Two unsolved slayings in Warner Robins among 2013 homicides

Mother wants to know how daughter ended up dead in vacant Warner Robins home

bpurser@macon.comFebruary 3, 2014 

“Oh! I hope you’re dancing in the sky,

I hope you’re singing in the angels’ choir,

I hope the angels know what they have,

I bet it’s so nice in heaven since you arrived.”

-- “Dancing in the Sky” by Dani and Lizzy, played at Anita Bergner’s funeral

WARNER ROBINS -- Betty Day knew something was up when her daughter didn’t call to wish her a happy birthday in September.

Their birthdays were a month apart, and her daughter, Anita Bergner, would always call and tease her mom about how old she was, recalled the 50-year-old Day by telephone from her mobile home in Lake Village, Ind. Pregnant at 16, Day had worked all sorts of jobs as a single mom to provide for Bergner and another daughter.

Day’s sister, Charlotte Wade, also had not been able to reach Bergner. And police had not been able to find the Warner Robins woman since a missing person’s report was filed Oct. 8.

So when Day’s brother-in-law Doug Wade knocked on her door 10 days after the missing person’s report was filed, he didn’t have to say a word.

She read his eyes.

“In my heart, I knew,” Day said as her voice broke. “But the 18th of October at 3 o’clock is the day my life stopped.”

It was the day and the hour her brother-in-law broke the news that Bergner’s badly decomposed body had been found in a vacant house on Curtis Street in Warner Robins.

Her body was discovered on the day that would have marked Bergner’s 34th birthday. That bothered Day so much that she said she listed Bergner’s date of death in her obituary as Oct. 5.

Police have released few details, including how Bergner was killed and whether detectives have any theories behind the slaying. An anonymous tip led police to her body, said Tabitha Clark, public information officer for Warner Robins police.

Houston County Coroner Danny Galpin estimated Bergner had been dead about two weeks based on the condition of the body and the last time Bergner was seen alive. Galpin said he had not received the GBI autopsy report, which he expects has not been completed.

Bergner was among nine people whose violent deaths in seven separate incidents in 2013 were classified as homicides by Houston County law enforcement authorities. For comparison, eight people lost their lives in eight separate homicides within the city of Warner Robins and unincorporated Houston County in 2012. The cities of Centerville and Perry recorded zero homicides both years.

The other unsolved homicide of 2013 was the shooting of a Warner Robins resident while he was apparently being robbed. Of the remaining five incidents, two double-homicides are thought to be drug-related. One domestic incident in which police shot and killed a man threatening his wife at gunpoint was ruled a justifiable homicide by Houston County District Attorney George Hartwig after review by the GBI.

Two other incidents that remain under review may also be ruled justifiable homicides -- including the fatal shooting by a homeowner of another man who was allegedly breaking into the residence. The last homicide of the year involved a fight between two men on Christmas Day in which one later died after refusing medical treatment.

Woman goes missing

Close friend and 48-year-old retired truck driver Donald Sanders was the one who reported Bergner missing.

In and out of town, Sanders said hadn’t seen or heard from Bergner the week before he filed the missing person’s report. She lived on and off at his Warner Robins home on McArthur Boulevard.

Although not uncommon for her to come and go, Bergner normally kept in touch by calling or texting him. When he learned her mother and aunt hadn’t heard from her either, Sanders said he decided to call police.

“I was just trying to keep her off the streets,” Sanders said. “She was trying to put her life together.”

Bergner, who had been injured in a bad car crash a few years earlier, was hoping to qualify for disability benefits, Sanders said.

Bergner also had a few brushes with the law in the past, Houston County court records show. She was charged with theft by taking a motor vehicle, a felony, in 2008 but pleaded down to misdemeanor theft by taking. A 2003 felony drug possession charge was dismissed.

Day and Sanders described Bergner as a good-hearted person who’d do anything for anybody. Her favorite color was purple, and she was funny and knew how to make people laugh.

Sanders said he fears her killer was someone who preyed on her good nature.

“I think somebody just took advantage of her,” Sanders said.

Her mother added that Bergner had a temper.

“She just didn’t take nobody’s crap,” Day said. “She stood her own.”

Day has now survived both of her children. Her younger daughter DeWanda Bergner died at age 10 from cystic fibrosis, a lung disease.

“I don’t want people to forget,” Day said of her eldest daughter’s slaying. “I want people to understand she was somebody’s child.

“And they don’t know what she meant to me. She was all I had, and now she’s gone.”

Sanders said losing someone is always difficult, but to know his friend was murdered has been “very devastating.”

“The hardest thing is whoever did this is still out there,” he said. “It’s hard for me to swallow.”

Gunfire on Demetree Drive

The white house with black shutters in the 100 block of Demetree Drive has been vacant since 47-year-old Willie Lee Johnson was shot in the leg the afternoon of Oct. 8 and died later at Houston Medical Center. A family member said he may have bled out.

The front door and the carport door are gone, replaced with plywood.

Jackie Smithlyn, a 45-year-old cashier who lives next door, said the family moved out the day of the slaying and never came back.

She was at home when Johnson was shot but didn’t realize the noise she and her daughter heard was gunfire until 10 minutes later when she was seeing her daughter off to work.

“We opened the door, and it was like stepping into a movie scene,” said Smithlyn as she recalled all the police cars, an ambulance and lots of commotion outside.

A black poodle belonging to the Johnson family was seen running down the street by another neighbor after Johnson was shot. The poodle was found and returned to the family the next day, a neighbor said.

A lookout was posted for three men, possibly driving a silver, four-door vehicle. Police suspect robbery as the motive. No arrests have been made.

Christmas Day fight

Houston County deputies and emergency medical personnel dispatched to the 200 block of Ferguson Street shortly after 8 p.m. Dec. 25 found 61-year-old Elijah Jackson lying in a chair and covered with a blanket.

Jackson, who smelled of alcohol, had been hit in the head with the flat end of a maul ax after getting into an argument over food with another man, according to the sheriff’s report. Jackson had first hit the other man with a shovel in the elbow.

Jackson, whose head had stopped bleeding from a wound that swelled to the size of a softball, refused medical treatment. He later died from his injuries, Houston County sheriff’s Capt. Jon Holland said.

Shannon Llorens, 42, who had left the mobile home before authorities arrived, was charged with aggravated assault, Holland said.

The Houston County District Attorney’s office is reviewing the case, and it is expected to go before a grand jury this year, prosecutor Dan Bibler said. Llorens is free on his own recognizance. His court-appointed attorney David Daniell, of Warner Robins, could not be reached for comment.

Two dead in gunfire

An eruption of gunfire Oct. 10 outside the Econo Lodge on Watson Boulevard near Interstate 75 ultimately led to the deaths of two people and murder charges against two others.

Matthew Allen Garner, 23, of Warner Robins, was shot dead on a second-floor, outside walkway. Kenneth Robert Sharpe, 32, of Jackson, Miss., and Emily Nicole Hooker, 25, of Jefferson, fled the scene in a 2010 Dodge Charger. Sharpe, who was shot in the stomach, died later that morning at an Anniston, Ala., hospital.

Police later charged Stephen Randall Johnson, 25, of Byron with murder. He was indicted by a Peach County grand jury in January on a charge of conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine in addition to murder charges in connection with the shooting, court records show.

An arrest warrant on murder charges has been signed for Hooker but not yet been served, said David Cooke, district attorney for the Macon Judicial District, which includes Peach County. Hooker remains jailed in Alabama on charges of trafficking methamphetamine in connection with drugs found inside the Dodge Charger.

The Econo Lodge is located inside the Warner Robins city limits but also within Peach County, which is why multiple Middle Georgia agencies are involved.

Execution-style double homicide

Two California men where shot “execution-style” in the back of the head allegedly over drug money inside a Chadwick Road home where one of the accused was living, authorities say.

The bodies of Shaland D. McConnell, 30, and Ruben Guillermo Miranda, 32, of the San Francisco Bay area, were then dumped in a remote area of Vinson Valley.

Coleman Lawrence Crouch, 21, of Warner Robins; Thomas Andrew Kelley, 20, of Byron; and Justice Bernard Evans, 20, of Macon, are in jail awaiting trial on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated battery, concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. Crouch, who lived at the home where the men were killed, and Evans pleaded not guilty at their Dec. 13 arraignments. Kelley’s arraignment was continued. Public Defender Nick White could not be reached immediately for comment late Friday afternoon on whether Kelley had since entered a plea.

Two others, Amy Patricia Walker, of Macon, and Kristen Beuthin, of Loganville, are charged with concealing the death of another and tampering with evidence. Walker and Beuthin are free on a $10,000 bond each. The charges against them had not been brought before a grand jury for possible indictment.

“We are waiting to see how the cases with the other defendants will progress,” prosecutor Bibler stated in an e-mail.

Alleged break-in

Ronald Lewis Burnett, 36, of Warner Robins was shot and killed about 1:30 a.m. June 2 after he allegedly tried to break into a home in the 200 block of Thomas Drive.

Police found an unconscious Burnett in the front yard of the residence with a gunshot wound to the chest. He was pronounced dead at Houston Medical Center.

Travis Lucas, 33, whom police identified as the homeowner, shot Burnett, authorities said. He has not been charged in the incident. The case, which police think may be ruled a justifiable homicide, remains under investigation. Prosecutor Bibler said the case may be presented to a Houston County grand jury for review at a later date. Lucas could not be reached for comment Friday.

Officer-involved shooting

The March 25 officer-involved shooting of 50-year-old Anthony Rawls was ruled a justifiable homicide by the district attorney following a briefing from the GBI, which investigated the case.

Warner Robins police responded to the 100 block of Huntwood Lane near South Houston Lake Road about 7:45 p.m. in response to a 911 call from Michelle Rawls, the man’s wife. She said her husband had a gun and was threatening to kill her. The 911 call recorded the threats.

A GBI synopsis report and recordings of 911 calls indicated the dispute began when Anthony Rawls became angry after reading text messages on his wife’s cellphone. Michelle Rawls later admitted in a police interview that she was in a relationship outside her marriage, according to the GBI report.

In all, 24 shots were fired -- 16 by five police officers and eight from Rawls, according to the report. Rawls, a lieutenant with the state Department of Corrections who worked at Macon State Prison, died at the scene.

Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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