GBI special agent in charge of Perry office retires but doesn’t give up sleuthing

PERRY -- Within days of joining the GBI, a then-22-year-old Gary Rothwell had a gun, a badge and a pile of money with which to buy drugs as an undercover narcotics agent.

It was the first assignment for Rothwell in what would become a love affair with the GBI that would span 31 years.

“I’ve had a great career,”Rothwell said recently as he leaned back in his chair at the regional GBI office in Perry where he’s served as special agent in charge for the past 10 years.

His retirement is effective Tuesday, his 53rd birthday..

“This is the best job in law enforcement because you can do anything you want,” Rothwell said.

If a person is computer savvy, then there’s computer forensics, Rothwell said. If the person’s strength is weapons, there’s tactical. If the person enjoys investigations, there’s field office work.

For Rothwell, the lure was the diversity of cases.

He spent the first half of his career working undercover in areas such as narcotics, smuggling and auto theft.

The second half is what Rothwell calls gumshoeing -- the age-old art of detective work by hitting the pavement and asking questions. Even with all of the advances in technology and forensics, investigators are still essentially collecting the same evidence, Rothwell said.

“We’re still doing what investigators have done for hundreds of years,” he said. “You still got to put the shoe leather on the street. You still have to ask questions and get answers.”

He’s done a lot of that over the years.

Cracking a cold case

One of his most rewarding cases, Rothwell said, was helping solve the disappearance of 20-year-old Laotian refugee Vieng Phovixay and the 2007 conviction of Charles Travis Manley, of LaGrange, for her murder.

The case had gone unresolved for 18 years and kept Rothwell up at night even after he was reassigned to another region.

The young woman’s skeletal remains were found in 1989 in Harris County, where Rothwell believes she was tied to a tree with pieces of her clothing, sexually assaulted and killed. He always suspected Manley. But Rothwell was transferred while the case was still under investigation.

In 2004 while working in Perry, Rothwell heard about Clay Bryant, who was the chief investigator for the Coweta County Judicial Circuit. Clay had picked up the nickname “Cold Case Clay” because of his investigations into old murder cases that led to them being reopened. Rothwell said he sought Bryant out and handed him his case file.

“I never forgot that case,” Rothwell said.

Another unforgettable case

Rothwell said he still loses sleep over the disappearance of Tara Grinstead, a high school teacher who vanished from the small town of Ocilla in southwest Georgia in late October 2005.

Irwin County High School co-workers and her neighbors became concerned when she didn’t show up for work and no one had been able to reach her. The house was locked, and only her purse and keys appeared to be missing. But her car was parked in her driveway.

“We know an awful lot of people who know an awful lot about her. But we don’t know what happened to her,” Rothwell said.

In spite of successes, it’s the unsolved cases such as Grinstead that stick with Rothwell. He refers to such cases as “my failures.”

Other notable cases

In 2010, Rothwell helped solve the disappearance of a teenager from Warner Robins in 1974 -- the same year that serial killer Paul John Knowles embarked on a murderous rampage. Thirteen-year-old Ima Jean Sanders is now believed to be among his victims.

Authorities matched genetic material taken from DNA samples submitted by Sanders’ mother and a sister to DNA submitted by the GBI in 2008 from skeletal remains found in a wooded area in 1976. The GBI had kept the bones as evidence.

But Rothwell downplayed the case , saying it was simply a matter of putting the pieces together and that other investigators such as Warner Robins police Capt. Chris Rooks also deserve credit.

Another notable case that Rothwell had a hand in resolving was the murder of 25-year-old Kelli Hammond, who was stabbed multiple times at her Zebulon insurance agency in Pike County on Sept 2, 1998.

Leeland Mark Braley, who had been on death row after his conviction for murder in Hammond’s slaying, hanged himself in his cell in 2010.

Rothwell recalled staking out an ATM in Atlanta where Braley attempted to use Hammond’s card and was arrested for her slaying.

A regional case in which Rothwell played a role was that of Crystal Mae Wagner, who was tried and convicted in March 2010 for the 2005 killing and dismemberment of her husband, Bobby Gene Wagner. She was sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to murder and concealing a death. She and boyfriend, Shay Alan Morey, planned and carried out the murder together. Morey pleaded guilty in 2006 to killing and dismembering Wagner. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

As a mentor

“Gary is the best homicide investigator I’ve ever been around,” said Ben Collins, who has worked 19 years with the GBI, including 14 of those years with Rothwell. “No questions asked.”

Rothwell, known for his critical thinking, isn’t afraid to try unconventional measures, Collins said. Rothwell thinks outside the box and always seems to be steps ahead in an investigation, Collins said.

Collins recalled being sent out in 1999 with a new special agent to the discovery of a body on Ga. 96 near Hawkinsville. The body was covered with a black garbage bag, and the only thing sticking out was the man’s hands that were bound. Collins was talking on the phone with Rothwell, who wanted facial photos of the victim.

The new agent walked over to take the photos, Collins said, and came back white as a ghost, “Ben, he doesn’t have a head.”

Collins told Rothwell, “You can forget about those head shots.”

“And he knew exactly what I meant,” Collins said. “He hung up and came out there.”

The ensuing investigation resulted in identifying the body as that of 33-year-old Larry Lund, of Warner Robins, and his suspected killer as Rick Smetzer, of Pulaski County.

Smetzer was killed by a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the chest before his arrest.

It was unclear whether Smetzer’s death was an accident or suicide. GBI agents found Lund’s clothes and blood inside a building where it’s believed Smetzer, a contractor, dismembered Lund, a painter.

“It was just one of those cases where Gary’s leadership and his dedication to doing the right thing to bring justice to people” paid off, Collins said. “He just led by example.”

Collins, who considers Rothwell a friend and a mentor, also noted he was a good supervisor because he gave a free rein to his investigators but was always there for guidance and support.

Although the career that’s held Rothwell’s fascination for so long has come to a close, Rothwell isn’t done sleuthing. He’s just done with criminal work.

Rothwell said he’s obtained his private investigator’s license and plans to offer his years of investigative and trial experience to civil trial lawyers.

He’s also chosen a name for his new venture: Rothwell Confidential Services LLC.

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