Family of man found in river gathers from out-of-state for Houston trial in slaying

bpurser@macon.comJuly 14, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- When Justin Klaffka was 9 years old, family members traveled to Buffalo, N.Y., for his birthday party.

His grandparents had taken guardianship of him and a brother. The boys had been living with their mom, who had been estranged from their father during their earlier years.

“He was so surprised to have all his cousins and all his aunts and uncles in the Buffalo area that he said it was the best birthday party he’d ever had in his life,” recalled his grandfather 67-year-old Art Klaffka, who now lives in Franklinville, N.Y. He and his wife, who died in 2006, cared for Justin from age 8 until he was nearly 17. He then went to live with his father in Florida.

Sunday and Monday, family members are expected to travel into Perry from different cities in New York and Florida to support Justin in another way. The traveling is necessary for one of the saddest times family members say they are bracing to experience: the trial of two men accused of strangling Justin to death and dumping his body in the Ocmulgee River on April 10, 2012. He was 25.

Jury selection is expected Monday in Houston County Superior Court.

For his grandfather, the saddest day came when he got the phone call April 18, 2012, that Justin had been killed. He last talked to his grandson when Justin called on March 28, 2012, to wish him a happy birthday. He last saw his grandson Christmas 2011 when the family gathered at Justin’s father’s home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“Naturally, we want justice for Justin,” Art Klaffka said by telephone. He and his fiancee are expected to arrive in Perry on Sunday for the trial. “We want to make sure these people don’t hurt anybody else like they did our family.”

Killed and dumped in a river

Matthew Jacob Pike, 28, and William Allen Slaton, 30, are expected to be tried on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, aggravated battery, kidnapping with bodily injury and tampering with evidence in connection to the slaying. They also are charged in connection with a related armed robbery April 8, 2012, in Warner Robins.

Daniel Lee Slaton, 36, was charged with the same crimes but struck a deal with the prosecution for a 30-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a lesser offense of aggravated battery and other charges.

He also agreed to testify against his brother and Pike. According to court records, his testimony is expected to include allegations that Pike assaulted Justin Klaffka because he didn’t do his job right during the armed robbery two days before Klaffka was killed. Pike and William Slaton thought Klaffka had ratted them out, authorities say.

The men allegedly argued and fought about that at Daniel Slaton’s Dixie Trail residence April 10, 2012. William Slaton and Pike allegedly then beat up Klaffka both inside and in the back of the residence, Daniel Slaton is expected to testify.

“They then took him inside the residence where they washed him off, tried to clean him off,” Assistant District Attorney Greg Winters stated during an earlier hearing in the case, according to the court record. “They then took him out to the river where he was killed.”

Daniel Slaton drove the vehicle that took Klaffka to the river, prosecutors have said.

A witness, who is expected to be called during the trial, told a sheriff’s investigator that Klaffka was last seen April 10 with the Slaton brothers and Pike when all were planning to rob a drug dealer the same day, according to court records.

Klaffka’s body was pulled from the river April 15, 2012, without clothing or identification. Sheriff’s investigators did not release the identity until April 18, 2012, when a positive match was made of Klaffka’s fingerprints to a national database. The Slaton brothers and Pike were arrested and charged in the killing the same day.

Russell Walker, a Perry attorney appointed to represent William Slaton, declined to comment on the pending case.

Pike’s court-appointed attorney Jeff Grube, of Warner Robins, could not be reached for comment Friday. However, a review of court records indicated the defense may pursue a theory that a drug dealer or his thugs killed Klaffka because he owed them money.

Winters declined to comment on the facts of the case pending trial. He said he expects a jury to be seated Monday and prosecutors to rest their case by Wednesday. The trial could last through Friday. Judge Katherine K. Lumsden is presiding.

Not forgotten

Family members plan a memorial at the site where Justin Klaffka’s body was pulled from the river. His body was discovered snagged on a branch in the water near a popular fishing hole at the Knowles Landing boat ramp off Ga. 96 in south Houston County.

His grandfather, with the help of his fiancee, Lynn Baldi, fashioned a cross that includes Justin’s photo and artificial flowers. The family plans to erect the cross at the site.

“We used 35 coats of polyurethane, so it looks like it’s all wood,” Art Klaffka said.

He said the family is considering holding the memorial at the start or end of the trial. But he said they don’t want to do anything that would create a problem for attorneys prosecuting the case. The family also is considering returning to Houston County in the fall on Justin’s birthday, Sept. 1, for the memorial. He would have turned 27 on that day.

“It’s just something we want to do for the young man,” said his grandfather, who fought to keep his composure. “This is my Justin. This is where he was found.

“Mainly, we just wanted to have a memorial set up for Justin that would be there forever, so Justin would not be forgotten.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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