A shootout near the Duck’s Breath Saloon in 1987 left one man fatally wounded and resulted in the amputation of another man’s left leg.
Now more than 29 years later, the gunfight’s survivor is scheduled to stand trial next month in Houston County Superior Court on malice and felony murder charges.
Willie Lewis Winters III, 55, of Warner Robins, is serving a life sentence in prison from an unrelated case, the killing of a Crawford County man in 2004. He is now being held in the Houston County jail awaiting his July 11 trial.
On June 3, 2014, Winters was indicted by a Houston County grand jury in connection with the shootout at the Duck’s Breath Saloon that claimed the life of Robins Air Force Base airman Stephen Gary Jones, 29.
At a 2014 news conference, authorities declined to release many details about the case. Assistant District Attorney Greg Winters, who is prosecuting the case, declined comment.
Willie Winters, who is not related to the prosecutor, has pleaded not guilty.
“Our defense is nobody knows what happened,” said Russell Walker, one of the Perry attorneys representing Winters. “Certainly not over a quarter of century later, it’s not like all of a sudden, they’ve figured out what happened.
“Nobody knew what happened back then and nobody knows what happened now,” he said.
But authorities did know a lot about what they thought happened, according to portions of a Warner Robins police investigative report included in the court record.
The problem was there was just one known eyewitness to the shooting, and she had been “extremely intoxicated” at the time of the shooting and could not recall “critical facts about the case,” according the investigative report.
The case was labeled Nov. 8, 1988, as being exceptionally cleared, which can mean the clearing of a case without the arrest or prosecution of someone suspected of committing the crime. The late James Yoho, a Warner Robins police detective who investigated the shootout, also noted, “all leads exhausted.”
According to the investigative report, shots rang out in the Zayre Plaza parking lot near the Duck’s Breath Saloon off North Houston Road about 12:30 a.m. Jan. 10, 1987.
Jones, a staff sergeant in the Air Force, was found lying face down in the parking lot. His automatic, .45-caliber pistol was on the ground near his head. He died at a hospital.
He had been shot four times — three times in his upper torso near the neck and once in the stomach above his navel — with a .22-caliber pistol.
Winters was found shot four times with a .45-caliber pistol in Jones’ wrecked Chevrolet Camaro in a ditch off Elberta Road not far from the saloon.
A .22-caliber handgun was found in the front driver’s floorboard under the accelerator. Winters had been shot once in each leg and twice in the abdomen. His left leg was amputated at the knee as a result of his injuries. A .22-caliber shell casing was found later after a search of his residence.
The sole eyewitness, Lori Ann Leary, who had been drinking with Jones at the Duck’s Breath Saloon and another bar, was “hysterical.” She initially was held in a patrol car after the alleged “gun duel” between the two men. Her purse was found in Jones’ Camaro.
She was taken to the police station to be interviewed by Yoho.
Although “she appeared to be extremely upset” and “intoxicated,” Leary was able to tell authorities that she and Jones had left the Duck’s Breath Saloon and had gotten into his Camaro to go to his house when a man leaned in the open, passenger-side window. She thought she heard two muffled shots.
“She said the person had a beard and said something like, ‘You owe me!’ ... The man grabbed her, and she pushed the car door open, jumped out of the car and she ran back to the Duck’s Breath,” according to the police investigative report.
Some people inside the bar saw Leary run inside where she told a few people what happened. But she could not later remember most of what she had said. She only remembered “telling someone that somebody had been shot,” according to the report.
Reached by telephone by The Telegraph, Leary declined to comment.
Winters, who was interviewed by police in an intensive care unit the same day of the shooting, could not remember what happened, according to the report. He also had been drinking at the Duck’s Breath Saloon. A forensics firearms reconstruction expert could not determine which of the men fired first when authorities reconstructed the crime scene in the parking lot more than seven months after the shooting, according to the report.
In the report’s summary, Jones was identified as the victim and Winters as the “defendant.” There is no record of an indictment against him in Houston County Court records. There are two subpenas for medical records of Jones and Winters for a grand jury hearing, but there is no record that a grand jury met on the subpoena date of May 4, 1987.
Walker said he doesn’t think Winters was ever formally charged in connection with Jones’ death. His Macon attorney at the time, the late O. Hale Almand Jr., mounted a “vigorous defense” and hired a private investigator, Walker said.
Larry Titshaw, the private investigator, found witnesses who claimed they saw more than one person outside the Camaro shortly before the shooting, according to the case file. Efforts to reach Titshaw for comment were unsuccessful.
Titshaw turned over all of his notes and findings to Almand, who presumably placed them in a file, which can’t be found, Walker said.
“With so many witnesses unavailable, either dead or we don’t know where they are, Mr. Winters’ defense has been to a large extent lost,” Walker said. “So it certainly puts him in a bad position.”
Walker has asked presiding Superior Court Judge Katherine K. Lumsden to dismiss the 2014 indictment against Winters. Lumsden got the case after Judge Edward D. Lukemire recused himself. In 1987, Lukemire was a Houston County prosecutor.
In his motion, Walker argued that the long delay in indicting Winters gives the prosecution a tactical advantage, while denying Winters’ the ability to mount a solid defense. Lumsden has indicated that she likely will rule against Winters and allow the case to proceed to trial, Walker said.
In another pending motion before Lumsden, Walker seeks to have statements from Leary limited to her pre-hypnotic recorded statements. She was hypnotized in 1987 to help her remember what happened, Walker said.
In her pre-hypnotic recorded statements, Leary said she did not know who fired first, and during the police investigation, Leary never identified the alleged shooter, Walker said in his motion. Walker said he’s not ready to concede that Winters fired a shot despite how it may look based on the evidence.
The only new evidence that Walker said the prosecution has gathered since 1987 is a more recent statement from Leary that he thinks is the basis for the 2014 indictment.
“She might be acting like she knows (what happened) now,” Walker said. “But back then, she didn’t know. I don’t know how she figured it out over 25 years later.”