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A shadow over Columbus: The 2018-19 unsolved killings no one wants to talk about

It’s what authorities don’t know about 10 of Columbus’ 41 homicides over the past 14 months that most worries them.

They don’t know much, in some cases, and why they don’t know much is no secret. The people who know what happened aren’t talking.

It has become a trend, investigators say. They get to a fatal shooting with multiple witnesses, yet no one will admit they saw it.

“We know we have witnesses at the scene, and we end up with people going, ‘I don’t know anything; I didn’t see anything’ – double-digit witnesses at some times, and they don’t know anything, and that’s one of the things our investigators are struggling with,” said Assistant Police Chief Gil Slouchick.

Of 2018’s 30 homicides, eight have not been cleared. So far in 2019, two of the seven slayings remain mysteries.

“The biggest issue that the Columbus Police Department has … is that nobody wants to talk,” said Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan, echoing the assistant police chief.

“There might be 40 people standing around when the shooting occurred, but you’ve got one dead and 39 don’t know a thing, didn’t see a thing, didn’t hear a thing.”

Does that surprise him?

“That’s a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ question,” he said. “Yes, I am surprised, because what if it were their son or their daughter? They would want someone to speak up ... and let the police follow up on those cases.”

But in another way, it’s not surprising, he said, because he knows a victim who was gunned down the day before he was was due to testify in court.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that somebody shot him in retaliation or to prevent him from being a witness,” Bryan said, so it’s no wonder others don’t want to talk. “And I can’t hardly blame them, sometimes. They know the system, you know, the rules: If you snitch, you might be the next victim.”

“We had one incident where an individual’s brother got killed, and he told a detective, ‘It’s your job to clear it, not mine.’ It’s his own family,” Slouchick said.

These are the 2018-2019 homicides, classified as murders by police, yet to be cleared:

Anyone with information on those cases may call detectives at 706-653-3400.

Police have no specific strategy for preventing homicides, which so often involve factors beyond law enforcement’s control.

“If you figure out how to stop murders, then you’ll be a millionaire,” Slouchick said. “You know, we can’t get into people’s heads; we can’t get into their hearts.”

But investigators can use any information they get to clear the cases that remain unsolved.

“I think they can trust that if they give us the information, we’ll act on it. But not wanting to be a snitch – people consider coming in and telling us that they witnessed a murder and who did it, that’s ‘snitching.’ – that’s something that we’re trying to overcome, because these cases are happening in their neighborhoods, next to their children, their wives, their sisters, their mothers,” he said. “These violent crimes are happening there, and we need the public’s assistance like we always do to combat this violence.”

The numbers

So far in 2019, Columbus has had seven homicides, the latest Feb. 24, when police found 53-year-old Davis McFarland fatally shot at 12:45 a.m. on 25th Street near Hamilton Road.

That’s same number of homicides Columbus had this time last year, according to the coroner’s count.

It had 34 for all of 2018, a drop from the 43 in 2017, but 2017 was a peak.

It was a peak in Columbus homicide cases, which authorities differentiate from the number of overall homicides.

The coroner keeps track of homicides – all cases in which one person kills another, regardless of any criminal charge.

Police don’t count homicides: They count only the cases they investigate as murders. If they decide one’s an accidental shooting, and charge the shooter with manslaughter, they do not add that death to the murder count, because it’s not a murder case.

Of the coroner’s 34 homicides in 2018, police counted 30 murders.

Back in 2017, 35 of Columbus’ 43 homicides were counted as murders, and that was a new high in the murder count – the most since 1993, when the city had 32, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation records dating back to 1980.

Before 2017, the most recent high had been 30, in 2008 – matching the police count for 2018. Columbus had 23 in 2016, and 17 in 2015.

The differences in how the police and the coroner tallied 2018 deaths has led to an odd kink that will require updating Columbus’ 2017 murder count: It’s the Jan. 1, 2018, death of Kenneth Moore, 61, who was shot by strangers during a Dec. 18, 2017 burglary, before he died at the hospital on New Year’s Day.

Moore’s death tops the coroner’s list of 2018 homicides, but Slouchick said police will count it as a 2017 murder, because Moore was shot in December. That means police will have to add Moore to their list of 2017 murders, bumping the total for that year from 35 to 36.

Counting overall homicides, Columbus fared better last year than the comparably sized city of Macon, which had 41. It matched Augusta at 34.

Slouchick believes that with continued growth in the metropolitan area, Columbus eventually will average around 30 murders a year.

“We’re starting to trend upward, and it’s leveling off,” he said. “I think we’re going to level off somewhere around – and it’s just a guess – 30. But you know, Columbus is a big city, and we’re over 200,000 people, so when you’re a big, metropolitan area like us, you have big-city problems.”

Between 2018 and 2008, the murders averaged 20 a year. The past five years averaged 24.

Manner of death

For each case Georgia’s county coroners and state medical examiners investigate, they must complete a death certificate that cites one “manner of death” among five: homicide, suicide, natural, accidental or undetermined.

Though “accidental” means those deceased died in an accident, it doesn’t mean someone else “accidentally” shot them. That’s not accidental, to coroners: One person’s shooting another is a homicide.

To police, it could be manslaughter, as in the Oct. 3 death of 19-year-old Tony Brown Allen, shot in the chest outside his Swann Street home, allegedly by a friend who mishandled a 9mm pistol. Police charged Reginald Wardlaw, 20, with involuntary manslaughter.

That was among three homicides Columbus police last year did not count as murders. The others were:

  • The May 2 fatal shooting of Damion Marquez Collier, 24, killed by a police fugitive squad after he allegedly pulled a gun on the officers at 35th Street and River Road. Police ruled this a justifiable homicide. They’d sought Collier in the April 1 shooting death of Alec Spencer at an unlicensed Andrews Road nightclub.
  • The May 23 death of Timothy Paschal, 31, who was in intensive care from injuries sustained May 11 in a fight with another homeless man at Fourth Avenue and 35th Street. Donald Butler, 34, was charged with aggravated assault as the investigation continued.

In almost all the recent homicides police investigated as murders and cleared by arrests, the victims and suspects knew each other. Often they were involved in a relationship, in a dispute, or in some criminal enterprise such as drug trafficking.

Only two were entirely random:

  • William Ronald Meadows, 74, was found dead in his car in his garage on April 29. Initially no one knew how Meadows came to be shot in the head at his Alta Vista Drive home. Detectives later alleged Raphael Antwone Raymond was testing a pistol he fired from a passing car about 4 p.m. April 28, when neighbors heard gunfire, and a stray shot hit Meadows.
  • John Carlton Dawson, 90, allegedly was stabbed to death Sept. 24 by a mentally ill man who’d run away from a relative’s house two blocks away. Police said 27-year-old Darius Jamar Travick entered Dawson’s Victoria Drive home through an unlocked door, stabbed Dawson to death and knocked his 89-year-old wife unconscious.

Domestic, family violence

Police know what happened in one of the slayings they’ve yet to count as cleared, meaning resolved by arrest, from 2018 through this year.

They know 55-year-old John E. Wells Jr. fatally was shot in an exchange of gunfire this past Feb. 8 with his girlfriend’s son Alstin Martin, 25, who was wounded during the domestic dispute in Wells’ home at Castlegate Windsor Park Apartments, 3700 Bridgewater Road, where Martin’s mother lived.

Police have filed no charges in that case, which remains under investigation, but it’s not a mystery, unlike nine other 2018 and 2019 cases they’ve yet to resolve.

In homicides related to some sort of domestic or family situation, the Wells case is not alone. The first of 2019 was the Jan. 1 fatal shooting of Alfonzo Walker Sr., 51. Police allege his 34-year-old son Antonio Alphonso Evans shot him around 5 a.m. during a dispute on a second-floor landing at Hannah Heights Apartments, 909 Farr Road.

In the latest case, John Allport was shot in the chest Feb. 20 during a domestic dispute on Tip Top Drive. Police charged Allport’s live-in girlfriend, Vickie Perez, 50, with murder involving family violence.

Last year Columbus had at least four murder cases involving intimate partners, two of them murder-suicides.

One of the murder-suicides was recorded on video, said Bryan.

“He had a surveillance camera that filmed the whole thing,” the coroner said of the husband. “They had a real big argument, went into the kitchen, and he shot her, then put the gun to his head and shot himself.”

Adding to the tragedy was authorities’ finding an infant crying in the apartment, when they came to check on the couple.

Murder-suicides here are rare. Could two in a year mean suicides overall are increasing?

No, Bryan said: “In 2013, we had 34, That’s the highest number I’ve had since I was elected to office. All the rest of them have been in the 20s to 28 category.”

Annual tallies show that from 2012 to 2018, Columbus averaged 26 suicides a year.

Tim Chitwood is from Seale, Ala., and started as a police beat reporter with the Ledger-Enquirer in 1982. He since has covered Columbus’ serial killings and other homicides, following some from the scene of the crime to trial verdicts and ensuing appeals. He also has been a Ledger-Enquirer humor columnist since 1987. He’s a graduate of Auburn University, and started out working for the weekly Phenix Citizen in Phenix City, Ala.