As Devonia Inman prepares to go on trial for his life, the case against him starts to unravel. Meanwhile three more violent murders shock the town. Is the real killer still out there?
It was just after 11 a.m. on Friday, November 10, 2000, and Norfolk Southern Railroad engineer Lloyd Crumley and his brakeman Corbit Belflower were securing their train before jumping off to grab lunch at a small store abutting the tracks on the south side of Adel, Georgia.
Crumley, Bellflower, and another colleague, conductor Wayne Peters, often dropped into Bennett’s Cash and Carry for lunch when working in town. The owner, William Carroll Bennett, was a legend in the community where his family went back generations. He was known for his generosity and would often extend credit to families who needed groceries but couldn’t afford to pay for them. “He was a saint,” said former Adel police Officer Tim Balch.
Peters hopped off the train and headed to the store ahead of Crumley and Belflower, who followed not far behind. In his nearly 40 years working for the railroad Crumley had seen beauty — pristine landscapes stretching out for miles; a river flowing past as his train moved across a truss high above. He’d also seen tragedy; he’d lost count of the number of people who had perished on the tracks when his train was too close to stop. That did not prepare him for what he saw that day inside Bennett’s grocery.
As he and Belflower approached the store, a man exited, holding a bat of some kind that appeared to be stained with paint. As the two men reached the store’s front door, a second man, carrying a cash register, burst through to the outside. Crumley asked what he was doing. The man threw the cash register at them. Crumley fell backward, but Belflower avoided the blow and raced toward the man as he hopped into the driver’s seat of an older blue Cadillac. Crumley scrambled to his feet and as the car raced away, the two men called out the license plate number, which Crumley scribbled onto his hand with a pen he always kept in his shirt pocket.
Just inside the store’s front door, Crumley and Belflower found their colleague, Peters. He’d been hit in the head and part of his scalp was peeled back. He was alive. Further inside, the men realized that Bennett and his employee, Rebecca Browning, had been bludgeoned to death. Although Peters would recover from his injuries, he would have no recollection of what happened that day — of who hit him and with what.
The brazen lunchtime murder of two beloved community members stunned a small town still reeling from the brutal murder of Shailesh Patel just seven months earlier. Despite a grisly crime scene filled with physical evidence, no arrests had been made. The crime remains unsolved to this day. But this time, the cops got a break. Crumley and Belflower’s quick action to copy down the plate number of the blue Cadillac produced almost immediate results: Less than an hour later, Hercules Brown was arrested while driving the car.
Hercules’s ankles were shackled that afternoon when he was brought in for an interview with Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Jamy Steinberg, the same man who had led the investigation into the September 1998 murder of Donna Brown outside the Adel Taco Bell. Steinberg had been given information back then that strongly implicated Hercules as being responsible for Donna Brown’s death, but judging from the police report he never followed the lead. Instead, Steinberg focused his attention on a 20-year-old from out of town, Devonia Inman, who the state said had acted alone in ambushing Donna Brown in the Taco Bell parking lot, robbing her of the evening’s receipts before shooting her in the face. Inman insisted that he was not involved in the crime — he was at his girlfriend Christy Lima’s home at the time — but was nonetheless arrested and charged with the murder. The day that Bennett and Browning were beaten to death Inman was still in jail awaiting trial.
Under questioning, Hercules denied that Hercules was even his name, so Steinberg called in Adel police investigator Jimmy Hill. The town’s veteran and only detective, Hill had worked with Steinberg on the Donna Brown case. Hill positively identified Hercules. The 20-year-old relented; yes, that was his name — but he didn’t know anything about any crime at Bennett’s grocery. Hercules was booked into jail.
In Greek mythology, Hercules is the half-mortal son of Zeus. The goddess Hera was furious that Zeus had cheated on her and was vengeful toward Hercules. She sent two snakes into his crib to kill him, but it didn’t work; the powerful infant crushed them both. Indeed, Hercules became known not only for his strength, but also for his temper. He wore a lion skin with the head still attached that came up over his forehead like a mask, and he carried a large club, his favorite weapon.
In Adel, the life of Hercules Brown has become something of a legend. Everybody remembers him, giving some version of a similar tale: a formidable young man from a good family who took a bad turn.
Hercules was funny and did well in school, and he excelled in both football and baseball. He was such a large and muscular child that he needed a special-ordered uniform; he could easily have used his strength to dominate on the field, but he didn’t. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, recalled his youth sports coach. Hercules stopped playing sports in high school and instead joined the band, playing trombone and baritone. In a 1997 quiz for band members titled “Getting to Know You,” Hercules wrote that his favorite piece of music was “Mozart” and that his greatest extravagance was his hair. He kept a Bible at his bedside, would like to visit Australia, and should play himself in the movies, he wrote. He described himself as “carefree.” Hercules also worked at the Taco Bell in Adel, often as a closer.
If Hercules was as carefree as he claimed, at some point things changed. Why is not entirely clear, though many who knew him as a teenager blame drug use for his change in temperament. Tim Balch, the former Adel police officer, said that in those days Hercules was trying to build “street cred.” He had heard that Hercules was selling drugs out of the Taco Bell drive-thru, although police never proved it. Tim Eidson, assistant district attorney of the Alapaha Judicial Circuit, said that Hercules was obviously high on something when he was arrested for the Bennett and Browning murders, though Hercules denied it.
Others say that Hercules was simply a “thug.” He threatened his girlfriend and was known for trying to rob people or burglarize houses and cars, according to Lima, Inman’s girlfriend in the summer of 1998. “This boy had a violent streak in him, and everybody in Adel knew that,” she said. “Everybody was scared of him.” Many people were also scared of his mother, Lucinda, who worked at the state Division of Family and Children Services, which had the power to take people’s children away. Lucinda had “pull,” Lima said — the kind of pull that kept people from saying anything bad about her son, regardless of the circumstances. If the extent of her power was less real than perceived, numerous people nevertheless recall Adel residents being wary of coming forward when Hercules acted out, afraid that Lucinda Brown would take away custody of their children or cut off access to benefits like food stamps.
Balch had a similar impression. “His mother was always very, very, very overprotective,” he said. Whenever her son had a run-in with the Adel police, Lucinda did not hesitate to come to the station to complain. Officers would hold their tongues in response. They knew they had to rely on her cooperation in child abuse cases, and they did not wish to ruffle her feathers. “I don’t know a good way to put this without being ugly,” Balch said, “but you don’t want to do something to mess the relationship up.”
Still others, like Balch’s then boss, former Chief Kirk Gordon, and prosecutor Eidson recall Lucinda and her family as kind, respected members of the community. “Just super good people, just as nice as they could be,” said Gordon.
Indeed, in a rather jaw-dropping revelation, Eidson said that it was actually Lucinda who provided an alibi for her son on the evening Donna Brown was killed. According to Lucinda, Eidson recalled, Hercules was either at home asleep or possibly returning from a school trip at the time of the murder. “In any event, she gave an alibi for Hercules,” he said. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, officials apparently accepted her explanation at face value. Sure, there was “innuendo” that Hercules might have been involved in the crime, Eidson recalled, but there was nothing that would outweigh Lucinda’s assurances. “There wasn’t any reason to disbelieve her at the time,” he said. “She was a well-respected citizen.”
On a winter day in early 2001 — less than three months after the brutal murders of Bennett and Browning — defense attorney Melinda Ryals received a letter at the public defender’s headquarters in neighboring Tifton, Georgia. For months she had been working on one of the most significant cases of her career, defending Devonia Inman, who faced the death penalty for the murder of Donna Brown — the first death penalty trial in Cook County in a generation. The letter that arrived at Ryals’s office that day was dated January 30. To her surprise, it came from LarRisha Chapman, who was poised to take the stand as one of the state’s key witnesses against Inman.
Chapman, then 16, worked the closing shift at Taco Bell the night Brown was murdered and was one of the last people to see her alive. She initially told investigators that she’d seen nothing “unusual or suspicious” outside the restaurant that night, but eventually changed her story, claiming that while waiting for her ride, she actually heard Devonia Inman’s voice coming from some weeds near the parking lot curb line, a detail that neatly fit the cops’ theory that someone had been lying in wait to attack Brown.
Ryals had recently gone to see Chapman, who expressed gratitude for the visit in her letter. “I’m so glad that you came to speak with me on this situation,” Chapman wrote. She was writing to Ryals now so that she could “clear up the huge lie I told years ago.”
“I, LarRisha Nicole Chapman, admit that I lied on the statement I wrote about I could recognize the voice of a Mr. Inman,” she wrote. “I don’t even know what his voice sounds like. I’ve never even heard his voice before. I didn’t see anyone in the bushes either.” Investigators had relentlessly harassed her, Chapman explained. “I was sick of it and so I lied to stop them from bothering me and I thought it was over. I only made it worse by lying. I’ve got to get the truth out because I haven’t been able to sleep good since I said this.”
Chapman wrote that she wanted to replace her previous statements with this confession, which she insisted was the truth. She did not want to take the stand and lie. “I was young and I didn’t know how to handle this kind of thing. But now I’m sorry that I lied. Please can you help me to get off the stand and try to straighten this huge lie that I told?”
Ryals shared the letter with prosecutors.
Chapman was not the only one who tried to recant what she said about the crime at Taco Bell. According to Marquetta Thomas, the first person to implicate Inman, she herself had twice tried to tell authorities that she wanted to change her statement, including after she’d been subpoenaed to appear as a state witness against Inman. “They kept getting smart with me, telling me they was going to hold me in contempt of court. I was like, ‘He didn’t do it, yo.’ They never paid any attention.”
If the state’s theory of the crime seemed to be falling apart in the months before the trial, prosecutors did not seem troubled. Nor did they seem concerned with the possibility that Hercules, who had long been rumored to be truly responsible for the murder of Donna Brown and now sat in a local jail cell accused of brutally killing Bennett and Browning, might have been responsible for Donna Brown’s death too. All the while, the horrific murder of Shailesh Patel had yet to be solved. If any of these factors should have given prosecutors pause, perhaps to reconsider their case against Inman, they instead were ignored. The capital trial continued to move forward.
The trial of Devonia Inman began on June 19, 2001, at the Cook County Courthouse in downtown Adel. Representing the state was Robert “Bob” Ellis, the judicial circuit’s elected district attorney. In his 40s, with a conservative side-part and moustache, Ellis had the politician’s skill of projecting folksy humility while harboring ruthless tactics. “The Southern gentleman is how he presented himself,” says Earline Goodman, who worked on Inman’s defense team, attending the trial from start to finish. Ellis’s image would later be tarnished after he was exposed, over the course of a federal corruption probe, of sexual misconduct with a confidential drug informant. The informant accused him of rape, but Ellis insisted that his acts were consensual. He eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Today, Ellis is a boat salesman and part-time Baptist preacher. In a 2015 interview, he defended his prosecution of Inman, while insisting that remembered very little about the case. “I can only tell you at the time, that we felt strongly that he was guilty, or we wouldn’t have gone forward,” he says.
Ellis was accompanied by Eidson, the assistant DA, an affable, slightly younger attorney who would go on to head the public defender’s office in nearby Cordele, Georgia. He, too, ran afoul of the law after Inman’s trial; in 2007, Eidson was indicted on federal corruption charges after allegedly interfering in a drug case involving his wife. He was acquitted, but was later sued in a class-action brought by the Southern Center for Human Rights and the firm Arnold & Porter, which charged him and others in his office with shockingly inadequate defense work on behalf of indigent clients. (The case was settled in 2015.) Eidson also defends Inman’s conviction, although he says he believed at the time that he had not acted alone, which contradicts the theory that he and Ellis presented to the jury. “If the courts give Devonia Inman a new trial you’re not going to see me arguing about it in the papers or getting mad about it,” Eidson said. Still, he insists, “from the evidence that was presented during that time … I just believe Devonia was involved with it.”
Leading Inman’s defense was David Perry, who has since died, along with Ryals, his co-chair. According to Goodman, it was Ryals who first took the case, aggressively gathering evidence the police had ignored. The two were a close team, Goodman says, with a shared sense of adventure — a local judge used to joke that they were like Thelma and Louise. “Melinda and I, we went to so many people’s houses. We learned street names. Every lead we got, we’d go to,” Goodman said. But Ryals, who now works at the Georgia Capital Defender’s Office, felt daunted by the challenge of a capital trial, Goodman says. She asked Perry to join her — and he ended up taking over the trial strategy. “David was first chair. We had to go along with what David said,” Goodman said, with obvious frustration. In her opinion, Ryals could have won the case herself.
Indeed, among the leads Goodman and Ryals had pursued was that Hercules was actually responsible for the murder of Donna Brown. They’d heard persistent talk about this around town. Ryals tried to get into evidence testimony from a number of people who pointed to Hercules as the real culprit but was rebuffed — both by Perry, who seemed disinterested in an alternate-suspect defense, and Judge L.A. McConnell who refused to allow jurors to hear any of it. None of the evidence implicating Hercules was reliable, he concluded.
Goodman is 61, with white hair, a warm smile and a slightly self-deprecating air. She was eager to talk about the case — and firm in her belief that what happened to Inman was a miscarriage of justice. “My first impression of Devonia [was] that he was a punk, but he wasn’t no killer,” she said. Like others, she described him as having a big mouth but little to back it up. “He was the pretty boy. He wore the nice shoes, the up-to-date clothes. A lot of those people from Adel are below poverty, so I think they were jealous of Devonia.” He was also spoiled. It was Goodman’s job to “babysit” him throughout the trial. “He’d be telling me he wanted a cigarette or he wanted to see his mama. I’d have to go over [to the jail] and be real nice and get them to let his mama come in there to see him and things like that. I just don’t think Devonia had guts enough to pull the trigger.”
Inman’s weeklong trial was lengthy by Cook County standards. “South Georgia, baby, you going to be tried in just a few days,” Goodman said. Even as he faced a possible death sentence, she remembers him being calm — perhaps even overconfident. “I don’t really think that Devonia really understood what he was up against,” she said. He seemed to think, “Well I didn’t do it, so they can’t do nothing to me.”
There were certainly reasons to doubt that the state would win a conviction. In his opening statement, Eidson conceded “there was really no physical evidence in this case.” No gun or money was ever found. Fingerprints taken from the scene did not match Inman. But Eidson spun these glaring holes in the case as proof that Inman was a mastermind who had left no traces behind. “Whoever had thought this out had planned it quite well,” he said.
With no hard evidence, Ellis and Eidson relied on an array of witnesses whose testimony was contradictory, confusing, and at times completely counter to the prosecutors’ theory of the crime. Several did little more than paint Inman in a vaguely criminal light, rather than offer proof that he had actually committed the murder of Donna Brown. Among the first was Zachary Payne, the man who first tipped the GBI to the fact that Inman had access to a gun — although not the same type of gun used to murder Brown. Payne was brought from a drug detox facility in order to testify and he told a disjointed tale about Inman showing up at his door and pointing a gun at him. It was not clear what had prompted the alleged confrontation or what connection it had to the murder two weeks later.
If Payne’s testimony was more prejudicial than probative, other witnesses were wildly improper, at least by prevailing legal standards. Under the justification of presenting “similar transactions” to the crime in question, the state called a slew of Sacramento police officers to describe Inman’s previous run-ins with the law in California. Most dated back to when he was a juvenile — and none rose to the level of violence in the killing of Donna Brown. There was a car theft when he was 18, the robbery of a pizza delivery person when he was 15, and a traffic stop in which drugs were found. The third incident prompted a call for a mistrial by Perry, which was denied. McConnell would later instruct the jury to disregard the testimony of a police sergeant who described the drug incident, but by then, jurors had heard plenty about Inman’s checkered past. In a significant leap, the state cast Inman as intrinsically criminal, a man whose previous record showed that he was as a natural-born killer. “It’s a logical progression of a propensity to commit crimes,” Ellis said in his closing statement during the sentencing phase, urging jurors to hand down the death penalty. He compared Inman to a leopard hunting its prey. “He won’t change his spots.”
The witnesses from California would likely not have made it to the stand had the trial taken place today. In 2011, Georgia legislators finally overhauled the state’s ambiguous and antiquated rules of evidence, imposing desperately needed guidelines on trial lawyers and judges for what qualified as admissible testimony. For decades prior, Georgia had been the only jurisdiction in the country where prosecutors could admit evidence of previous crimes to show “bent of mind” or “course of conduct” — language that the state supreme court itself had described as “difficult to define and slippery in application.” In the hands of the wrong prosecutor, such evidence could prejudice a jury completely against a defendant, making it more likely to convict, no matter how weak the evidence.
Eidson was one such prosecutor. “He was the king of similar transactions,” Goodman recalls. “But I never understood how that little penny ante stuff in California was a similar transaction to [the Taco Bell murder].” The phrases “bent of mind” and “course of conduct” appear again and again in the trial transcript, which also captures the generally slipshod approach to evidence. Over numerous tedious passages, McConnell wonders aloud about the propriety of a given witness, including when it’s too late. “It seemed like everybody forgot they went to law school, including me,” he joked at one point after having allowed improper questioning of a witness to go unchecked.
It’s unclear how much of an impact the California witnesses had in the end. “To me that was a total waste,” says Steven King, one of the jurors at Inman’s trial. Their testimony “didn’t really matter at all back in the jury room.” In fact, King remembers most of the state witnesses being fairly unconvincing.
King, a tall white man in his 40s, lives in rural Hahira on family land dense with pine trees that mark the border of neighboring Lowndes County, visible just outside his window. King’s relative isolation made him attractive to both sides when it came to jury selection: In a place as small as Adel, finding jurors unconnected to a high-profile case was a major challenge. Today, King is a mail carrier and knows a lot of people in town. But at the time of Inman’s trial, King had just finished six years in the Army. “I didn’t even know we had a Taco Bell, let alone a murder here,” he said.
The jury was sequestered — a rare phenomenon in Cook County. King remembers police deputies escorting him and his fellow jurors around town in a little yellow school bus. Although he wasn’t thrilled at the circumstances, he took the job seriously, making detailed notes throughout the trial and recording his impressions of various witnesses.
Among those King found least convincing was the newspaper carrier, Virginia Tatem, despite her being presented as the state’s star witness. On the witness stand, Tatem swore that she had seen Inman fleeing the scene of the crime — a memory so significant that she compared it to remembering where she was the day Ronald Reagan was shot. “I’ll never forget for the rest of my life what he looks like,” she said. “His face will be etched in my memory forever.” But during cross examination, Perry picked apart elements of her testimony, to show that her recollections were hardly reliable. She claimed to have seen police cars racing to the Taco Bell with their lights and sirens on, which contradicted testimony from the officers, who said they had never turned on either. And while the GBI report showed that Tatem had told Steinberg she saw “four or five black people” in a brown car that was following Inman, on the stand, she insisted that she had only seen three people.
Like many eyewitnesses who give repeated statements, Tatem’s claims to police evolved significantly since she first came forward with information, getting increasingly detailed as time passed. Even her courtroom testimony included details she had never brought up before. “I could see the Pound Puppy in the back window when the car went down the road,” she said at one point, only after being shown a photograph of the car in question.
Under cross-examination, Tatem was asked why she had waited a month to call police — and only after seeing the ad in the paper offering a hefty cash reward in exchange for information. “The $5,000 didn’t have anything to do with it,” she insisted. “It had to do with the fact that this woman had died, and she had a son. I have children of my own. I cannot live with the idea to think that someone took this boy’s mother from him for a robbery.”
In the jury box, King was skeptical. Tatem was probably out for the reward, he thought. And even if she wasn’t, the things she claimed to have seen and heard while standing on the corner of Adams and Fourth Street at 2 a.m. were pretty much impossible. Tatem maintained that she had heard a gunshot (despite being across multiple lanes of interstate from the Taco Bell) and that she had seen the cars pull into the Pizza Hut and heard the group speaking to one another some five blocks away. It struck King as totally implausible. “Anybody that’s from Adel knows you can’t see the Pizza Hut because the Dairy Queen is right there,” King said. He dismissed her testimony, he said, and he remembers other jurors doing the same.
If Tatem lacked credibility, other witnesses were far more disastrous. Despite their attempts to recant their statements months before, the state put both Marquetta Thomas and LarRisha Chapman on the stand. In his opening statement, Eidson alluded to their attempts to recant their statements. “I don’t know what she’ll testify to here at trial, whether she’ll change her mind or whatever,” he said about Thomas, vowing to confront her with her earlier statements if she tried to change her story.
He did the same with Chapman. In fact, under direct examination, Eidson had Chapman read her letter to Ryals out loud, then walked her through her previous statement to the GBI, including how she had recognized Inman’s voice from the weeds. If the point was to confuse the jury while impeaching his own witness, Eidson succeeded; as he concluded his questioning, he went so far as to blame Chapman for Donna Brown’s death. Showing her a photograph of Brown’s lifeless body, Eidson said that if Chapman had told somebody that she’d seen a man in the weeds that night, “Ms. Brown would still be alive.”
“But I didn’t see nobody,” Chapman said, reiterating that she had made up the story. Eidson ignored her: “If you had gone in and told Ms. Brown there was somebody hiding in the bushes, she might still be alive today.”
While Marquetta Thomas initially threw Inman under the bus by claiming that he had not been at the home she shared with her sister on the night that Brown was murdered — and that he had showed up the next day with a wad of cash — on the stand, Thomas mostly changed her tune. She insisted that she had been harassed by law enforcement until she provided them with the information they wanted to hear. She was motivated to do so, she said, because she got the feeling that the cops were angling to pin the crime on her, so she went on the offense, implicating Inman.
For all of the confusion and changing narratives, to King there was only one credible witness brought by the state — so credible, he would vote to convict, despite all the questions about the state’s evidence. “Without Kwame Spaulding,” he said, “they had no case.”
Spaulding was 19 and locked up on cocaine-related charges in January 1999 when Inman was indicted for Donna Brown’s murder. The two briefly shared a cell, and it was during that time that Spaulding said Inman gave up the details of his crime. Spaulding asked the jailers to contact the GBI, saying that if he could get some kind of consideration on his case, he would tell investigators what Inman had said. There is no paperwork commemorating any particular deal that DA Ellis might’ve offered, but Spaulding still shared his story, suggesting that he was assured there was something in it for him. According to Spaulding, Inman said that he’d done the job with his girlfriend’s sister and that the two had waited in the weeds for Brown to emerge from the restaurant. He said Inman confessed to shooting Brown with a .44 caliber gun and that the two then split the proceeds of the crime, leaving the deposit bag in Brown’s car.
The details in Spaulding’s testimony caught King’s attention. He seemed to have information that only the killer would know — like the caliber of weapon used to kill Brown. “It wasn’t discussed and then Kwame knew it, knew what the caliber was,” he recalled. “Kwame to me was a very credible witness.”
Although Eidson told jurors that the detail about the .44 hadn’t been released to the public before Spaulding came forward, it was not true. That fact had been repeatedly printed in the newspaper. Spaulding’s story also included the assertion that the bank bag was found in the car; it wasn’t, but that erroneous detail was also reported more than once.
It took just two rounds of voting for the jury to decide that Inman was guilty. In a paradoxical twist, when it came to sentencing, the same evidence that convinced King to convict Inman was not enough to overcome his doubt about imposing a death sentence. “The murder weapon wasn’t found and there’s no eyewitness,” he said. “There was not enough evidence for me to vote for the death penalty.”
The jury ultimately decided that Inman should be sentenced to life without parole.
Inman’s girlfriend Lima was dismayed by the outcome. Of all the witnesses, she was the only one to maintain her original story throughout the case — from police questioning through trial testimony and beyond — without either embellishing or recanting. Inman was home with her the night that Brown was killed, she said. But in his closing arguments, Eidson painted her as an unreliable whore whose testimony should be dismissed, which infuriated Lima. “They just kept trying to put me down because I was a stripper, and I had kids from different dads,” she recalled. “And I was like, wait a minute, what does that have to do with Devonia being on trial for murder? You know, the trial was just a mess. To me it wasn’t even a trial. It was whatever the prosecutor said.” She insists that her background is irrelevant. “I don’t care what my life was like, what I did; what I said was true,” she said. “He’s innocent and I’ve been saying that from day one.”
When a brutal murder rocks a small Southern town, residents and police are shocked. Could the new guy in town be the one who who did it? Yes, the cops say, he is. Case solved. But then another murder happens. And another. In the end: four bodies, two convictions, and one man in jail for a crime he likely did not commit. Welcome to Murderville, Georgia.