Mentally ill man pleads to vandalizing six Columbus churches


James Morris III
James Morris III

First Columbus police found him naked and screaming outside a Fort Benning Road gas station, then he damaged a patrol car window during his arrest, and then a year later he was charged with vandalizing six churches because he thought they should be open all the time.

James Lee Morris III pleaded guilty Friday to eight charges related to those offenses in an arrangement to give him 15 years’ probation and credit for time served, so he could be released from jail to go live with relatives.

Morris told Judge Ron Mullins that he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His public defender, Ray Lakes, said Morris could have used the defense that he was not criminally responsible for his actions at the time of the incidents, because of his state of mind, but Morris declined to do that.

Morris first made the news in 2013, when a motorist waved down police Cpl. Stefan Shelling at 12:35 a.m. Jan. 3 and told him a naked man was screaming outside the Pure gas station at 1474 Fort Benning Road.

Shelling found Morris about 200 feet from the building, where Morris ran to the patrol car and gave irrational answers to the officer’s questions. Morris told Shelling he lived in “heaven.”

Shelling arrested Morris for public indecency, but en route to the Muscogee County Jail, Morris kicked the 2009 Ford Crown Victoria’s window so hard he bent its frame, so Shelling had to call another officer to take Morris to jail.

A Recorder’s Court judge ordered Morris to undergo a psychological evaluation.

On Sunday, April 6, 2012, congregations arriving for services at six south Columbus churches found that chucks of concrete weighing 15 to 25 pounds had been hurled through church windows or glass doors, though nothing had been stolen.

The vandalism was thought to have occurred between 5 p.m. the previous Saturday and 8 a.m. that Sunday.

Detective Thomas Hill quickly focused on Morris, who church elders said had confronted them before the vandalism, sometimes pacing outside churches and harassing attendants. Witnesses at one vandalized church said they later saw Morris outside, mocking the damage.

After visiting Morris’ Youmans Street home to question the suspect, Hill noticed a nearby construction site where workers had piled pieces of concrete matching those found in the churches. One church had surveillance video that showed Morris lobbing a hunk of concrete at the door.

Hill charged Morris with six counts of vandalizing a place of worship. “He thinks churches should be open 24-hours, so that’s a potential motive for the crime,” Hill told a Recorder’s Court judge during Morris’ preliminary hearing.

During that hearing, Morris remained silent until the judge said the case might be referred to mental health court, which is intended to get mentally ill suspects into treatment. Morris abruptly began shouting incoherently and shoving deputies, prompting a half-dozen law enforcement officers to swarm and restrain him.

Morris showed no such agitation Friday, answering Mullins’ questions clearly and calmly.

The churches he admitted vandalizing were:

• Crown of Glory Outreach Ministries, 2028 Fort Benning Road.

• Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, 3601 Youmans St.

• New Life House of Prayer Ministries, 1510 Fort Benning Road.

• Twelve Disciples Baptist Church, 3625 Youmans St.

• Carver Heights Presbyterian Church, 3140 Eighth St.

• Macedonia Baptist Church, 2717 Cusseta Road.

Besides public indecency and six counts of vandalism, Morris pleaded guilty to interfering with government property for causing $597 damage to Shellings’ patrol car in 2013.

Besides his probation, Morris is to perform 150 hours of community service, and pay restitution to the police department and to the churches, though no precise amount owed the churches was specified.

Prosecutor Pete Temesgen said the total damage ranged $8,000 to $9,000.