Northwest Georgia has been the home to many notorious crimes over the years, and many of the people who perpetrated those crimes are still alive and residing in various prison systems, while all that remains of their victims is a memory.
Murders on Floyd County’s doorstep
It was 1982.
A 13-year-old girl was walking toward Riverbend Mall, and the next time she was seen, her mutilated corpse was found after being thrown down an 80-foot cliff into Little River Canyon in Northeast Alabama.
One of the people responsible for a crime and murder spree in the early 1980s that left two young women dead still remains in prison.
Judith Ann Neelley is currently serving a life term in prison at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama.
In 1982, Neelley and her husband, Alvin Neelley, randomly abducted 13-year-old Lisa Ann Millican from Riverbend Mall (which has since been demolished and replaced by Riverbend Center). They took her to Alabama, where she was sexually assaulted and killed.
According to testimony, Judith Ann Neelley injected the girl with liquid drain cleaner, which failed to kill her, then shot her in the back and pushed her into Little River Canyon.
Neelley, who at the time was an 18-year-old mother of twins from Murfreesboro, Tenn., was sentenced to die, but Alabama Gov. Fob James commuted Neelley’s death sentence as his term ended in 1999.
Her husband, Alvin Neelley, was prosecuted in Georgia and sentenced to life for the murder of 22-year-old Janice Kay Chatman, a Rome woman whose body was found in Chattooga County.
Alvin Neelley died in 2005 while in custody.
Another notable murderess is serving time with Judith Neelley at Tutwiler Prison.
Barbara Roberts was sentenced to life without parole in prison for the April 6, 2006, ambush and murder of her ex-husband’s wife, Martha Darlene Roberts, in Cherokee County, Ala.
Roberts’ sometime live-in boyfriend Dr. Robert John Schiess pleaded guilty to the kidnapping of Darlene Roberts and was sentenced to serve three years in prison. He was recently released.
Two men remain in prison 22 years after a double murder that has gained an almost legendary status in North Georgia folklore.
Samuel Tony West and Kenneth A. Brock are both serving multiple life sentences for the murder and robbery of two men reputed to be “devil worshippers” in Chattooga County.
On Dec. 12, 1982, Brock and West shot and killed Dr. Charles Scudder, 56, a former Chicago medical professor, and his live-in companion Joseph Odom, 37, at Scudder’s castle-like home, “Corpsewood Manor,” in rural Chattooga County.
They were also convicted of the murder of Navy Lt. Kirby Phelps near Vicksburg, Miss., on Dec. 15, 1982. Phelps was en route from Jacksonville, Fla., to an assignment in California when West and Brock jumped him.
They were fleeing the scene of the Chattooga County murders and found Phelps sleeping in his parked car. They abducted Phelps and shot him in the head three times, killing the Naval officer.
According to earlier accounts of the trial, Brock and West pawned Scudder’s belongings in Texas before being arrested shortly thereafter.
The fascination with the location of the murder of Scudder and Odom persists to this day and persists on the Internet as well.
At least two fan groups on Facebook exist devoted to the subject of the home and a substantial Internet following on the topic remains years after the house burned at least twice and fell to the ground.
Drugs and death in Northwest Georgia
A violent Northwest Georgia drug ring claimed five lives in March 2000 and in December 2006, and garnered more than 20 convictions before screeching to a halt in U.S. District Court in Rome.
One of the main conspirators, Daniel Villenas-Reyes, shot and killed Cesar Juarez Vasquez, Arturo Torrez Ventura and a woman who has never been identified in a house at 506 Seventh St., Cedartown, on Sept. 16, 2003, and set the house on fire to hide the evidence of the murders.
The three were killed, according to evidence at the trial, after they refused to pay Reyes for a highly diluted methamphetamine that he’d given them.
He was also convicted of participating in the shooting of Jesse Vargas in Rome on Dec. 17, 2002.
Reyes received five concurrent life sentences in prison, plus 160 years.
The deaths didn’t end with Reyes. Shane Rosser killed T.J. Agan and Christopher Fortenberry on March 27, 2003, in their home in southern Floyd County. Agan owed Rosser a meth debt and he killed Fortenberry just because he was in the home, trial testimony indicated.
Fortenberry became Agan’s roommate just a few short weeks prior.
Rosser was sentenced to four concurrent life terms plus 50 years.
Both Reyes and Rosser are in a high-security federal prison in Pennsylvania.
Marco Cordero was sentenced to a life term plus 60 years for pistol-whipping a person suspected of stealing methamphetamine and selling methamphetamine after he had escaped from the Polk County Jail in the late winter of 2003.
Cordero now lives in the Colorado maximum security prison that also held Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh until McVeigh was executed.
Twenty other defendants were tried and found or pleaded guilty to participating in the racketeering conspiracy and were sentenced to prison throughout 2008.
On death row
Four local men convicted of murders that occurred in Floyd County are currently housed on Georgia’s death row in Jackson.
James Randall Rogers, now 48, was convicted in 1982 on charges of murder and rape. Rogers, 19 at the time, murdered Grace Perry, his 75-year-old neighbor, by impaling her with a rake handle. He also received a 10-year prison sentence for the aggravated assault of Edith Polston, Perry’s 63-year-old cousin.
Timothy Tyrone Foster, now 42, was convicted in 1987 of the Aug. 27, 1986, murder of Queen Madge White at her Highland Circle home. He broke into her home and beat her with a large stick and strangled her with a sheet.
Gary C. Thomason, now 38, of Jasper, was sentenced to death in 1996 for the murder of Jerry Self on Aug. 21, 1992. Self called police to report a burglary in progress at his Bells Ferry Road home, and Thomason shot and killed him.
Mark McPherson, now 45, was convicted in September 2000 and sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Linda Ratcliff, with whom he was living. Evidence in the trial portrayed McPherson as a crack addict who killed the woman when she turned off his money supply and threatened to end their relationship.
A lower court had vacated the death sentence, stating that McPherson’s defense was substandard. However, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the vacated death sentence in 2008.
The ruling does not exclude McPherson from being sentenced to death again but dismisses the current sentence because the lower appellate court vacated the sentence rather than overturning the conviction.
The self-avowed ‘godfather’ of Rome
Several people are still serving time for a drug and money laundering conspiracy spearheaded by a former Rome businessman.
Mario Armas, a former local businessman who owned businesses and properties in the Rome area, allegedly conspired with three other men between January 2003 and November 2004 to distribute more than 2,200 pounds of pot in the Rome area.
In 2007, a few days into his trial on drug and money laundering charges, Armas pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 15 years in U.S. District Court. His sentence was later reduced to 12 years for offering testimony against alleged co-conspirator Kevin Redstrom.
Armas received the time off from his sentence for testifying in Redstrom’s trial for drug and money laundering charges in early 2008.
A hung jury couldn’t agree to convict Redstrom on those charges, and he pleaded guilty a year later to using a telephone to facilitate an illegal transaction. Redstrom was sentenced to a year in prison with a $15,000 fine and released in late 2009.
A Rockmart man who was caught in between a high-interest debt to Armas and the possibility of money garnered from the marijuana trade, Lonnie Merren, pleaded guilty without a deal or reservation, prosecutors said.
Merren is scheduled to finish his prison term in just less than two years on Jan. 30, 2012.
Armas was also sentenced to serve 10 years in state prison, to run concurrent with his federal time for masterminding a home invasion on Stonebrook Drive in an attempt to recoup $1.44 million in lost drug money.
Armas is scheduled to be released from a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania on April 12, 2017.
But the man who built it all up and brought it all down is scheduled for release later this year.
Jimmy D. Collins, a self-described marijuana trafficker and Armas’ drug connection, is scheduled to be let loose in September of this year from a federal pen in South Carolina near the Georgia border.
Collins was not prosecuted in this case but was later arrested for selling 200 pounds of marijuana to a DEA agent in Tennessee in 2006.
It was Collins’ testimony that created the case against Armas and he said he decided to offer cooperation to authorities because Armas “broke the rules” and had Collins arrested for theft by conversion of $1,144,000 in money lost in a drug deal gone bad.
Collins was the middle man, taking money from Armas and buying the trailer-loads of marijuana in Arizona. But when a cohort was kidnapped and the drug dealers demanded the million plus, Collins turned it over.
This was the beginning of the end. Tension grew between the men, and an angry Armas demanded the sizeable amount of cash invested in the deal be returned — plus interest.
In September 2004, Collins was arrested on the warrants sworn out by Armas. He accused Collins of stealing the million lost in the Arizona fiasco for a legitimate “bonding business” transaction.
Collins made contact with local law enforcement to trade the information he had for a deal that he would not be prosecuted. This was when the federal investigation into Armas began.