Update on Telfair County’s Classic-Car Craigslist Killing: The Former Coroner Speaks Up, No Gun Found, Family Mostly Mum, No New Arrests
By Dave Oedel
I first spoke with Raford Horton on February 10, 2015, when I visited Telfair County to explore the setting, cause and meaning of the killings of retirees Bud and June Runion. As reported nationally, as well as in this local newsweekly, the Runions were lured to Telfair County on Thursday, January 22, 2015, in hopes of having their Craigslist ad answered in Bud’s quest for a 1966 Ford Mustang to match the one that he bought upon his release from service in Vietnam. But the Runions found no Mustang in Telfair. Instead, they met single bullets to their heads. Their bodies ended up lying some yards apart in Telfair’s piney woods.
Raford Horton has seen something of death in Telfair County, having served as its coroner from 2000 to 2008. Horton might have examined the bodies of the Runions himself, except that Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that Horton couldn’t run for a third term due to local law establishing term limits.
On my way from Macon to the crime scene, it was hard to miss Horton. I first saw him on a bulldozer preparing a clear-cut field to be replanted with pines, where he interrupted his work to talk with me about the case and the community.
Later, I passed his wrecker and salvage business site.
Down the road further still, I passed Horton’s home, and saw a classic car for sale on the front lawn, a 1963 Chevy Impala.
Horton himself is troubled by the thought that his sideline of salvaging classic cars might in some way have inspired the killer or killers of the Runions, and may have given the Runions reason to let their guard down, believing they were indeed in classic car country when they passed his Impala.
Just a little further on, the Runions on January 22, 2015 stopped at Kinnett’s store for directions, when the directions the Runions were going by apparently proved sketchy. It turns out that I did the same thing when I tried to find Webb Cemetery Road, off of which the Runions’ bodies were found. When I stopped at Kinnett’s, I didn’t know then that the Runions had stopped there too on their last day in life, and that the Kinnett’s proprietors were apparently the last people, besides the Runions’ killer or killers, who saw the Runions alive.
After finally finding and turning onto Webb Cemetery Road with the Kinnetts’ directional help, and after driving down the dirt road a way, I found a sort of country traffic jam there.
A gaggle of official state and local vehicles was on hand, plus a portable canopy set up with tables underneath to feed the crowd of officers.
After I stopped to make inquiries, the officers still there at the end of a long day remained studiously non-responsive. However, from various other sources, I learned that the officers had been struggling to find the weapon or weapons that were used to kill the Runions.
The Runions’ 2003 GMC Envoy had been partially submerged in a shallow pond down the side lane from where the Runions’ bodies were found, and the surmise was that the murderer or murderers might have thrown the gun or guns in the pond too. At first, Georgia’s state dive team got involved, but after nothing showed up, a decision was made to drain the pond. Still no murder weapon was found then, or has been found since, according to my sources.
The officials’ failure to find any murder weapon was just one among many lingering mysteries in this case – the most important question being who pulled the trigger and why.
Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns, who grew up on Webb Cemetery Road just across the way and down the road from where the Runions’ bodies were found, still remains the only person charged in the case. Towns was traced to electronic contact with the Runions. Towns purchased the disposable cell phone with which the Runions were last in contact before the Runions’ traceable communication went dead in the afternoon of January 22, 2015.
But Towns seemed an unlikely murderer to many, a dad and husband, 28 years old, with an erect posture, soft-spoken manner, and good record. In the days before the Runions’ murder, Towns had been seen visiting his mother at the family farm on Webb Cemetery Road. She had recently undergone surgery. Jay was thought to be a good son of his family and the community. Jay worked in construction, not full time, but enough to get by.
Jay Towns’ calm but clear statement that he “didn’t do it,” a disclaimer made during his January 27, 2015 perp-walk outside McRae’s classic southern courthouse and jail, was as notable to Raford Horton, the former Telfair County coroner, as it had been to me. Horton knew Jay Towns when Towns was a kid and growing up, and Horton knows the Towns family fairly well.
Horton is puzzled by the situation not just because of his favorable impression of Jay Towns, but also of the Towns family. “I’m goin’ out on the limb to say that they’s one of the best families in this county,” Horton told me. Along the same lines, Telfair Sheriff Chris Steverson had earlier said to FOX News that Jay Towns comes from a “good family.”
I had a chance very briefly to meet Jay Towns’ eldest sister and a few other family members on the front lawn of the Towns family home at 448 Webb Cemetery Road after I knocked on the door.
Jay’s sister was well-spoken, and impressive in her defense of her brother. At the same time, she was apparently torn by a family edict, plainly evident in their reaction to my presence, to say nothing at all. After expressing her seemingly-genuine incredulity that Jay could have murdered the Runions, she ducked back inside.
Raford Horton, though, was not bound by family ties, and separately ventured some other thoughts of his own. Horton said that he could in a way believe Jay Towns in his denial of murder, but still Horton entertains the suspicion that Towns was somehow involved in trouble that turned out to be perhaps much bigger than anything Towns anticipated. “Sometimes,” Horton told me, “you can say, ‘I believe him,’ but you also have in mind that something else be true too. And sometimes things happen beyond our control. Sometimes thing get out of control.”
While acknowledging the existence of poverty in the county, Horton was dismissive of the notion that financial desperation drove Towns or anyone else to murder. “Anybody like Jay Towns who needs work to get by, they could just ask and we’d get something for them to do to get by. May not be big money, but enough.”
As for the murder itself, Horton imagined the possibility of a botched robbery attempt, and even the possibility that the murder weapon might have belonged to Bud Runion. Conceivably, Horton suggested, Runion may have been angry upon discovering that he was being duped, and then himself pulled a gun, only to have it somehow be turned on himself and his wife.
On the other hand, even if one murder was in a sense not intended, the second killing is not susceptible to the same sort of excuse. Whoever was killed second seems almost necessarily to have been purposefully killed with malice aforethought.
Having now spoken with Raford Horton three times, all on my initiative, the one thing that Horton keeps coming back to is that it seems odd that Towns would choose that particular place for cold-blooded malice murder. “Don’t make no sense for him or nobody in the Towns family to kill somebody right there near the home.”
Though Horton had claimed that he “ain’t much with words,” Horton drew a colorful analogy to help explain who else may have done it, and why. “You see, they’s some trees down in them woods, a bunch of ‘em.” Indeed, the trees in Telfair County are plentiful and striking in their straightness, vigor and beauty, not just visually, but as a cash crop. Having already explained before to me about the economic implications of those healthy Telfair trees and what that means for the community, Horton went on about a few of the trees that were just the opposite of valuable.
“Some are crooked,” Horton declared. “Some are crazy. Some are doping and would kill their own mother for money.” Horton noted, “There’s plenty of dope around here, and it can make for crazy doings. Maybe these killings were crazy like that.” A bad tree, it seems, can sure mess up a forest.
In summary, Raford Horton said, “It’s a drastic, drastic situation.” I’m not sure, and failed to ask, whether Horton was speaking of the murderous acts themselves, or the tragedy felt by both the Runion and Towns families. Or maybe it was that Horton was alluding to a collective despair shared in Telfair County about their community and its reputation. However the lingering questions eventually are answered, the Runions’ murders, and Telfair being the poorest county in the United States, are likely to remain Telfair’s prime points of national distinction for a long time to come.
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