By Dave Oedel
Macon, Georgia continues to be afflicted by a steady drip of black-on-black murders, three alone from a heated Bloomfield Road barroom melee among rival gang members in December, 2014. Then there was the point-blank murder of a 20-year-old in East Macon by a gun-toting 16-year-old in January, 2015. Leaders like former Macon Mayor C. Jack Ellis, himself African American, asked local people to refocus their attention from the Ferguson and New York City police controversies to help quell destructive violence locally among younger African Americans.
But black-on-black violence is hardly the only crime problem in Middle Georgia. White-on-white murder is pulsing along at a disturbingly steady pace right alongside black-on-black murders. Whether the victims and their murderers are black or white, the blood of every victim is uniformly red.
On January 29, 2015 in Griffin, Georgia, for instance, 40-year-old Shane Collett was convicted and sentenced to life for killing his neighbor, 9-year-old Skylar Dials, in December, 2012. In Jones County on January 20, 2015, James Don Parker was convicted and sentenced to life for shooting his drinking partner, Alan Helmuth, twice in the head in 2014 after a drunken brawl at Parker’s home. In East Dublin, Georgia on December 31, 2014, Antone Johnson was shot in the throat and killed, with Corey Michael Bergeson being charged in the crime. In Milledgeville, Georgia, on July 28, 2014, Vickie Mitchell was gunned down at work by her ex-husband, who then shot himself. In Macon last April, Stephen McDaniel pleaded guilty to killing and dismembering his former classmate, Lauren Giddings. All those victims, and all the alleged killers, were white. The list could go on. There is no shortage of white-on-white murder in Middle Georgia.
The most recent such case, the so-called Craigslist classic-car case, occurred in Telfair County near McRae, Georgia, apparently on Thursday, January 22, 2015. Elrey “Bud” Runion, 69, and his wife, June Runion, 66, had traveled there that day 180 miles from Marietta, Georgia to inspect and perhaps buy a 1966 Mustang, a car like the one Bud Runion owned after returning from service in Vietnam. Bud Runion posted this on Craiglist about the Runions’ interest in acquiring such a car: “Wanted 1966 Mustang Convertible $1 (marietta ga) Wanting to purchase a 1966 Ford Mustang Convertible. Prefer red with black interior and top. 289 V8 with an automatic. Call or text Bud at [show contact info] Thanks Bud” Bud was “excited” to have located a car with the help of his ad, according to one of the Runions’ three daughters, Stephanie Bishop, as reported by WSB-TV Atlanta. Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns, 28, of Telfair County and nearby Alamo across the line in Wheeler County, apparently responded to the ad.
Moreover, Telfair County Sheriff Chris Steverson indicated that Towns seems to have been the last person in traceable contact via cellphone with the Runions before their demise. The disposable cellphone that was used to contact the Runions had apparently been purchased by Towns, according to the sheriff. The Runions’ bodies were found lying separately, more than a few yards apart, several days later in the woods off a lane near the Towns family home in Telfair County.
That lane takes off from a more traveled but-still-dirt road, the ironically-named Webb Cemetery Road. Before his arrest, Jay Towns was reportedly staying in the family home at 448 Webb Cemetery Road, just a short distance down and across the road from the lane near which the Runions’ bodies and their partially-submerged 2003 GMC Envoy were found.
Jay Towns knew the area well, having grown up there on the family farm, where cotton, peanuts and soybeans are grown. The Runions had each been killed by a single bullet to the head. Earlier in the day before the discovery of the bodies, Jay Towns, at his father’s urging, had come out of hiding, apparently from woods in the area, to turn himself in. Jay’s father, Ronnie Towns, said that Jay was hiding because Jay was probably “scared” about being charged for something he didn’t do.
Jay Towns knew he was under some suspicion, as he had been questioned by police earlier. It turned out that his statements in that interview did not line up with the records of relevant communications that were secured later, according to Sheriff Steverson, who added that Towns did not own a vintage Mustang. The sheriff seemed fairly sure that Towns was involved in falsely luring the Runions to Telfair County. Even if that proves true, there remain some lingering questions, first about Jay Towns’ precise role in the actual killing. Sheriff Steverson himself indicated that Towns may not have acted alone, even though Steverson said that, “for now,” Towns is the only one being charged. If the bodies were found apart, it is at least conceivable that two people were involved in restraining the victims.
Moreover, given that Towns is said by his uncle, Buddy Towns, and others to be a “very smart” person, it would seem out of character, remarkably stupid even, to execute people a short distance from the family home, leaving the bodies exposed and the Runions’ car, only partially submerged in a pond, to be discovered with relative ease. Then there is the clean reputation of Jay Towns, who had had little contact with law enforcement before, is married, and has a 2-year-old daughter. Moreover, as Sheriff Steverson said to Fox News, Towns comes from a “good family.”
At his arraignment on charges of malice murder and armed robbery, Jay Towns stood tall, his solid but lean 6’4” frame erect, his tone calm, even polite to the magistrate, who held him without bond. Towns nodded his assent without objection, apparently understanding something about the severity of the charges. However, when Towns was paraded outside the courthouse in front of the media, Towns responded to a reporter who asked what he had to say to those who wonder about his role. Towns calmly responded that he “didn’t do it.” Towns seemed genuine in his statement, and assuming for the sake of argument that he was being truthful, it was interesting to ponder what Towns might have been saying that he “didn’t do.”
Of course, Stephen McDaniel in Macon proclaimed his innocence right up until he explained how he did it, but there was something very different about the way that Towns held himself in court and responded to the reporter’s question. Let’s assume that, for the sake of argument, Towns was telling some truth, and that Towns didn’t pull the trigger either time. Unfortunately for Towns, that might make little legal difference.
If Towns participated in luring the Runions to Telfair County for a “mere” scam robbery, and the Runions ended up dead because Bud Runion wasn’t going to take it lightly (as the Runion family indicated would be expected of proud and feisty Vietnam vet Bud Runion), the charge would still be murder — albeit not malice murder, but felony murder.
Felony murder is technically different from malice murder. Malice murder is defined under O.C.G.A. 16-5-1 as unlawfully, and with deliberate intention, taking a life without provocation. Felony murder, on the other hand, is found if, in the commission of a felony, the defendant “causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice.” Luring the Runions to McRae to steal from them would be a felony. Whether convicted of felony or malice murder, Towns would still be liable under Georgia law for potential punishment “by death, by imprisonment for life without parole, or by imprisonment for life.” True, if Towns were not the triggerman killing either of the Runions, Towns might avoid the highest penalties, but he would still be prosecuted as a murderer.
Though the legal difference may not amount to much, it may well be an important distinction to the Towns family, and even to the community as a whole. McRae, Georgia, 80 miles southeast of Macon, touts itself on a small sign on the city limit as city of “distinction,” and “the sixth safest city in Georgia,” but that claim might need adjusting right about now.
Its biggest distinction at the moment is being the site of the latest, and perhaps most outrageous, Craigslist killing of all. As Sheriff Steverson said, “This community feels betrayed. For an individual who was raised in this community to have orchestrated such a heinous act, we are very upset, to say the least.” A sense of enduring shock and betrayal in Telfair County seems likely to last for a long time. “We’re a close-knit community,” said Sheriff Steverson. “It hurts us to know that someone came to our community and met this fate.” Others I spoke with in McRae were also hurt – and wondering what this says about their community.
McRae is in turmoil. The Towns family is heartbroken, and feels under siege. The community at large is mystified. Whoever did these horrible acts, what could have prompted it? Given that there appears to have been an obvious economic dimension to luring the Runions to McRae, one immediately has to wonder about whether economic pressures may have had something to do with the Runions’ murders. After all, Telfair got the distinction recently of being ranked as the single poorest county in the entire United States.
But there are reasons to doubt that rationale at least in the case of Jay Towns, who was working in construction fairly regularly, apparently could have gotten more work had he needed more money, and had family back-up. Something doesn’t quite add up about this case so far. How could a smart, handsome young husband and father from a respected family do something so cold-blooded? There will be more to explore about this case in the Macon Monitor.
Next week: A former official of Telfair County who knows some of the people involved, the community and the general setting offers his insights on the conditions that might have led to this tragedy. Also, the state dive team visits the pond on February 9 and 10, apparently to search for the murder weapon. And a member of the Towns family speaks. Anyone with information or insights to share about this case may do so confidentially by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.