BYRON — Eric Rice’s death has stumped investigators in this small town of less than 5,000 residents. Investigators have tracked down dozens of leads taking them up and down Interstate 75, from Warner Robins up to Macon, interviewing people who may have known the 26-year-old.
Information, officials say, has been hard to come by.
Experts say it’s because those who could help investigators solve the crime are frozen — either by fear or a loyalty to a code that orders them not to give up such vital information to outsiders.
The outsiders, in this case, are Byron Police Department investigators.
“It’s going to take somebody to come forward to give us something to break (the case) open,” detective Brian Davidson said.
Searching for answers
Rice’s body was found around 7:15 a.m. Sept. 18 in the gravel parking lot at the W.E. Green & Son grain facility at 215 New Dunbar Road. Officials believe he had been shot in the head and left to die in the lot. A woman driving her children to Byron Elementary School, across the street from the grain facility, was alerted by her young daughter that a body lay in the parking lot. She pulled back around and spotted Rice.
The crime scene offered few clues because of heavy rains the night of the murder. Officers have spent hour upon hour digging for clues and tracking down leads that have led to dead ends. Rice, a suspected drug dealer, had associates based miles from his Warner Robins home, so Byron’s small staff is casting a wide net to find their man. Investigators believe some brought in for questioning know what happened but aren’t saying.
“It’s just frustrating,” Davidson said. “I know there’s folks we’ve talked to who probably do know something about it. But we just go out there working the leads we’ve got.”
Two investigators from the Byron Police Department work the case with occasional help from GBI officials. Rice’s death is just the third homicide in the city in more than 30 years, and the first since 1993. This one is more difficult given Rice’s past, residence outside of the city and the fact that anybody could have had it out for him, Davidson said.
“Some are afraid to talk due to the repercussions of the street,” he said. “It’s understandable, but if it was some of their family, would they do the same thing?”
The idea that people are withholding information out of loyalty to someone is not new. Typically, low-income and mostly minority areas are filled with residents who don’t have good relationships with local authorities.
The catchphrase “Stop Snitching” caught on after a video out of Baltimore with people claiming to be area drug dealers threatened violence against anyone who told authorities about the dealers’ activities.
Cases have popped up across the country where crimes have occurred and no one involved — including victims and witnesses — would tell police what they knew. One man in Pittsburgh who was supposed to testify in the trial of three men accused of plotting to kill him showed up to court wearing a T-shirt that said “Stop Snitching” and refused to cooperate.
Julie Whitman, the director of special projects for the National Center for Victims of Crime, said an already tense relationship with law enforcement makes many quick to withhold information.
“They’re not confident the information they give would stay confidential,” said Whitman, who authored the study “Snitches Get Stitches: Youths, Gangs and Witness Intimidation in Massachusetts,” where the “No Snitching” culture was chronicled in several Massachusetts neighborhoods.
In the study, 640 people in their teens and early 20s were interviewed to find the reasons why many refuse to report crimes and testify against perpetrators, and what could encourage cooperation from witnesses and victims. Thirty-nine were interviewed for more in-depth answers. Many, Whitman said, were more afraid of the proverbial scarlet letter than of any physical repercussions they could expect.
“They were as much afraid of being ostracized as a snitch,” she said.
Most of the fear comes down to the relationships between the citizens and authorities. Images on TV and personal stories shared in the low-income or mostly minority neighborhoods project a bad image of law enforcement. Whitman said. The situation strongly advocates for community police officers who focus on specific neighborhoods and build a rapport with its residents.
“If (residents) had an officer they knew, they would tell more,” she said. “Because of that, they usually tell their parents and other family members.”
But even that could be a deterrent, she said.
“I suspect it’s as much the parents keeping them away from the police as it is them being afraid,” she said. “Parents are seen as the gatekeepers for information like that.”
Whitman said she heard once how a Hispanic teen went to his mother about seeing a drug dealer selling in the neighborhood. The mother went to the dealer, reassuring him that her son wasn’t going to tell anybody what he saw. It was likely a ploy to keep her son safe while showing her disdain for the authorities as well, Whitman said.
‘Every day, it’s a struggle’
And as people continue to withhold information, a mother struggles as she waits for answers.
Brenda Hamlin was greeted by Byron investigators as she arrived home the afternoon of Sept. 18 to get dressed for work. Her husband told her he’d just been informed that Eric, her second-oldest child, was the mid-20s man found dead that they had heard about on television.
“He said Eric was dead. I said ‘Eric who?’ ’’ she said, her voice cracking as she spoke. “I was in shock.”
She dreads rainy days, as they remind her of her son’s slaying. She hates that her son, who was known for his infectious smile and ability to make people laugh, will never see his children grow up. And she hates that it is all because of something she told him to stop doing.
“What he was doing was wrong,” Hamlin said. “But it didn’t give anybody the right to kill him.”
He may have been dealing drugs, Hamlin said, but it didn’t stop him from helping anybody who needed it. Half of his friends probably owed him money when he died, she said. One of them could probably tell the police who’s responsible for his death. Until then, she holds onto their last conversation. Rice called to check in on her the Tuesday before he died. She said he was making sure she arrived home from her job in Macon.
“Every day, it’s a struggle,” she said. “Every day, I ask who killed my son? How long do they think they’re going to continue to run? Maybe they didn’t mean to. Maybe they don’t know how to come forward.
“But I’m sure some of his friends know who did this.”
To contact writer Marlon A. Walker, call 256-9685.