Georgia’s Cold Case Problem

A few months ago State Representative Micah Gravley told me about In the Red Clay, a podcast that he found to be intriguing for its production quality and because of its subject matter; The Dixie Mafia. Turns out that Georgia is home to one of the most prolific mass murderers in American History. After listening to it, I understood why Micah was compelled to share it with me because the author, Sean Kipe, is quite the polished story teller.

Because Mr. Kipe clearly has a talent for the podcast medium I went on to listen to his second Georgia based podcast, Fox Hunter, which tells the story of Rhonda Sue Coleman’s murder in 1990. Rhonda was 18 years old and only a few days away from her high school graduation when her friend found her car one night on a dirt road in Hazlehurst abandoned, door open, head lights on, and engine running. A few days later her body would be found in a field that had recently been harvested for its timber in a neighboring county.

For 32 years Rhonda’s family has endured, thirsting for answers that have been slow in coming. The podcast chronicles their struggle and towards the end of the series creates a call to action to support a concept called Rhonda’s Law that was designed to give families of cold case murder victims a greater understanding of how these types of cases are progressing. As I read more about the efforts to bring legislative relief I, from my former legislator perspective, recognized the challenges and why the effort stalled out.

I picked up the phone and made a few calls to my former colleagues and had my suspicions confirmed. Messaging, circumstance, policy positions, and election year politics were in the way.

In the spring of 2021 I founded a non-profit, Eternal Vigilance Action Inc. (EVA), in an effort to keep working on policy proposals I was passionate about after I retired from the Georgia House of Representatives. Our Board of Directors is made up of former legislators, activists, and academics and our mission is to advocate for policies which maximize the American Promise of Liberty and Justice for all.

What good is it to have an understanding of the legislative process and the political landscape if it cannot be used in the service of others? I was compelled to help and quickly obtained the blessing of a representative of the Coleman family and began working with them and the author of another podcast, Cameron Jay of Classic City Crime, which tells the story of Tara Louise Baker in Athens in 2001.

As I listened to their stories, it became clear that the concept of Justice for these families was quite different than the common expectation that someone would be arrested, tried, and punished for these crimes. Make no mistake, they do desire this to come to pass, however Justice means more than that; to these families the concept of Justice has evolved to a desire to know everything they can about their daughters’ murders. And because these cases were still open, it simply wasn’t possible for key details to be shared with them which has led to decades of frustration.

Through my work at EVA I have begun to understand just how big Georgia’s cold case murder problem actually is. Cameron Jay has personally identified over 40 cases in Athens-Clark County alone since 1970. When I spoke with representatives from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI), they told me that the GBI has over 500 cold cases under its jurisdiction which doesn’t count the cases where local law enforcement agencies haven’t asked for the GBI to become involved.

In Georgia, the GBI can only investigate if the locals request their assistance, leaving the true statewide number of these cases a unknown for now. Suffice it to say that because of this, and no reporting requirement for statistical data on cold cases, the statewide number is much larger. Further, there are no full time investigators assigned to these cases. Only recently, under Director Vic Reynolds, did the GBI establish a cold case unit, which is made up of two teams of 3 investigators each who are retirees and work on a part time basis. These teams are not specifically funded and they do the best they can with the resources they have.

Earlier this year Congress passed into law the Homicide Victims’ Families’ Rights Act which only applies to cases that have federal jurisdiction. It allows families to submit a written application after 3 years to have a case reviewed to see if new leads are available, and if so, have the case reinvestigated. It also has a reporting requirement for statistical data related to these cases and also requires that families be advised of their rights under this law.

Loosely modeling the new federal law, and by advocating for funding of a permanent cold case unit at the GBI to handle the case load, EVA is working with members of the law enforcement community and the legislature to shepherd legislation to help bring Justice in these cases, however Justice is defined.

In January, when the legislature is meeting during what is likely to be budget week, we plan on having an event at the Gold Dome bringing the cold case problem to our collective attention. It just so happens that Rhonda Sue Coleman would have been 51 years old this January 18th, and she is still loved and remembered by those who knew her. And her memory is going to serve to motivate substantive change and, I hope, offer Justice for families just like hers across Georgia.

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