The accused double killer in a so-called Craigslist murder case that attracted worldwide news coverage more than two years ago pleaded not guilty here on Wednesday.
Ronnie Adrian “Jay” Towns’ pleading, which was not unexpected and is the norm in capital cases, comes as the death penalty case against him begins its early steps toward trial, possibly sometime next year.
Towns, who turned 30 last fall, was arrested in late January 2015 in the days after authorities say Marietta retirees June Runion, 66, and her husband, Elrey “Bud” Runion, 69, were robbed and shot to death after driving to Telfair County to see someone about buying a vintage car.
Bud Runion had posted a Craigslist ad seeking a 1966 Ford Mustang, and someone in Telfair, according to investigators, is thought to have been in touch with him and claimed to have such an automobile.
Never miss a local story.
The Runions had apparently gone to meet the supposed seller near the Ocmulgee River community of Jacksonville, where Towns was raised.
The bodies of the slain couple were found four days later on Jan. 26, 2015, the day Towns was jailed.
The Runions had been shot in the head, their bodies hidden along a dirt road near the farm where Towns’ parents live. The property lies east of U.S. 441 between Abbeville and Hazlehurst, roughly 75 miles southeast of Macon.
The day Towns was arrested, the Runions’ 2003 GMC Envoy was found sunk in a pond not far from their bodies.
Nearly two years have passed since prosecutors announced their intention to seek the death penalty for Towns.
In June 2015, upon filing their notice, they cited aggravating circumstances in the case, factors that the state must prove for Towns to be executed — among them, that Towns stole from the couple when he allegedly killed them.
At a hearing Wednesday morning in Telfair Superior Court, Judge Sarah Wall read the charges that Towns faces and asked how he pleaded.
“Not guilty,” said Towns, who had on a black dress shirt.
His mother and father were seated a few rows behind him and, upon entering the courtroom, he nodded their way.
The judge set a Sept. 1 deadline for pretrial motions, but there is no timeline as yet for when the case could go to trial.
There was no mention of any evidence Wednesday or particulars of how or why the Runions were killed.
Even so, at this point it appears the case may hinge on cellphone records.
The most that has been divulged about such evidence came two years ago this month at a bond hearing for Towns.
At that hearing in April 2015, an assistant district attorney said Towns, who had been fired from his job with a tree-removal service in the days before the Runions were slain, was desperate for cash.
The prosecutor said Towns bought a throw-away or “burner” cellphone and began contacting people interested in buying cars and other merchandise in online marketplaces, Craigslist among them.
The prosecutor added that the Runions were in contact with Towns — or at least someone who was using a phone that Towns had recently purchased — in the days before the couple was slain.
“The cellphone that was used to communicate with the Runions was a TracFone. ... Mr. Jay Towns had a personal cellphone, but instead decided to buy this second telephone to contact the Runions,” the prosecutor, Joshua Powell, said at that hearing.
On Wednesday, the Telfair district attorney’s office handed Towns’ defense team a copy of some of the evidence that has been collected in the case.
“Today we were given a one-terabyte hard drive with 100 gigabytes of data on it, and so now the real work starts,” Franklin J. Hogue, one of Towns’ lawyers, told reporters after the hearing.
When a reporter for an Atlanta television station asked Hogue what Towns has been saying about the case, Hogue replied, “That he’s not guilty.”
“And why does he say that?” the reporter inquired.
“Because he’s not guilty,” Hogue said.
“Does he give you reasoning?”
“Well,” Hogue said with half a chuckle, “no. Uh, if he did, I wouldn’t be talking about that with you. But, ‘not guilty’ is all he needs to say.”
Information from Telegraph archives was used in this report.