Columbus homicide: Two additional suspects charged in pastor's slaying

Police have filed murder charges against two more Columbus men in the slaying this week of an Alabama pastor.

Michael M. Ingram, 59, and Donnie Forte, 52, pleaded not guilty this morning to murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and weapons charges in the death of 44-year-old Blanchard E. Thomas. The men waived a preliminary hearing this morning that would have revealed details of their charges.

Joel Thomas, 24, who was arrested Wednesday night in Phenix City, pleaded not guilty to similar charges. Ingram was booked into the Muscogee County Jail this morning about 12:50 a.m., jail records show. Forte was charged about 8 p.m. Thursday.

At a probable cause hearing this morning, Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski ordered all three held without bond on the murder charges and bound their cases to Superior Court.

Defense attorney Stephen Craft, who represented Thomas and Ingram during the preliminary hearing, said it would be premature to comment on the case.

Police said Thomas dropped a woman off at the Booker T. Washington Apartments area Tuesday and then was forced to drive under the Oglethorpe Bridge, where he was fatally shot in the right cheek.

“A girl was taken across the river and when she was brought back, (her friends and family) tried to figure out who took her," Lt. Lynn Joiner said. "When she was brought back, they evidently thought (Blanchard Thomas) had some information.”

Joel Thomas is related to the woman but not Blanchard Thomas, police said.

Phenix City police are investigating an incident involving the woman that happened early Tuesday, Joiner added. The woman’s family took her to the hospital, where Phenix City police met her. Joiner said the woman was in good condition.

Blanchard Thomas was discovered about 4:20 p.m. Tuesday by two men who spotted his lifeless body slumped over inside a green SUV parked on Broadway under the bridge. Those men were not charged in the case. An autopsy showed Thomas died of a gunshot wound to the head, Muscogee County Coroner Bill Thrower said.

Lt. John McMichael said Forte fit the description of a man seen leaving the scene of the shooting. Forte was detained on Wednesday after detectives spotted him walking near Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. McMichael said Forte initially was charged with having a crack pipe with some cocaine residue.

"Later investigation gave them what they needed to add a murder charge," McMichael said.

The investigation also led authorities to Joel Thomas, who was wanted for robbery in Columbus. Police found him Wednesday night at Riverview Apartments in Phenix City. He was taken to the Russell County Jail and waived extradition.

Thomas was pastor at Mt. Missouri Baptist Church in Pittsview, Ala. Several of his family members attended the Recorder's Court hearing this morning. One relative began wailing uncontrollably and had to be escorted from the courtroom.

"I just can't shake it," said Blanchard Thomas' sister, Shandora Thomas. "Why he had to do that to him?"