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By SHEILA JOHNSON
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Sheila Johnson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEarly evenings in April are a treat for the senses in almost any part of the country, but even more so in rural northeast Alabama. Pastures and fields are bright green with new growth, dogwood trees and fruit orchards stand covered in fragrant pastel blossoms, and the smell of freshly tilled soil carries for miles on the breeze. And sometimes, when the wind is right, the workers plowing the fields can catch the equally pleasant scent of the great lake that covers a large percentage of the area that makes up Cherokee County, Alabama.
Cherokee County adjoins the Georgia state line and is best known as the location of Weiss Lake, one of the finest fishing and recreational areas in the southeastern United States. Countless professional fishing tournaments are held year-round, drawing entrants from all over the country, and the hundreds of miles of shoreline have become lined in recent years with lakefront homes, docks, campgrounds, and boathouses.
The lake, which covers forty-five square miles, is a result of the Coosa River being dammed in the 1950s by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in order to provide hydroelectric power for a large portion of northeast Alabama. Construction of the dams caused the extensive flooding of hundreds of acres of farmlands on all sides of the river. The huge lake that resulted is surrounded on almost all sides by the fertile fields and pastures of the county.
Darlene Roberts left her job in Rome, Georgia, on the afternoon of Thursday, April 6, 2006, on her way home to Cherokee County, Alabama. It was a fairly short commute, and she and her husband, Vernon, enjoyed living out in the country. They had been married for four years, and had met where they both worked, at Temple-Inland Paperboard and Packaging, Inc., near Rome, where Darlene worked in personnel management and Vernon was a supervisor.
Vernon had gone for a doctor's appointment that morning, and had been told by his physician that he would have to start taking medication to lower his high blood sugar levels. He got back to work in time to meet Darlene and some friends for lunch, and told them about his diagnosis. Darlene immediately began planning ways that she could change their diet in order to help get Vernon's blood sugar levels down, and she assured him that they'd make it just fine with the changes that she had in mind.
Vernon left work a little early that afternoon to do some painting and plumbing work around the house; he expected his brother to come for a visit over the weekend, and Vernon wanted to get things finished up before his guest arrived. He went home and started work, fixing a sink and painting the upstairs hallway, planning to have the jobs completed by the time his wife came home.
After she left work, Darlene gave her daughter, Heidi Langford, a ride to Heidi's home. Darlene often gave Heidi rides to and from work; it gave them a chance to spend time together, and sometimes they went shopping together. After she dropped Heidi off, Darlene stopped by Wal-Mart in Rome to shop for some of the foods that would work well with the dietary changes she had talked about with Vernon and their friends during lunch. Her shopping list included lots of fresh vegetables, flour tortillas, pinto beans, and other ingredients for a nice dinner of fajitas. She also picked up some chicken fingers, corn dogs, and a few of Vernon's other favorites that he could still enjoy while keeping his blood sugar level lowered. Before Darlene went into the store, she called Vernon on her cell phone. She told her husband where she was, and asked him if there was anything else that he needed her to pick up for him while she was shopping. They both ended the call as they almost always did, telling each other, "I love you."
Charles Edward Young Sr. and his wife and stepson, Ryan Kyle Tippens, enjoyed spending time on Weiss Lake, and they had a weekend house on the lake in the Wildwood Acres area in Alabama, where they kept their boat and often went fishing. Despite the pleasant weather on the afternoon of Thursday, April 6, 2006, clouds were beginning to gather rather quickly, and severe thunderstorms had been predicted for the coming evening. The Youngs and Tippens decided to move their boat from the lake house to a nearby campground with a boat launch they regularly used.
At around 5:30 P.M., Young and his wife were on their way to meet Tippens at the lake house, where he planned to take the boat out onto the lake and meet his stepfather at the dock at the campground to load the boat back onto its trailer. As the Youngs drove down Cherokee County Road 941 toward the lake, they saw an unfamiliar black Dodge pickup truck with a hard bed cover backed in at the double gates beside the entrance to a pasture and farm pond that adjoined the road. A few minutes later, Tippens drove past and also noticed the truck sitting beside the gate. He saw two people there-a large gray-haired man and a shorter woman. Tippens didn't think anything seemed particularly strange or out of the ordinary; people from the neighborhood often fished in the pond. He continued on his way to the lake house, got into the boat, and took it around the lake to the campground to meet the Youngs.
After the boat was pulled out of the water and secured onto its trailer, the Youngs started back down County Road 941. Around an hour had passed, and there was now a late-model white sports-utility vehicle (SUV) sitting a short distance down in the high grass and willow saplings of the pasture. The black truck was still in sight, but it had moved down to the end of the road at the intersection with County Road 182. Young Sr. noticed that the same two people who had been with the black truck earlier were still there, but now the hard cover of the truck bed had been raised.
A short time later, Tippens drove past, pulling the boat and its trailer. He, too, saw the same black Dodge pickup he had noticed earlier on his way to the campground. The truck was sitting beside the road, but it began to pull away as Tippens got closer. It looked to him like the truck was being driven by the same gray-haired man he had seen earlier.
Jose Luis Richiez was leaving for his home in nearby Summerville, Georgia, after a day on the job at Wildwood Acres Farms. Richiez had heard the local weather reports calling for possible severe weather moving into the area overnight, but he looked forward to the ride back to Summerville. On such a nice spring day, even with a few clouds beginning to gather in the west, it was going to be a pleasant trip.
Just before reaching the intersection of County Roads 941 and 182, Richiez saw a black Dodge Dakota pickup stopped on the side of the road with its hard bed cover raised. Thinking the truck might have broken down, Richiez was intending to stop and ask if he could help. As he got closer, he saw a man and woman fighting on the roadside beside the truck. The man was big, gray-haired, with a mustache, and the woman was smaller, wearing a light-colored shirt and jeans. Richiez was shocked when he saw the man hit the woman in the face and throw her back into the passenger side of the truck.
When the man hurriedly took off his shirt, tossed it into the back of the pickup, and jumped back into the cab, Richiez decided his safest move might be to mind his own business and continue on his way without stopping. As he passed the black truck, it pulled out onto the road behind him and closely followed him to a stop sign at the intersection. Richiez began to get uneasy; the gray-haired man had looked very big. When he pulled away from the intersection out of sight of the black truck, it didn't follow him any farther, much to his relief. Richiez didn't see the truck again, but he kept a close lookout in his rearview mirror all the way home, just in case.
While Richiez was being followed down the road by the black Dodge truck, another member of the Young family, Charles Edward Young Jr., was going toward his home on County Road 941 and noticed the white SUV sitting down in the pasture, near the pond. It looked to him like it might be stuck, so he stopped and called out to see if anyone was around that needed his help. No one answered, and no one was in sight at the vehicle or nearby in the pasture. Young Jr. started to walk down into the pasture and check on the condition of the vehicle, but he was wearing a pair of sandals and decided he'd better not try to push through the tall grass and into the field without having on a sturdier pair of shoes. He didn't notice anything else unusual in the pasture near the SUV, and thought that if anyone had needed help, the motorist had probably already left the pasture, so Young Jr. went on his way.
Chapter TwoJason Alan Sammons and his friend Ellis McNeill Williams were enjoying the spring afternoon. The two were at Sammons's house on County Road 182, having a beer out in the yard while they talked and put away some tools Sammons had been using on the job that day. Both young men worked hard, and they liked to relax after work and spend a little time together enjoying a "cold one."
When they heard a gunshot that seemed to come from the pastures down the road, they didn't pay much attention. In such a rural area, an occasional gunshot was nothing unusual. The vast majority of people who lived in the area were hunters, and still more people fished regularly, either at the lake or in the many ponds. And those who fished were likely to take a gun along on their fishing trips; snakes were very fond of the water, especially the farm ponds, where there were plenty of frogs and big tadpoles to attract them. When the two young men heard a couple more shots a short time later, they were still unconcerned.
About half an hour passed, and after the tools had all been cleaned and stored back in place, ready for the next day's work, the two friends decided to take Sammons's John Deere Gator all-terrain vehicle (ATV) and ride around the neighborhood for a while. Sammons grabbed Williams a beer out of the cooler and they started up the Gator and rode around over Sammons's farm; then they went across the highway and turned onto County Road 941.
When the two men saw a late-model white SUV sitting partially hidden in some willow bushes in the pasture beside the road, their first thought was that it might have been stolen or wrecked, so they rode down into the pasture to check it out. Car thieves often abandoned stolen vehicles off the road after they had been stripped. But this SUV seemed not to have been tampered with, so the men looked to see if its driver was in the pasture. When they found that no one seemed to be around, they pulled back out of the pasture and continued with their ride.
When Sammons and Williams turned around and started back down the road a short time later, they were still curious about the nice late-model abandoned vehicle sitting out in the pasture. They drove the Gator through the field down to the SUV again to have another look. This time they looked more closely and saw that there was, after all, some damage to the underside of the front of the vehicle, and it looked as though it might have been driven down and gotten stuck in the field. It just didn't look like the type of car someone would take down into a rough pasture like that, too nice and new to be driving around through the high grass and over the rough ground. Besides, it was sitting there with several bags of groceries in the back. They might need to call somebody, they decided, and report it, just in case there had been some kind of problem.
As they started to leave the pasture, Sammons glanced over toward the small pond a short distance away and noticed that something at the water's edge didn't look quite right.
"Man, what's that down there in the pond?" he asked Williams. "Do you see it?"
Sammons steered the Gator down toward the pond to a place where he could get a better look at what he saw floating in the shallow water. He started driving slowly, but slammed on the brakes, his heart pounding, when he saw what looked like a body lying at the edge of the pond. As he and Williams pulled up, got off the Gator, and carefully stepped a few feet closer, they could see that it was the corpse of a woman, floating facedown in the brackish water. From a short distance, it looked like she had suffered some horrific injuries to the head and back, and there could be absolutely no question that the woman was dead.
As the two men stood there, hardly believing they had stumbled onto such a nightmarish scene, Sammons noticed that some shotgun shells were lying nearby on the ground, two blue and one red, looking fresh and clean, as if they hadn't been lying there very long. He recalled hearing several gunshots while he and his friend were standing outside at his home, and he realized that what he and Williams had heard was more than likely the firing of the shots that had killed the woman in the pond.
Chapter ThreeAt first, Sammons and Williams stood and stared, frozen in place, horrified by their discovery. Then they realized that they had to snap out of it, get moving quickly and call someone for help as soon as possible. Sammons couldn't get service on his cell phone in the low-lying area around the pond, and he knew that he was going to have to go back up to the road before he could make a call. The men backed away from the pond, jumped back onto the Gator, and carefully moved it away from the area so they wouldn't damage any evidence or disturb the scene. They were anxious to get some officers there as quickly as they could, but they took pains not to disturb a few patches of grass and weeds that looked as if they might have been recently walked through and flattened.
As they were hurrying out of the pasture, shaken by what they had found at the pond, a gold extended-cab Chevy pickup drove by the pasture on the dirt road at a higher-than-normal rate of speed, headed for the main highway. By the time Sammons and Williams got the Gator back onto the road, the speeding pickup had already disappeared out of sight down County Road 941.
Sammons pulled the Gator to a point on the road that was slightly higher uphill, to a place where he could get cell phone service, and he hurriedly called Cherokee County 911. After he told the dispatcher what he and his friend had found in the pond and gave the operator directions to the scene, the two men drove the Gator back to the pasture gate to wait beside the road for the authorities to arrive. It would be getting dark soon, and the coming storm was making the evening air unseasonably warm and muggy. It was not cold at all, but Sammons and Williams were shivering.
Todd Waits and his wife were going out that evening to the nearby town of Cedar Bluff, Alabama. They left home at 5:30 P.M., and as they returned home at around 7:00 P.M., they met a tan Chevrolet Stepside pickup truck going out toward the main road at a fairly high speed. Minutes later, after they turned onto County Road 941, they saw two men standing beside the road next to a John Deere Gator. The men, whom Waits recognized as Jason Sammons and Ellis Williams, began frantically waving for him to stop.
"Man, there's a woman down there, dead in the pond," Sammons shouted at Waits as he pulled up beside them. "I just called 911," he continued, "and they ought to get here pretty quick."
Waits could see that the two men were shaken, visibly upset by what they had discovered. He decided quickly what he should do.
"I'll take my wife on to the house, then I'll come right back down here," Waits told them.
When he had dropped his wife off safely at their home, Waits hurried back down the road to the pasture gate to wait with his frightened neighbors until the authorities began to arrive.
The three men didn't have a long wait; within a few minutes, the flashing blue lights of emergency vehicles lit up the darkening skies as law enforcement officers began coming up County Road 941 to the blue metal gate at the entrance of the pasture, and the cars of county deputies and investigators soon lined both sides of the road that stretched alongside the pasture.
Chapter FourWhen Cherokee County investigator Michael B. "Bo" Jolly was dispatched to the pond off County Road 941, he was one of a group of several officers who were the first to arrive at the scene. A 911 caller had reported finding a woman's body floating in a farm pond, apparently shot and killed. This was a very uncommon occurrence in rural Cherokee County, Alabama. When such calls went out on the scanner, they quickly drew responses from every officer and agency in the vicinity.
Excerpted from BLOOD AMBUSH by SHEILA JOHNSON Copyright © 2010 by Sheila Johnson. Excerpted by permission.
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