COVINGTON, Ga. — The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld William Dontrell “Waldo” Winston’s murder conviction for the 2015 death of Caylen Gooch.
The crimes occurred in Newton County, where Winston was convicted in Superior Court in 2016. Winston, of Covington, appealed the verdict claiming there was insufficient evidence to convict him, but the state Supreme Court denied that in a unanimous verdict issued Monday.
Justice Robert Benham wrote the opinion for the court.
Benham noted trial testimony indicated Gooch picked up Jourdan Phillips in a blue four-door sedan at about 9 or 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2015. After they rode around for a short time, Phillips testified Gooch received a phone call from Winston, then they picked up him. Winston then directed the group to the neighborhood of a woman named Red, who purportedly had money and wanted to buy marijuana from Gooch.
The three men waited for about a half hour, parking near two different community pool areas, but Red never showed up to meet them. The men drove away from the neighborhood and Gooch dropped Winston off near a friend’s house.
Phillips testified he and Gooch stopped by Gooch’s house, then went to the grocery store, where they got a text message from Red and a phone call from Winston. They then picked up Winston and drove back to Red’s neighborhood.
This time, Winston entered and exited Red’s house twice over the course of about 25 minutes. When he came back out the second time, Winston told Gooch and Phillips he had Red’s debit card and they needed to drive to an ATM to withdraw cash. However, when they arrived at the ATM, Winston said he had left it at Red’s house. The group returned there briefly but did not pursue a drug deal. Cellphone records showed Gooch’s phone pinged in the vicinity of Red’s house between 3:07 and 3:36 a.m. Aug. 11.
The three left Red’s house, drove to a gas station, then to Gooch’s house, where Phillips exited the car for the night.
Phillips said he was dropped off at Gooch’s house sometime after 3 a.m. and Gooch called him about 3:30 to ask for Red’s phone number, and that was the last time he heard from Gooch.
Gooch’s cellphone records confirmed he called Phillips once and Red six times between 3:36 and 4:03 a.m. Gooch’s girlfriend testified and cellphone records confirmed she last spoke to Gooch at 4:19 a.m.
The girlfriend testified that during the call, which lasted about a minute, she heard Gooch ask someone named Waldo whether to turn left or right.
Phillips later admitted to police he was in the car with Phillips when he received his girlfriend’s call.
At 5 a.m., a woman called police upon finding the victim’s body. He was found in the middle of a street in the Pebble Brook subdivision off Brown Bridge Road in unincorporated Newton County.
Gooch was 19 and a sophomore at Clayton State University at the time of his death.
Nearby residents testified they heard gunshots at around 4:20 and 4:28 a.m., as well as screeching tires. One neighbor said he looked out his window sometime after 4 a.m. and saw a black man dressed in a white T-shirt driving away in a four-door sedan.
Court records indicate a trail of blood spatter leading to Gooch’s body indicated he walked about 75 to 100 yards and collapsed in the street. Police also saw tire skid marks near where the blood trail began and recovered one of Gooch’s personal items.
Cellphone records showed that after Gooch’s body was discovered, his cellphone pinged at 7:30 and 8:23 a.m. in neighborhoods near the crime scene, and for the last time that day at 3:01 p.m. in Atlanta.
When police found Gooch’s car on the night of his death, it had a flat tire and was parked near the home of close friends of Phillips, where he was known to spend a significant amount of time.
Investigators collected an empty wallet, noted the smell of marijuana and saw blood spatter inside the car, primarily in the driver’s seat. A cleaning agent had been used, but the volume of remaining blood in the driver’s seat indicated the victim had been shot while sitting there, and some blood droplets also were found on the exterior of the car.
An autopsy revealed Gooch was shot in the face at close range and shot in the back at an indeterminate range. No weapon was found.
Winston’s friend Cameron Driver testified he saw Winston at about 7 or 8 p.m. on the day of Gooch’s death, and he said Winston told him he had “f’d up” and was pacing and sweating. Driver said Winston changed clothes at his house, and Driver was able to provide those clothes to police.
Rockdale County sheriff’s deputies arrested Winston after Gooch’s death on two charges of breaking into cars. Newton County deputies soon thereafter arrested Winston without incident and charged him with felony murder, possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and armed robbery.
Winston told police he rode around with Gooch on the night of the crime and Gooch dropped him off at Driver’s house, after dropping off Phillips first. Winston denied being present when Gooch was shot.
Winston argued there was no physical evidence tying him to the crime and because the evidence was circumstantial, it was insufficient to convict. The Supreme Court disagreed.
The original trial was conducted Nov. 7-10, 2016. After a jury returned a verdict of guilty on all counts, Alcovy Circuit Judge Eugene Benton sentenced Winston to life in prison for malice murder, plus 20 years for armed robbery and five years for possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. The two counts of felony murder were vacated as a matter of law.
Winston filed a motion for a new trial on Dec. 14, 2016, and amended it on May 26, 2017. The Superior Court denied the motion on June 21, 2017, and Winston appealed it July 11, 2017.
Jillian Hall, chief assistant district attorney for the Newton County district attorney’s office, handled the appeal before the Supreme Court. Probate Judge Melanie Bell, who was then the chief assistant district attorney, prosecuted Winston in 2016 with the assistance of Senior Investigator Jill Lumpkin and victim witness assistant Shay Payne.