got to the boyfriend’s apartment, according to the report. After changing in a restroom, they all sat together in the living room.

Franks told police they started drinking and she was given cranberry raspberry drink with some clear liquor. She drank two of those drinks, and then had one shot of a dark liquor.

The room went dark, and the boyfriend began playing slow music, Franks told police. Her friend and boyfriend left the room to take a shower, she said, and the boyfriend’s friend left the room briefly and returned wearing nothing but socks. And then he sexually assaulted her, she said.

Franks said she told them she was going to walk home, but her friend convinced her to let them take her back to the hotel. They dropped her off at the Circle K on Veterans Parkway and Northlake Parkway, and she walked about one-tenth of a mile back to the Holiday Inn Express, where she fainted in the lobby.

A night auditor at the front desk told police that a black female had approached the entrance of the Holiday Inn Express waving a key card. He let her in and she stumbled around in the lobby, and then sat down on a nearby sofa. She told him, “Call 911, they raped me,” and then stumbled forward. The auditor said he called 911.

EMS workers said Franks told them that she had been forced to drink alcohol and have sexual intercourse with an unknown person at an apartment on Whittlesey Boulevard, according to the police report. She was transported to Midtown Medical Center for evaluation.

Columbus police say the sexual assault case is still under investigation.

It wasn’t the last time Dennetta would find herself in danger.

The Final Escape

In June, Dennetta told a case worker that she wanted to join the Job Corps, get a GED, and enroll at a trade school to become a nurse. A judge ordered DFCS to have a transitional roundtable with the teen to work toward those plans. By September, her dream to join the Job Corps was finally coming true, and she was looking forward to more freedom.

At one point, Dennetta said she planned to sign herself out of the foster care system in December when she turned 18, and hoped to live with her brother, Michael. On another occasion, she said she would consider participating in the state’s Independent Living Program that helps youths transition out of foster care when they come of age.

Later, she said she had changed her mind about joining the Job Corps because she didn’t want to live in a dorm setting. She didn’t want to participate in the ILP program because she feared something might happen to her if she lived alone and no one would be there to check on her.

Despite her indecisiveness, she seemed to be doing better, according DFCS records. And then, Dennetta was on the run again.

On Sept. 7, Cedar Tree owner Michael Milford contacted DFCS, stating that Dennetta had gotten dressed between 2 and 2:30 a.m., put on makeup and left in a vehicle with someone, according to information in the DFCS documents.

“He states that they are not physically able to restrain her and had no way of stopping her from leaving,” according to the report. “He denied knowing what may have triggered this and states a police report has already been made with the Columbus city police.”

In a report to DFCS, a Cedar Tree behavioral aide who had been watching Dennetta the day she ran away said things were going well before she fled.

“Dennetta had a good day, they had put a relaxer in her hair and there were no indications that there were any issues,” according to the report. “Dennetta had a cell phone and she was using the phone as she normally would. She was happy and giggling on the phone that day.”

The behavioral aide told DFCS that the agency had cared for another teenager who ran away on Aug. 30. After that incident, Dennetta told Columbus police that the foster child was picked up by a male who was part of the sex trade and would probably kill her. She provided Columbus police with the name and the number of the individual, according to the report.

The next day, Dennetta was concerned that she had given police too much information, the woman reported.

After lying in bed the day she ran away, Dennetta told the behavioral aide that she wanted a soda. They went down the hall to the vending machines, and then the teen changed her mind. They returned to the room and the aide noticed that Dennetta had a bag near the door. She asked her if she planned to run away, and she said no.

A little while later, Dennetta said she was going to sleep and went to turn off the lights. That’s when she grabbed her bags and ran out the door, according to the report. The aide said she ran after Dennetta, but the teen just seemed to vanish. She believes she escaped through the hotel’s side door.

By the next day, Dennetta called her brother saying that she wanted him to pick her up from the house on Victory Drive, he said.

“She said she was in trouble, so I got her and I went to her rescue,” he said. “I didn’t care about any consequences. That’s my baby sister. I didn’t think to ask, ‘What are you doing?’ I just wanted her to be safe.”

After picking her up at the house on Victory Drive, he took her to his apartment on Warm Springs Road, where he’s raising a 1-year-old son. They played games, watched TV and everything seemed normal, he said. About a week later, he took her to their father. He thought she would be safer in Atlanta.

“She didn’t really have enemies from what we knew,” he said. “She said she didn’t really want to be down here anymore, in Columbus. And I was asking her why, and she told me she felt neglected in her group home.

“She was always close to her family, so she just mentioned that she always wanted to be with us,” he said. “... That’s what she always said. She was tired of bouncing around, going from this home to this home, this hotel to this hotel. She just wanted to be stable; she just wanted to be with her dad. That was the big thing.”

“I don’t even fault her for that,” he said. “I mean, what 16-year-old wouldn’t want that?”

But Dennetta’s visit to Atlanta only got her into more trouble.

Michael Franks said he received a call from his father about two days later, notifying him that Dennetta had run away from his home.

“She was supposed to go to a friend’s house, but she left like 6 in the morning,” he said. “He didn’t really see who she left with or anything like that.”

Michael Franks said Dennetta called him around noon that day, saying that she was fine. She also continued texting him, and everything seemed normal.

“And then we just stopped hearing from her,” he said. “I talked to my uncle. He said he had dropped her off to a friend’s house. We got in touch with her best friend. She said she went to a friend’s house who she wasn’t really comfortable with and we didn’t know who she was. Nobody knew who she was.”

Then around Sept. 28 or 29, Michael Franks said, he was working on post when a friend saw a facial reconstruction circulated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was of an unidentified young woman whose body had been found Sept. 21 in the middle of a roadway in Atlanta.

Neighbors near Hortense Place Northwest and Florence Place Northwest said they had heard gunshots between 5 and 5:45 a.m., and discovered the body after sunrise, according to Atlanta police. Upon arrival, police found the body with multiple gunshot wounds.

“I said, ‘OK, text it to me,’” Michael told the friend who saw the composite. “And when she did, I just broke down. I couldn’t even stand. I knew it was her. It looked exactly like her, so my next thing was to call the homicide number, and that’s what I did. I told them, ‘I’m 99 percent sure that this is my sister.”

From there, everything happened rapidly. Michael Franks went to the morgue to identify his sister. The family had two separate funerals, one on her mother’s side and one on her father’s side. Michael Franks said he attended the funeral organized by his father’s family. It was held at a church in Atlanta, drawing about 300 people.

“I will never get over it,” he said. “It was my first funeral, and my first funeral happened to be for my younger sister. It was a tough time, but it was also a joyful time, just because I knew she was in a better place, and she wasn’t suffering anymore.”

But even in death, Dennetta’s troubled life remains somewhat of a mystery.

On Oct. 24 and 25, Dekalb County issued warrants for the apprehension of three people in connection with an attempted carjacking in Atlanta. That incident occurred on Sept. 19 at 275 Mellrich Ave. Northeast. When police arrived, they found a victim in his early 40s lying in the roadway with a firearm. He told police that two unknown males and two unknown females shot him and he emptied his magazine as they were running away.

The warrants secured by police were for Wayne Bailey, 19, of Newnan; Eddie Byrd, 18, of Atlanta; and Sharelle Natalie Pollock, another Atlanta teenager.

The report also listed Dennetta Franks as a suspect, but noted that she had been found fatally shot two days after the carjacking.

On Sept. 21, neighbors near the intersection of Hortense Place Northwest and Florence Place Northwest told police they heard gunshots between 5 and 5:45 a.m., but didn’t discover Franks’ body until after sunrise. Upon arrival, police said they found her lying in a roadway with multiple gunshot wounds.

Atlanta police recently secured murder warrants for Bailey and Byrd in connection with the case. The teens were already in custody in DeKalb County for the Sept. 19 attempted carjacking.

When asked about the carjacking charges, Michael Franks said, “I can’t believe it. My sister wasn’t the type to do anything like that.”

The brother said he still doesn’t know why his sister was so afraid and why anyone would want to harm her. He believes her case was mishandled by those who were supposed to be caring for her.

“I never heard of a kid in foster care living in a hotel months at a time, and my sister was in a hotel, from what I can track, from May until she passed away,” he said. “I tried for years to get Dennetta to come live with me, but her case worker never called me back, wouldn’t answer the phone. I never got any cooperation from DFCS.”

He has a lot of questions, he said, and wants answers.

“I mean, it was devastating,” Michael Franks said of the loss. “I had just seen her, and it’s not just even that she passed, it’s the way she died.

“If someone had called me and said, ‘Hey, she passed in her sleep,’ or something like that, maybe I would be more at peace,” he said. “The hardest phone call I’ve ever had to make was to my dad, telling him that his daughter was murdered and was lying there in the street.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter