This report is the third installment of a four-part series on unsolved crimes in the SunLight Project coverage area — Valdosta, Dalton, Thomasville, Milledgeville, Tifton and Moultrie, Ga., and Live Oak, Jasper and Mayo, Fla., along with the surrounding counties.
The first two parts were published Saturday, June 11, and Tuesday, June 13.
A palm print as the best clue
Grant Green went missing from Lowndes County in September 1993.
His job was insurance, and he traveled around town to sell it and collect premiums. One day, he never came home.
Green, 61, was well-known in the community, and because of his work he always carried large amounts of cash. The community knew that part, too.
After he went missing, the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office started tracking his route for clues. With the help of a forensic light, investigators found traces of blood on the wall of a Hudson Dockett apartment.
The apartment had been one of Green’s stops.
Green was found dead in a field off of Statenville Highway, dumped in knee-high grass, his body mutilated by a machete, his wallet empty.
He had been almost completely decapitated, said Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk, who had only been on the job nine months when the murder happened.
“It was very, very vicious,” Paulk said.
They found Green’s truck on Savannah Avenue parked beside an abandoned house, not far from the body.
On the tailgate, investigators discovered a full palm print, and it didn't belong to Green.
Investigators dug deep into the case, interviewing people and even offering a $10,000 reward, but they never latched onto any legitimate leads.
“There’s been stuff come in from time to time but nothing substantial,” LCSO Capt. Stryde Jones said.
What’s hard about older cases such as Green’s is the lack of technology that was available then, Jones said.
Investigators don’t know if the blood smeared on the walls of the Hudson Dockett apartment even belonged to Green because it was never tested for DNA, a practice that was just starting to gain traction at the time.
“There wasn’t enough blood to DNA anyways,” Paulk said.
The people living in the apartment were interviewed, but authorities could never tie them to the murder. Since the blood was found in trace amounts and was never confirmed as Green's, it's possible the blood had been in the apartment before the the tenants had moved in, Paulk said.
So the biggest and best clue in the case is the palm print — “the infamous palm print,” as Lt. Bryce Whitener put it.
When Whitener first started at the Sheriff’s Office, he heard a lot of buzz about the Grant Green case, and he said investigators would run the palm print through the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s fingerprint database monthly just to see if a hit ever came back.
So far, nearly a quarter century later, nothing.
“It could’ve been somebody living in Hudson Dockett that stayed there six months then left this part of the country. I mean you just don’t know,” Paulk said. “Or it could’ve been somebody that watched him and knew his route, (someone) he didn’t even have an association with. There’s just so many scenarios it could be.”
But even after 24 years, Paulk isn’t ready to give up. In fact, when he returned as sheriff in January after taking an eight-year break, one of the first things he did was to pull the county’s cold cases, including the Green file.
Now his office is reviewing all of the evidence in these murders and disappearances, looking at the clues with fresh eyes and new technology.
“Advances in science has helped us and given us some hope on some of these cases,” Jones said. “There’s really a lot of evidence, but it just doesn’t point to anybody.
“The palm print, for example,” Jones said. “That’s somebody’s palm print, but not knowing who, that’s very frustrating. You want so bad to be able to close that case and provide that closure for everybody.”
Solving the case would mean justice and satisfaction for friends, family and the community, Jones said.
“This is the most heinous crime that anybody could commit, and to know somebody’s probably walking around that did it, it bothers us," he said.
Paulk said he wants to put out new rewards soon for information on Green’s slaying and other unsolved crimes. The money would come out of his own salary, he said.
“It’s worth it to me,” said Paulk, who is still determined to find answers.
– John Stephen, The Valdosta Daily Times
A well-documented mystery
One of the thickest files the Suwannee County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office has is one of the few cases it hasn’t been able to crack.
Held together in part thanks to tape, the file contains what SCSO investigators have been able to piece together during the past 15-plus years on the death of 35-year-old transient Jill Carter.
In August 2001, local teens taking a shortcut to a convenience store from a nearby subdivision discovered the badly decomposed body of Carter.
The last time the Washington native was seen alive was at the then-Pit Stop Bar in Live Oak. Ten days later, her naked body was found in an open field about five miles from the bar.
Her clothing and her black nylon duffel bag were never found, according to investigators.
“I remember it well,” said Lt. Jeff Cameron, who worked the case and chased down leads that developed. “We tracked the girl all the way to the night that she wound up where she did.
“I have a pretty vivid memory of it all until we hit the dead end.”
Carter’s body was originally in the high weeds along a power line easement off 153rd Road in Suwannee County.
Initially, investigators said they believed animals dragged her body into the path where she was eventually found.
However, according to Lt. Tom Warren with the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office, that changed after forensics had a chance to examine the body.
“Forensics said it appeared to them that she had been drug out of the bushes and onto that road, but not by feral animals,” he said, recalling the case from nearly 16 years ago. “They based that determination, if I remember correctly, on there were no marks on any kind of the bones.”
Even with multiple autopsies, forensics never could identify a cause of death. Investigators at first believed she died from a gunshot wound, but the body was too badly decomposed to be substantiated.
Family members told investigators Carter had been in and out of substance-abuse programs. She became a transient who would sometimes ask for small amounts of money to be wired to her.
Her criminal record included petty offenses such as forging checks.
Carter hitchhiked to Columbia County from Macon, Ga., with a truck driver a month before she died. She spent most of the first two weeks of August frequenting Lake City bars, about 25 miles away from Live Oak.
Law-enforcement investigators conducted interviews with several suspects but no concrete leads were obtained.
"We believe she was picked up, probably by the wrong person," Sgt. Chris Fry said in a past interview.
Warren said they even had one suspect confess to murdering Carter. However, that didn’t pan out either when the suspect couldn’t lead investigators to where he had supposedly dumped the body.
Carter was 5-foot-1, 130 pounds, with blondish, brown hair. She had a three-inch rose tattoo over her right breast.
Warren said the tattoo was how they first identified Carter before dental records or fingerprints were used to confirm.
“She was in pretty bad shape when she was discovered,” he said.
Law-enforcement officials previously said they have no way of knowing if the alleged crime was committed by a local person or someone just passing through, as there are things to indicate both are a possibility.
Until that answer is discovered, along with what happened to Carter, investigators will continue to add to the already stuffed case.
“Nobody realizes how much work gets done on these cases,” Cameron said. “And that’s just what’s been documented. If we documented everything, it’d be as tall as this chair.”
– Thomas Lynn, The Valdosta Daily Times
A single mother lost to violence
In 1990, A man was walking through a field in Valdosta, heading to nearby woods to use the restroom, when he came across what he thought was a dead animal decomposing in the open air.
It was actually the body of 23-year-old Karen Powell. She had been stabbed, strangled, and left in the field off of West Magnolia Street.
Powell was a single mother of four children, all less than the age of 5. Cmdr. Leslie Manahan with the Valdosta Police Department thinks her killer was a friend.
“I think she knew the person who did this to her and I think she was an intended target, an isolated target,” Manahan said.
Interviews were futile, and the case went cold. It was picked back up in 2006 when Powell’s mother, Christine O’Neal, called the police asking for updates, still hoping for answers 16 years later.
The renewed investigation nailed a suspect, and he was even charged with the crime, but there was never enough evidence to prosecute and he was cleared.
Manahan said it’s tough to work with old case files because of how investigations were done back then. She has a handful of black and white photos from Powell’s crime scene to review. Now, police snap hundreds of photos, allowing investigators to analyze every detail.
The big break — the crack in the case that every investigator hopes for — came in 2011 when police got a hit on DNA taken from the crime scene. The match was a man arrested in West Virginia for financial crimes.
The VPD sent a team to interview the man. But they’ve since “hit a wall” with him, Manahan said.
But how could he not be the guy if his DNA is a match? Because there’s a lot of excuses for why his DNA was linked to Powell, Manahan said.
Powell moved around a lot and went to clubs often, so the man could’ve made contact with her before her death, before the real killer took her life.
If a witness would place the man with Powell at the crime scene, there’d be no issue, Manahan said.
“That’s the part that’s hard to prove,” she said. “I still think there’s good suspects in the case. The problem that you have with this case is with it being as old as it is, trying to go back and find people.”
Manahan is going back to witnesses in the case, trying to uncover something new. But it’s not easy.
Witnesses have moved or passed away. And after being interviewed repeatedly, some witnesses have had enough.
“We actually have one woman that told us, ‘That was a long time ago. On my life, I don’t want to relive it,’ and won’t talk to us, and that’s her right,” Manahan said.
All police can really do now is wait for someone to come forward who remembers something, Manahan said. That’s the break they need.
The DNA was a great lead, but it just wasn’t enough, she said.
“It’s hard to find that one nail that I really need to get him,” Manahan said.
Not knowing the truth drives her crazy, and cold cases such as Powell’s always stick in her mind, even off the clock, Manahan said.
Powell’s case is special to her because Manahan moved to Valdosta the same month Powell was killed. With all of her cold cases, she is determined to uncover the truth.
“You see people that you know are involved and you can’t prove it and it just drives you insane,” she said. “You want to be able to give (the family) some type of answers and it’s hard to not be able to do that.”
– John Stephen, Valdosta Daily Times
A stormy disappearance
Extensive search efforts and several good suspects haven’t helped solve the mystery of the disappearance of a Suwannee County woman, who vanished in late August or early September 2012.
Kamrie Cherai Mitchell was reported missing by her family Sept. 2, 2012, after they hadn’t seen or heard from her since Aug. 25, 2012.
Three days after she was reported missing, her white 1992 four-door Pontiac Grand Am was found submerged in floodwaters from Tropical Storm Debby on 184th Street in eastern Suwannee County.
Mitchell, 24 at the time of her disappearance, was not in the car but her purse and cell phone were. She was last seen in the Branford/Lake City area.
Local law enforcement have performed searches by foot, by horseback, by ATV, and by air, but have been unsuccessful in locating Mitchell, who is 5-foot-3 and approximately 130 pounds, with natural blonde hair (last seen dyed brown) and blue eyes.
She has “Kamrie” tattooed on her left foot, “Grams” and a butterfly on her wrist and “Layla” with a footprint and birth date on the right side of her abdomen.
“It’s really frustrating,” Suwannee County Sheriff Sam St. John said, adding there were several good suspects in the disappearance.
But Suwannee County investigators haven’t been able to produce the evidence to charge anyone yet.
In August 2013, then-Suwannee County Sheriff Tony Cameron requested to test the unidentified body of a young girl found in Georgia to see if it was Mitchell. The results confirmed the body was not Mitchell.
“We continue to take any information about the case and investigate it,” Cameron has said previously.
But that information hasn’t found anything. The SCSO recently posted Mitchell’s missing persons poster on its Facebook page, and St. John met with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on the case as well.
All to no avail so far.
“Nothing has turned up,” St. John said. “No leads that lead us (to go), ‘OK, we’ve been going this wrong direction and we need to go this direction here.’
“It’s really frustrating. Naturally in cases like this you think of the victim first and then the victim’s family because they never have any closure. Plus with Kamrie Mitchell, I would say hopefully she’s around somewhere and living a good life somewhere else.
“But then you have the alternative that she hasn’t been seen in this long of a period. If she’s passed away somewhere, the family wants some closure.”
– Thomas Lynn, Valdosta Daily Times
The fourth and final installment of this series will be published Tuesday, June 20.
The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Patti Dozier, Thomas Lynn, Charles Oliver, Billy Hobbs, Alan Mauldin and Eve Guevara, along with team leader John Stephen.
To contact the team, email firstname.lastname@example.org.