Editor’s note: This story contains instances of murder and rape that some readers may find disturbing.
Cathy Cox, the dean of the Mercer University School of Law, still remembers how much the Alday family murders changed life in rural Georgia.
The family of six was murdered 46 years ago Tuesday in Donalsonville, a small farming community in Southwest Georgia. Cox was 14 at the time, and lived about 20 miles away in Bainbridge.
“It had a powerful impact on me as a young teenager,” Cox said. “It impacted everyone in that area. It was the first time any of us ever locked our doors.”
The murders happened May 14, 1973. Six members of the Alday family were shot dead by escaped convicts who came to their home seeking gas. It remains the second largest mass murder in Georgia history. The only bigger one was the Woolfolk ax murders that happened in Bibb County in 1887.
Cox and others in Middle Georgia remember the crime well, in part because of the horrifying details that would come pouring out in a Houston County courtroom years later.
Billy Rape, now chief deputy for the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, at the time was in charge of security for the courthouse.
He also has extensive memories of the attack and the trial. Rape recalls the security at the trial as “the most intense” he’s ever seen.
‘All you have to say is one word, Alday’
Cox would go on to become a state representative for the area, with her district including Seminole County, where the murders happened.
“I don’t know that you would find anybody in Seminole County whose life was not changed by that crime,” she said. “Probably the majority of people still living in Seminole County today, all you have to say is one word, ‘Alday,’ and everybody in that corner of Georgia knows exactly what you are talking about and would literally have chills up and down their spine thinking about the horrors.”
As outraged as the public was over the Alday murders, the anger was just as great years later when the convictions were thrown out. Three of the four convicted were retried separately.
Carl Isaacs Jr., who did most of the killing, was retried in Houston County in January 1988, with a throng of media from across the nation present.
The Woolfolk murders had the same connection to Houston County. Tom Woolfolk was accused of murdering nine members of his family with an ax and was convicted. That conviction was later overturned and he was retried in Houston County, convicted and hung in Perry before a crowd of thousands.
‘The most intense security situation we’ve ever had’
Rape, Houston County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy, oversaw security in Isaacs’ trial. With the anger over how the courts handled the case, he said he was concerned back then that someone would try to exact street justice on Isaacs.
“It was probably the most intense security situation we’ve ever had,” said Rape, who became a Houston County deputy in 1973 just months before the murders happened.
He also said it was the most media he had ever seen at a trial.
Isaacs was kept under guard around the clock at the county jail. Rape personally escorted him each day to the trial.
Isaacs never said much, Rape recalled, and never gave him any trouble. Despite the high emotions surrounding the case, everyone in and around the courthouse was respectful. Rape said everything went better than he was expecting.
Rape listened to most of the testimony in the trial and it’s something he still well remembers.
The key witness was Isaacs’ younger brother, Billy Isaacs, who was 15 at the time of the slayings and claimed not to have participated in the murders. Billy Isaacs pleaded guilty to robbery and was the only one of the four who would ever know freedom again.
Had it been left up to Rape, based on what he heard, they would have all been sentenced to death, including Billy.
“On a personal side it was terrible to listen that human beings could do what they did to this whole family,” Rape said.
In the courtroom, Billy Isaacs gave a detailed account of the crime. Carl Isaacs and their half brother Wayne Coleman had escaped from a Maryland prison along with George Dungee. The escapees later picked up Billy and were headed to Florida when they ended up in Seminole County in need of gas.
The following is based on a recap of the crime given by the Georgia attorney general’s office when Isaacs was executed: They stopped at the Alday farm because they saw what they thought was a gas pump, but it wasn’t. The Aldays were out working and the escapees began ransacking the mobile home of Jerry Alday and his wife Mary.
Jerry and his father Ned then arrived at the home, unaware of the burglars, and were held at gunpoint, then executed. Next, Jimmy Alday (Jerry’s brother) arrived on a tractor and was shot dead. Mary Alday then arrived and was accosted, followed by Chester Alday (Jerry’s brother) and Aubrey Alday (Jerry’s uncle). The two men were both shot dead. Mary was raped at the house and again in a wooded area miles away where she was shot dead.
The escapees, who left their car and took Mary’s, soon became suspects and were captured three days later in West Virginia, in possession of weapons used in the crime and items stolen from the home. They were tried and convicted in 1974 in Seminole County.
All except Billy Isaacs were sentenced to death. Those sentences, however, were overturned by a federal appeals court in 1986 on the grounds that pre-trial publicity and the local outrage made it impossible for the men to have gotten a fair trial.
Following new indictments, only Carl Isaacs was sentenced to death. He was executed in 2003, 30 years after the murders. At the time, he was the longest serving person on death row in the nation. The order for the execution was issued by Houston County Superior Court.
Billy Isaacs was released from prison in 1993 and died in Florida in 2009. Dungee died in prison in 2006. Only Wayne Coleman is still alive today, and remains incarcerated in Georgia State Prison in Reidsville.
Following his first conviction, Carl Isaacs admitted to a documentary filmmaker that he shot and killed Ned, Jerry, Aubrey and Jimmy, and raped Mary. Dungee killed Mary and Coleman killed Chester. Carl Isaacs’ statement was used against him in the Houston County retrial.
The judge in the Houston County trial was Hugh Lawson, a Superior Court judge at the time who is now a senior federal judge in the U.S. Middle District of Georgia. It was Lawson who picked Houston County as the venue after he was assigned to the case in the retrial.
Larry Walker, a former longtime state representative and author of two books on South Georgia, said the legal aftermath of the crime left many people disillusioned with the justice system.
“They were shaken and upset that it took so many years,” he said. “They were embittered with the system.”
In the cemetery of Spring Creek Baptist Church near Donalsonville are six black marble slabs marking the graves of each of the slain family members. Walker has been there twice, and said it’s powerful to notice that each of the slabs is etched with the same date of death.
“It does something to you just to stand there and look at it,” he said.