Crime

Why kill a 3-year-old and his dad? New details shared in 2018 Columbus double homicide

Columbus murder suspect’s account of actions ‘physically impossible, detective says

Columbus Police Detective Robert Nicholas testified Thursday during a preliminary hearing for Antonio “Tony” Benard Willis. Willis is charged with the murder of a man and his son in November. He was represented by public defender Erik Smith.
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Columbus Police Detective Robert Nicholas testified Thursday during a preliminary hearing for Antonio “Tony” Benard Willis. Willis is charged with the murder of a man and his son in November. He was represented by public defender Erik Smith.

Surveillance video showed Antonio “Tony” Willis lifting little 3-year-old Je’ceiden Roberts into a Ford pickup outside a Victory Drive motel so the boy could sit in the front seat between Willis and his father, Joseph Banks, who was driving, a detective testified Thursday in Columbus Recorder’s Court.

That’s how they were sitting when Willis gunned down both the father and son and left six shell casings in the cab before abandoning the vehicle, Detective Robert Nicholas said during Willis’ preliminary hearing.

Willis, on the run for about five months, was captured by U.S. Marshals in Atlanta earlier this week.

The video was recorded at 1:07 a.m. Dec. 27, 2018, at the Colony Inn, 4300 Victory Drive. The bodies of the 41-year-old father and child were found at 8:38 a.m. on the ground outside a vacant home at 6 Stuart Drive. It was so cold that morning that their blood froze in their veins, Nicholas said.

The white 2004 Ford F-150 pickup later was found behind an abandoned house on Henry Avenue near Bell Street, just 1,000 feet from where friends said they saw Willis that night acting “erratic” and “paranoid,” asking for money, and eager to get out of town, Nicholas said.

Willis, 37, was often homeless and grew up in the neighborhood, the officer said.

Evidence in the truck showed the bullets’ trajectory matched the seating arrangement recorded on the motel video, he said. Ballistics tests tracked the casings and projectiles police recovered to a Ruger 9-millimeter pistol.

Police say suspect story inconsistent

Willis made it out of town that night by using a fake name to book a ride on a Groome shuttle to Atlanta. He tried to sell a Ruger 9-millimeter the next day, sending texts in search of buyers, Nicholas said.

How Willis got to Groome from the Henry Avenue area remains unclear, the detective said. Willis claimed he walked there in two hours, despite an ailing heart that can’t bear his doing five pushups. The 17-mile trek would have taken him more than four hours.

Groome security cameras recorded him walking into the 2800 Harley Court station about 3½ hours after he was recorded leaving the Colony Inn, Nicholas said. Four witnesses who were at the motel identified Willis there, he said.

The two videos show Willis was wearing different clothing when he arrived at Groome, Nicholas said.

Nicholas said Willis told police he’d known Banks for most of his life, and that is possible because Banks also is from Columbus, the detective said.

What’s the motive?

Nicholas was able to answer most of the questions he was asked Thursday about the double-homicide, but he could not say why Willis would kill a 3-year-old.

Police so far have no motive for the slayings, he said.

Willis did not come to court for Thursday’s hearing. Recorder’s Court Judge Julius Hunter heard testimony with only public defender Erik Smith to represent Willis.

Hunter found probable cause to send the case to Muscogee Superior Court, ordering Willis held without bond on the two murder charges.

Though Columbus police name the child Je’ceiden Roberts, other authorities have identified him by Je’Caiden Banks.

Police last year said the father had been living at the Colony Inn, but the son usually stayed with his mother on Reese Road.

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