From nine homicides to three life sentences to one drug task force disbanded, 2007 was a record year for law enforcement in Newton County. As the county continued to grow, the Newton County Sheriff's Office, Covington Police Department and the Newton County District Attorney's Office were forced to handle an increased number of major cases while coping with budgetary concerns.
The most shocking moment of 2007 occurred on Oct. 30 when a Newton County resident discovered her dogs fighting over a woman's severed hand. A nearly month long investigation by the NCSO and Georgia Bureau of Investigation revealed the dismembered hands, feet, legs and arms found belonged to 49 year-old Leslyan Williams of Decatur.
Williams' boyfriend, Franklin Benson, 47, was arrested for the gruesome murder. Months later, investigators have yet to find William's head or torso. The dismemberment case was just one of seven suspected murders in 2007.
"We have not seen a break in these murder and manslaughter investigations," NCSO Lt. Bill Watterson said in previous interview with The News. "Sometimes we are working two at a time. They have been an unprecedented series of cases. We're waiting on this cycle to stop."
In comparison, there were four homicides reported in Newton County in 2006, two in 2004 and one in 2005.
The record string of murders began in early February when Rufus Richardson was allegedly murdered in a conspiracy straight out of Hollywood.
Investigators said Liberty Harris, Larry Barr, Willie Dyer, Xavier Dyer and Christopher Rozier conspired to murder Richardson whom they believed to be a snitch. After an attempt to poison Richardson with drugs laced with rat poison failed to do the job, the group reportedly made the decision to dispose of him in a more conventional way. People riding their four-wheelers later found the bullet-riddled body in the woods.
Xavier Dyer and Rozier are believed to have been the actual shooters. In court, Newton County Assistant District Attorney Melanie McCrorey said Richardson was shot twice in the face and once in the underarm while he was reportedly trying to defend himself.
Harris, Xavier Dyer, and Rozier were all charged with malice murder while Willie Dyer and Barr were charged with being a party to the crime of murder. The charges against Barr were later dead docketed, which, in general terms, means the charges against him were dropped but can be revisited at a later date. The rest of the suspects are set to be tried on Feb. 11, 2008.
In late February Steven Lackey shot and killed his ex-girlfriend's new boyfriend Larry Richardson Jr. After shooting Richardson in the neck, Lackey and the mother of his child, Christina Parker, drove Richardson to Newton Medical Center where Richardson later died from his wounds.
Lackey fled the hospital but was arrested nearby when a CPD officer cornered him in a parking lot across the street from the hospital. A search of Lackey' house found cocaine and marijuana as well as several other items that led investigators to believe Lackey was dealing the illegal drugs. The murder weapon was never recovered.
Four months later, in early June, five young men were arrested for the murder of Kawasikis Shawnte Ricks. In court Chief Assistant District Attorney Layla Zon said the victim was shot in a double-cross drug deal. Ricks and another man were reportedly robbed as they were attempting to buy 20 pounds of marijuana from a group of five men, including Clarence Benton, 17, Terrence Reid, 21, Brandon Hudnal, 20, Tervarius White, 17, and a 16-year-old male.
As Ricks attempted to run from the robbers, White, who was 16 years old at the time of the crime, reportedly shot him in the back with a shotgun.
White and Benton were charged with murder, Hudnal was charged with being party to the crime of armed robbery, Reid and the 16-year-old were charged with being party to the crime of murder.
Less than a month later, in early July, Christopher Masiello, 30, reportedly shot his stepfather Paul Larson, 56, after an argument. According to reports, Masiello was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana when he shot Larson several times.
At the time of the crime, NCSO Capt. Mark Thomas said the suspect had "mental issues" which contributed to some previous run-ins with the law. Masiello is currently undergoing mental evaluations to determine if he is fit to stand trial.
In August, Corronis Hurst, 20, allegedly murdered Pure Food Mart owner Aslam Muhammad in a robbery of the gas station. Security cameras reportedly caught Hurst grab money from the $1 and $5 trays of the cash register before shooting Muhammad in the face.
The armed robbery was just one of many throughout the county in 2007. Watterson previously said the county had never experienced such a steady stream of the violent crimes.
Hurst is set for his first motion status hearing on Jan. 10, 2008.
In November, Rick Breedlove, 54, of Oxford, allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend Pam Spencer before turning the gun on himself in an attempted murder-suicide. Breedlove was rushed to an Atlanta area hospital where, at last report, he is still being kept for medical reasons. Watterson said if Breedlove is able to recover, he will likely be charged with murder.
Tanya Rosemary and Kerri Mincy were also victims of homicides in 2007 with those accused being charged with involuntary manslaughter.
Rosemary was killed when a stray bullet fired by Brendan Hernadez, 21, and Tony Tumbling, 23, came through the roof of her home striking her in the chest. There are currently no new court dates set for the case as investigators continue to gather information about the case.
Mincy was crushed to death by a front-end loader driven by her boyfriend Kyle Blake Holland, 18, of Social Circle. The pair had reportedly illegally gained access to a construction site and were joyriding on the heavy duty equipment when the vehicle tipped onto its side crushing the 16-year-old girl.
Some murder victim's families received a semblance of justice in 2007 as three murderers were sentenced to life in prison.
On Oct. 15, Lanny Barnes pleaded guilty to the 2006 murder of 2-year-old Avery King. Barnes was sentenced to life without parole for the murder of King and to four 20-year sentences for the aggravated assault of Anita King, Stephanie Casola, Jacob Casola and Isaac Casola. All sentences will run concurrently.
In May 2006, Barnes repeatedly ran over the five victims with his mother's car while in a McDonald's parking lot on U.S. Highway 278.
The plea-bargained deal was offered after Newton County District Attorney Ken Wynne met with Barnes' doctor. In court, Wynne said the prognosis was not good for Barnes who suffers from advanced leukemia. Without a bone marrow transplant, Barnes would soon die, Wynne said, and that even with the transplant, Barnes only had a 33 percent chance of survival.
After Barnes was sentenced, Paul Casola, Stephanie Casola and Anita King were allowed to speak to the court. They directed their comments to Barnes, who declined to look up from the desk even when asked to by a tearful Stephanie Casola.
During his speech, Paul Casola said the night that Avery died, he had to take responsibility for Barnes' actions as he embraced Avery's father and repeatedly told him "I'm sorry."
"You couldn't just own up to it like a man," Paul Casola said. "I have never seen someone so completely selfish, making the good people of Newton County pay for all your medical care. They are not paying for my wife or my children."
Stephanie Casola called Barnes a monster who will forever haunt her children's dreams.
"Mr. Barnes, you are the lowest form of humanity that exists," she said in front of a courtroom packed with weeping family and friends. "I hope your parents are proud."
Two days later, on Oct. 17, Mazzetti Alexander was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole for the murder of Tiffany Nicole Davis.
Alexander, 24, shot 22-year-old Davis with a .380 caliber pistol in Dec. 2006 outside her friend Nia Furman's mother's house on Syracuse Lane. Alexander's attorney argued he acted in self defense, but the jury did not buy his story.
The defendant testified he shot the victim because he thought she was about to draw a weapon on him. According to testimony from several witnesses, Davis approached Alexander with her hands behind her.
Zon said Alexander will spend at least 30 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.
A week later, on Oct. 25, Lackey was convicted for Richardson's murder. In November, he was sentenced to life in prison by Judge Samuel Ozburn for the murder plus 22 years in prison for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, possession of cocaine, possession of marijuana and obstruction
"Today, justice was served for Larry Richardson and his family," Assistant District Attorney Melanie McCrorey said after the verdict.
End of an era
After 17 years of fighting the war on drugs, law enforcement officials voted in September to disband the East Metro Drug Enforcement Team.
In its most recent incarnation, the force had consisted of investigators from Covington, Newton County, Conyers and Rockdale County. Previous members of the team included officers from Walton County, Butts County, Loganville and Monroe as well as agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the National Guard.
The team had been tasked with the not so simple goal of taking down major drug dealers and producers in the area. For the most part, the task force was highly successful. In its 17 year existence, the EMDET handled 2,724 cases while employing 68 agents and 585 confidential informants. The team made hundreds of arrests while confiscating millions of dollars in drugs and cash.
EMDET's downfall came from above with a severe cut in funding from the federal government. The decision to disband the team was made by EMDET's board of directors which included Covington Chief of Police Stacey Cotton, Newton County Sheriff Joe Nichols, Rockdale County Sheriff Jeff Wigington, Conyers Chief of Police David Cathcart, Wynne and Rockdale County District Attorney Richard Read.
To pick up the slack left by the disbandment, the NCSO and the CPD formed the Covington/Newton Special Investigations Unit whose focus includes not only drugs but also gangs, organized crime and prostitution. The unit has already made several major busts including the recent takedown of businesses selling counterfeit goods at the International Merchandise Mart and Storage. More than $2 million dollars in counterfeit clothes, jewelry and shoes were seized while 35 people were arrested.