Devonia Inman has spent 20 years behind bars for a crime he swears he didn’t commit. There are good reasons to believe him. Welcome…
Hercules Brown has been in prison for murder for more than 16 years, but he has not confessed to the September 1998 murder of Donna Brown at the Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia — even though there is strong evidence pointing to his guilt, and Devonia Inman, a man unconnected to the crime, is serving a life sentence in prison for it.
Jessica Cino, a dean and law professor at Georgia State University, has spent countless hours over more than three years trying to find a way to help Inman prove his innocence, a monumental feat that means battling a court system rigged to keep him behind bars. He’s exhausted his normal appeals and courts are loath to accept a new filing based only on a contention that someone is actually innocent. In order to raise the issue, Cino would need to find new evidence of a constitutional violation — one that hasn’t been included in any of his other appeals, and one to which she could bootstrap the innocence claim.
The pro bono legal team that Cino helped to assemble has been on the hunt for this new evidence, well-aware that with the passage of time, the odds of finding a fresh constitutional violation are slim. And then, last year, they found Kim Brooks.
Brooks took a job at the Taco Bell not long after Donna Brown was murdered — in fact, she took over Brown’s position. Hercules was still working at the Taco Bell, and his behavior toward Brooks was disturbing, she said. He would “play” like he was going to rob her and asked her if she wanted to help him pull off an “inside job” to rob the store. He told her that he would “rough her up” to make it look realistic, and they could split the take.
It was the same scenario that Inman’s cousin Takeisha Pickett, then a shift manager at the Taco Bell, had reported to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation not long after Brown’s murder. No one had paid attention.
Brooks also told the legal team that Hercules had all but confessed to her. He said he’d done something “bad.” When she asked if someone else was paying for his mistake, he replied, “It’s better their life than mine.”
And like Pickett, Brooks tried to report her troubling interactions with Hercules. She first tried to tell a local Adel cop, a sergeant who would escort her to the bank to make night deposits. But he brushed her off, eventually telling her that she’d have to talk to Jamy Steinberg, the GBI agent leading the Brown murder investigation. She tried, but he apparently wasn’t interested. He told her that Donna Brown’s murderer had already been found and that the case was closed.
This all happened before the end of 1998, Brooks told the lawyers, meaning that Inman hadn’t even been indicted yet, let alone tried. The information should have been recorded in the GBI report and it should have been turned over to Inman’s defense team. Neither happened — and that’s a constitutional violation that could get Inman back into court. “I do think that a ‘bombshell’ is the best way to describe it,” says Cino. “It’s yet another corroborating witness in this whole cesspool of facts that never got untangled or even looked at by the GBI.”
In January 2018, the lawyers filed a special appeal in state court seeking to overturn Inman’s conviction based on the new evidence. The appeal is pending. Despite its strength, it’s still a longshot. “A judge should read this and be outraged and give [Inman] an evidentiary hearing,” Cino says. “Politics and realities being what they may, I can’t at all say that I am even more than 50 percent confident that that’s the outcome.”
It was in mid-2015 that we received the first email from Cino. She was writing to see if we might be interested in looking into Inman’s case.
Cino did not represent Inman, but she was convinced that he was innocent, and had taken on his case as an advocate, she told us. She shared some red flags pointing to a wrongful conviction. There was no hard evidence connecting Inman to the murder, which had taken place around 2 a.m. on September 19, 1998. The victim, a single mother named Donna Brown, was the manager at Taco Bell; she was leaving the restaurant carrying the day’s receipts when she was apparently ambushed, shot dead with a .44 revolver. The gun was never recovered, nor was any of the cash or the bank bag that was stolen from her. And none of the fingerprints lifted from her car — which was stolen and dumped nearby — matched Inman.
Instead, there was a rogues’ gallery of witnesses who fingered Inman, an outsider from California who had only been in town a little more than a month before being accused of the crime. By the time he was tried in 2001, two of the prosecution’s key witnesses had recanted their statements to the GBI, insisting on the stand that they had lied. Ten years later, yet another witness — a man who was locked up briefly with Inman and claimed that he’d confessed details of his crime — also recanted, saying he’d been coerced by police.
But most significantly, in 2011, DNA testing revealed the genetic profile of another man, Hercules Brown, on the key piece of physical evidence found at the scene: a makeshift mask fashioned from a length of gray sweatpants with two eyeholes cut into it. Not only had Hercules gone on to commit a brutal double murder in the fall of 2001, but his name had also come up in rumors about a previous murder that same year — the killing of an Indian immigrant named Shailesh Patel — which remains unsolved. In sum, during the 17 months since the murder at Taco Bell, three more grisly slayings had taken place in Adel, a town of just more than 5,000 people. The DNA evidence was damning proof that law enforcement got the wrong man in 1998 — and by failing to treat Hercules as a suspect, they were indirectly responsible for further carnage in Adel. “I mean, it’s convenient, right?” Cino notes. “The minute, he gets locked up, people stop dying in this little town. That says a lot.”
Yet in 2014, the same judge who presided over Inman’s trial declined to grant him a new one, claiming that the DNA evidence was not persuasive enough. The Georgia Supreme Court subsequently declined to intervene. This left Inman in an impossible legal predicament. As Cino explained, “All the stars have to align for somebody to be able to challenge their conviction … to have lawyers who are going to work for them and to have a judge who’s receptive to those claims.” Inman had been given that shot but was still denied, even with DNA evidence, which only exists in a fraction of cases. The state of Georgia was “pretty crafty,” Cino said, in that “they left open this sliver for Hercules Brown to just creep into the picture and still leave Devonia in prison because they were able to at least create some inference that, well, we found Hercules’s DNA at the scene but that doesn’t mean Devonia wasn’t there too. … And it makes it now impossible or almost impossible for him to use that DNA to successfully challenge his conviction.”
As we began to review the materials in Inman’s case, we were horrified by what we found: a panoply of bad practices known to wreak havoc in the criminal justice system, all of which are regularly implicated in wrongful convictions. It started with an incomplete police investigation. Law enforcement latched onto an early narrative about the crime and then consequently ignored all signs — even screaming ones — that conflicted with their chosen theory. Such tunnel vision and confirmation bias are common in cases of innocent people sent to prison. In Inman’s case, agents with the GBI failed to follow several substantial leads, including rumors that Hercules was the real man responsible for Brown’s murder.
We first went down to Cook County in November 2015, meeting Cino in Atlanta and making our way south down I-75. Cotton fields were ripe for harvest along the interstate; at Exit 39, the main entrance to Adel, a sign advertised the King Frog, an old Adel institution that once billed itself as the “Flea Market of the South,” but now mainly sells discount clothing in the shadow of a newly arrived Walmart. Although Thanksgiving was more than a week away, Christmas decorations adorned the storefronts in sleepy downtown Adel, surrounded by magnolias and palm trees.
The Taco Bell where Donna Brown was shot sits just off the interstate, across from a truck stop and surrounded by a handful of fast-food joints. We retraced the steps Brown would have taken as she carried the cash to her car, examined the area where her assailant was allegedly lying in the weeds, then drove the short route taken by her killer, turning east across the overpass covering I-75 and making a right towards the still-abandoned Pizza Hut lot several blocks away.
Around the corner from the Pizza Hut was the awning where Virginia Tatem — the newspaper delivery woman who was a key eyewitness against Inman — once stood. The shelter used to house gas pumps but is now just an empty shell facing out toward the street on the corner of 4th Avenue and Adams Street. Around 2 a.m. on the night of the murder, Tatem said she was standing under the awning waiting for the nightly delivery of the Valdosta Daily Times when she heard what sounded like a gunshot coming from the other side of the highway. She then claimed to see two cars following each other, going so fast that they fishtailed when turning the corner. Despite their high speed, she said she saw clearly into each car. In the first, a black car that matched the description of Brown’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo, she saw a lone black man she would later identify as Inman. In the second, a rusty-brown-colored car, she saw four or five other black people. The cars continued down the road before coming to a stop at the boarded-up Pizza Hut and disappearing from view.
Looking out onto the street from the spot where Tatem said she stood, her claims seemed absurd. The sound she allegedly heard from the Taco Bell to the west would have had to cut through the noise from multiple lanes of traffic, both from the overpass, as well as the sound from I-75 below. The voices she supposedly heard from the Pizza Hut would have been similarly hard to hear, unless the subjects were loud, which would seem unlikely from anyone who just committed a robbery and murder. What she claimed to have seen seemed just as unlikely. She described the first driver as wearing a ribbed white tank top and dark slacks, along with a thin gold chain. But looking down toward the Pizza Hut from the awning — in broad daylight — it was hard to make out much of anything.
There was good reason to be skeptical of Tatem from the start. It had taken her more than a month after Brown’s murder to come forward with this account — and only after news of a $5,000 reward for information related to the Taco Bell murder was published in the Adel News Tribune. In two subsequent interviews and then on the witness stand at Inman’s trial, Tatem offered additional details she hadn’t previously disclosed to police — embellishments that should have been a cause for concern. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable — a leading factor in wrongful convictions — and an account that gets more detailed with the passage of time is even more suspect. Yet both police and prosecutors ignored this fact, accepting Tatem’s dramatic tale at face value.
As we explored the area between the awning and the Pizza Hut, Cino theorized that prosecutors felt that they needed Tatem to move forward with the case. Inman did not get indicted until January 1999, she pointed out. “So that means they didn’t think they had enough until they got Virginia Tatem’s last statement.” Prior to that point, “none of the forensics matched up. They don’t get any really credible witness statements.” Then “suddenly Virginia Tatum comes in and they get more until they’ve got, basically a perfect statement from her” — a description that matched their theory of the crime.
Particularly disturbing is that GBI agent Jamy Steinberg seems to have completely missed an early sign suggesting that Tatem’s story might be fabricated. On October 26, 1998, the same afternoon he first talked to Tatem, Steinberg called a man named Lee Grimes, a fellow newspaper carrier who was reportedly waiting with Tatem on the night of the murder. According to the GBI report, Grimes said he didn’t remember anything about that night. More importantly, he told Steinberg that Tatem had actually called him to talk about what she was now claiming to have seen. If this was a hint that Tatem may have been trying to gin up her story before offering it to the police, there’s is no indication that Steinberg — or anyone else — ever considered it.
Grimes was called to testify for the defense at Inman’s trial, but the examination was lackluster. He repeatedly said he didn’t remember anything about that night, including after an odd exchange: Lead prosecutor Bob Ellis recounted how, according to Tatem, Grimes had allegedly joked with her about not walking into the street to get a good look at who was driving down by the Pizza Hut because she might get shot. Grimes said he didn’t remember that “at all.”
Could it be that something did happen, and Grimes just didn’t remember it? We went to see Grimes to find out.
We located Grimes in a quiet town nearly two hours northeast of Adel, in a house that is a shrine to his first love: music. A former school band director, Grimes’s house is a maze of record albums — more than 20,000 of them, alphabetized on seemingly endless rows of shelving. Beatles paraphernalia is displayed throughout the house, and a collection of album covers stretches back into the laundry room.
Grimes explained that in the fall of 1998, he was on hiatus from teaching, living in Adel and delivering papers. He remembers the night of Donna Brown’s murder as well as the day he testified in Inman’s trial. And he has a singular regret: that he wasn’t more forceful when answering questions about what Tatem said she’d seen. “None of that happened, and I’ll swear on 10 stacks of Bibles … none of what she said, absolutely, positively, did not happen at all,” he said.
Grimes traced Tatem’s story to a conversation he had with her on a totally different night following the murder, after the notice of the reward had run in the paper. The two were waiting for the newspapers to be delivered when a car carrying some black people passed by. They began talking about the murder at Taco Bell. “She was telling me, ‘You know, there’s a $5,000 reward for that. It sure would be nice to get that reward.” She then made a pointed comment: “‘You know, those people right there, they could have committed that crime,’” Grimes recalls her saying. “I just thought, well, she’s looking for money.” He said he had no idea that Tatem had gotten involved in the case until sometime later, when he was contacted by Inman’s attorney. Tatem’s story, he said, was “just totally made up.”
Grimes was not sure whether Tatem ever collected the money, but he was willing to bet she had. A few years later, Tatem wrote a lengthy war novel, titled “Tripwire,” which she self-published in 2008. It centered on two women in Adel whose husbands had gone to fight in Vietnam. Grimes said there was some speculation that she had used the reward money for that — “which would be something frivolous she would do.”
Grimes last saw Tatem at a bank, several years after the trial. He decided to confront her. “I walked up to her and I asked her, ‘How are you sleeping at night?’ And she just walked away.”
Several people have tried to speak to Tatem about the Donna Brown murder over the years. She has not welcomed the attention. Aimee Maxwell, the founder and former executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, told us that the first time she showed up at Tatem’s door, her husband ran Maxwell off with a rifle. In Cino’s experience, phone calls to the house would be picked up by a woman claiming to be Tatem’s “friend,” but who Cino and her colleagues suspected was Tatem herself.
We went to see Tatem during a subsequent visit to Cook County, stopping by her home in Hahira, a rural town just south of Adel. She was not expecting the visit. Upon answering the door, she cracked it open just a sliver, allowing for the briefest of exchanges. We said we were looking for people willing to discuss the murder of Donna Brown. “Good luck with that,” she answered. She denied that she’d been an important part of the case — “I don’t think I was key,” she said. “I was a witness. That was it.” More surprising, despite her presence at the evidentiary hearing in 2014 — which had been held to consider the DNA evidence found on the ski mask matching Hercules Brown — Tatem repeatedly claimed that she had not heard anything about any DNA evidence. “I don’t even know anything about it,” she said, adding that anything more she had to say about the case she had already said in court. “That was it and basically I don’t have any other kind of comment,” she said. “And please don’t come back.”
Despite Tatem’s insistence that she had nothing more to say, she later agreed to speak to Bill Rankin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In an interview outside her home, with her grandchildren playing nearby, she cried over the fact that people kept questioning her claims and motives when it came to what she saw. She also confirmed that she had collected the reward money, just six months after the trial ended. But as she did on the stand, she adamantly denied that she had been motivated by greed. “I’m a mother of five children,” she said. “I don’t take something like that as a joke.” She told Rankin that she felt something in common with Brown, who was a mother working a dangerous night shift. There were plenty of times she felt she was in danger herself, she said. “It could have been me.”
Tatem’s wasn’t the only door that closed in our faces as we tried to look into the Donna Brown murder. Several key players refused to talk at all, chief among them the lead investigators. GBI agent Steinberg, a rookie with the department at the time, was laconic: The case has “been adjudicated,” he said over the phone. “You can ask, but I’m not going to discuss it with you.” This was far more than we got from then-Adel Police detective Jimmy Hill, leaving the extent of his involvement in the investigation uncertain.
Over repeated visits to Adel, it became clear that while Steinberg officially led the investigation into Brown’s murder, Hill played a key role in the case. Defense investigator Earline Goodman named him as one of the only people who could really explain why the investigation went as it did. And according to Christy Lima, Inman’s girlfriend at the time of the murder, it was Hill and the Adel police who were hounding her sister Marquetta Thomas, who implicated Inman in the crime in the days and weeks after Brown’s slaying. “They kept interrogating her,” Lima said. “They picked her up every day.”
Hill’s name appears all over the GBI’s official report, yet none of the documents are actually written by him. This is not entirely surprising: None of the officers who first responded to the call about a body in the Taco Bell parking lot recorded their initial contacts with witnesses or their observations of the scene. This basic information is simply absent from the GBI report. In fact, there are no reports from the Adel Police Department at all. At Inman’s trial, Adel Police Chief Kirk Gordon explained that his officers didn’t write reports because “we’re not going to interfere” with the GBI. Even when an Adel officer was the first to receive or develop some bit of information, he said. “What’s the use in writing it down when you can explain it to [the GBI] face to face?”
This lackadaisical approach raises serious questions, not only about what leads were communicated by local officers to the GBI in the Donna Brown case, but also about who might have exerted influence on various players — like Thomas — or on the direction of the investigation — like the decision to focus on Inman and not Hercules. Of particular concern is whether Hill held sway over such decisions. Goodman believes that is exactly what happened: “I think he’s the one that put the case together,” she said.
Inman’s relatives are certain that it was Hill who targeted Inman. They say he mouthed off to Hill and a couple of Adel police officers during his last arrest. According to his uncle, Ben Pickett, Hill said about Inman, “He ain’t getting out of here. He won’t never see the daylight of dawn around here, in this jail.” Dinah Ray, Inman’s mother recalls speaking to Inman in jail. “He told me that he had smart-mouthed a police officer,” she said. “I strongly believe this is the reason [he was targeted]. Him disrespecting authority. Does that equal to life in prison?”
Hill, a portly, bald sexagenarian with a smile that is half glower, is a polarizing figure in Cook County. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a crack investigator with a spotless record of arresting the right person, or an aggressive and vindictive man who used whatever means necessary to clear his caseload. There seems to be no in between when it comes to Hill; a number of people we spoke to for this story refused to say anything about him on the record, but had strong opinions to share once the interview was over.
Several of his law enforcement colleagues described Hill as exceptionally talented. “Jim Hill was always a very aggressive detective. I mean, he was like your true detective. If he had the evidence you were going to get arrested. I mean, that’s all there was to it,” Tim Eidson, the former assistant district attorney, recalled. “And I will tell you, if Jim Hill ever made an arrest, I had no doubt that he had the goods.”
To Gordon he was very smart, but “a little bit loose-tongued, rough around the edges, I should say.” And former DA Bob Ellis said the investigator had a “strong personality” that some people found intimidating — though he said he never did.
But others saw Hill as a racist bully. Ben Pickett said he was “always pinning stuff on young black men.” Takeisha Pickett, Inman’s cousin, agreed, saying that she’d always heard that he was a bad cop who liked to get black people off the street whenever possible. They’re not alone in their negative assessments. Former Cook County Sheriff John Daughtrey did not mince words: “He’s a vicious little man,” he said. “He’s threatening something all the time.” And he agrees that the city’s black residents have an especially hostile view towards the man that they believe is “out to get them specifically.”
Hill, says Daughtrey, is “the most hated guy in Cook County, there’s no doubt about it.”
We got in touch with Hill in the spring of 2017, after a number of failed attempts to reach him that included trying to track him down at home, leaving phone messages with a close friend, and camping out in the lobby of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office where he now works; we left a series of notes with the receptionist. When we finally reached him by phone, he was decidedly surly. “Isn’t it a clue when I don’t return your call I don’t intend to talk with you?” he asked. He hung up before we could ask any real questions.
As we pursued our investigation, it seemed that everyone who might actually be in a position of power to correct the mistakes made in Inman’s case — from police to prosecutors to judges — had abdicated their duty to see that justice is served. Yet, others wished desperately that they could do more to help. Where Grimes regrets that he was not more forceful in pushing back against Tatem’s apocryphal story about what she saw the night of the Taco Bell murder, Marquetta Thomas harbors deep regret about the role she played sending Inman to prison.
We met Thomas in July 2016, in Baldwin, a small town two hours northeast of Atlanta, and roughly half the size of Adel. Her two-story, white clapboard house sits on the edge of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which spills down from Tennessee. “I never heard of this town in my life,” she said, but she had settled there after being released from Lee Arrendale State Prison, just five minutes away. Wearing glasses, a red sweater vest, a bowtie, and a short-sleeved shirt that showed off an old tattoo, she reflected on her role in the case — and how much she wishes she could take it back.
Thomas was the first to insist that Inman was responsible for Donna Brown’s murder. Her motivation was twofold: She hated the way he treated her sister, Christy Lima, she said, while she also felt hounded by investigators in the days and weeks after the murder. She still doesn’t understand why the cops came to her in the first place. “It’s just like they picked me out [at] random,” she said.
Whereas her sister told investigators from the start that Inman was with her that evening — and has never changed her tune — Thomas said she was coerced into implicating Inman. “I think they were just looking to pin the crime on somebody to make their job lighter, easier, and I was a pawn in their game that they used,” she said. “It was verbal coercion because they would say, ‘Wasn’t this this?’ and I just agreed. I guess the story started getting formulated with bits and pieces they were telling me, and I just fused the story together to get [them] out of the picture.”
Thomas arguably had a further incentive to advance a narrative in which Inman alone committed the crime. There were rumors that Thomas might have played a role to herself in the crime at Taco Bell, something the state tacitly acknowledged over the course of Inman’s trial, albeit not in front of the jury. She even fit the description of the woman in the second car that Virginia Tatem allegedly saw that night. Although Thomas denies having had any role — she told us she did not know Hercules Brown — by the time the state called Thomas to testify in June 2001, she was facing bigger problems of her own, having been arrested for acting as a getaway driver in another unrelated armed robbery. Thomas was ultimately convicted and sent to prison, spending 14 years locked up for her role in that crime.
It was a life-altering blow. Thomas had four young kids when she went to prison, whose childhoods she missed completely. She described facing beatings and rape — but she was also able to turn her life around, enrolling in vocational training and getting involved with a traveling choir, in which she was able to sing and share stories of redemption at area churches. When she was released, the church helped her get back on her feet. Today she is 41; when we met, she had a good job and dedicated much of her time to the ministry as a worship leader, youth minister, and minister of music in the congregation — and was deeply involved in church outreach.
Thomas says she thinks about Inman’s case and her role in it almost every day — “every time I open my refrigerator, because the liberties of just being free and walking in the grass barefoot or being allowed to open my own refrigerator when I want” — and particularly when her son calls home. Now in his 20s, her son is serving 80 years in prison for participating in an armed robbery that ended in murder. “I’m thinking, ‘This is my karma or my reap-what-you-sow,’ because I allowed another young man’s life to be gone for a murder and robbery that he did not commit,” she said.
But ultimately, Thomas blames the police for everything that went sideways for Inman. “I think it’s them, Adel all day long — Adel city police and the GBI.”
Dinah Ray no longer feels safe in her hometown. After her son was convicted, she wrote letters to anyone she could think of who might be able to help but came to fear that the letters might make her a target. Once during a visit to Adel, the heater in the hotel room caught fire. “Me and my wife, we thought they was trying to kill us,” her husband, David, says. “I get a little paranoid when I go there,” Dinah admits. She is afraid of the police and authorities in Adel. “I don’t know what they may do.”
Growing up, she had been aware of the racial divisions in Adel — a ditch near her mother’s house separated the black side of town from the white side. “We would cross that ditch to go to the store sometimes,” she said, and an elderly white couple would let their dog loose after her and her siblings. Still, Dinah had felt it was a good place to live. But not anymore. “After that trial, it changed my whole perspective on Adel,” Dinah says. “I told my sisters, ‘Adel is no place for a black man. You need to take your boys away from here.’”
Dinah and David still live in Sacramento, in a white house with a basketball hoop over the garage. On a weeknight in September 2016, they shared old photographs of Inman growing up. There is a photograph of his sister reading to him as a toddler, a shot of teenage Devonia wearing denim from head to toe, standing next to a Christmas tree. In another, he is dressed in a white suit and sunglasses. Even when he was a little boy, he had loved to dress up, often in military garb, mimicking his biological father. “He loved to look nice,” Dinah says.
Photo: Ryan Christopher Jones for The Intercept
It was hard for Dinah to leave Inman in Adel. “He didn’t want to stay, and my wife didn’t want to leave him,” David says. “She cried the whole ride back.” Dinah calls it “the worst thing I could have ever done. It destroyed our lives.” The family attended the trial but was not allowed in the courtroom for most of the proceedings. “Even with the little information that we heard during the trial, I still thought my son was coming home,” David says. “To me, the evidence that they had, they didn’t have nothing.”
After the verdict came down, they remember a young woman who was a witness for the state had approached Dinah. They later identified her as LarRisha Chapman, who first claimed to see Inman in the weeds but later recanted in a letter and on the stand. “She was crying, and she said that she was sorry, that she didn’t even know my son,” Dinah says, “that they were just harassing her, and they made her say it.”
Inman writes frequent letters to his family; Dinah was going to find some letters to share when Inman’s cousin, Takeisha Pickett, arrived at the house. Pickett, who previously lived in Adel and worked at the Taco Bell prior to the murder, could have been a crucial source of information, had investigators taken her seriously. On multiple occasions, she tried to provide a critical tip: In the months leading to the crime, Hercules Brown had asked her if she would help him rob the Taco Bell. “He said it to me maybe twice and I brushed him off on it,” she said. “Then a month or two later, this happens.”
In high school, Pickett knew Hercules as a football player from a well-to-do family. “When I started working at Taco Bell, I was introduced to a different Hercules,” she said, a guy who had gotten into drugs. Regardless, the two got along, she says. As a shift supervisor, she would sometimes close the restaurant with him. “He gave me a ride home one night and we came in for a little while,” she said. That’s when he said, “‘Man, you should let me rob you one night,’ or whatever.” Pickett scoffed — there wasn’t enough money at the Taco Bell to make it worth robbing, she said. “He just left it alone for a little while. Then maybe a couple of weeks later, he brought it up again. Then I think we might have been at work. He was like, ‘Man, you should let me do it, Keesh.’ I was like, ‘Man, you trippin.’ That was that.”
By the time she heard about the murder, Pickett had left her job to work at Lowe’s. When Steinberg came seeking information about Inman, she says, “I was like, ‘Hercules Brown wanted to rob the Taco Bell.’” In response, she remembers him saying, “That’s not relevant to what we’re talking about.” She never heard anything further until she was subpoenaed for trial.
In a two-page summary included in the GBI report, Steinberg makes no mention of this part of his interview with Pickett. Indeed, despite the constant chatter among members of the community that Hercules was involved, there are virtually no indications that Steinberg looked into the rumors. Later, Pickett says, when she went to court to testify at trial, she met in a small room with Jimmy Hill and Bob Ellis, repeating to them what she had told Steinberg. But she was dismissed.
By then, Hercules already sat in a jail cell for the brutal killing of William Bennett and Rebecca Browning months before. Bennett’s death still saddens Pickett — she knew his daughter from school, she said, and “I loved him because he made the best chili dogs ever.” Like so many others in Adel, Pickett is certain that their deaths could have been prevented if Hercules had ever been considered as a suspect for the murder at Taco Bell.
David suggested that the murder of Shailesh Patel might have been avoided too. “To this day, I think if they would have listened to us, the other three people that got killed later … they would be still alive,” he says, “and then my son would be home with us.”
For all the lingering trauma over the bloody chapter in Adel, among the members of the Patel family, the death of their loved one has gone largely unspoken for years.
Today Manishh Patel has no recollection of speaking to the Adel News Tribune about his uncle’s death in 2001. At the time he was a college student in Atlanta, majoring in business. He now manages a cheap motel in Macon, Georgia, where we met last summer, along with his uncle, Haribai. Like several members of the family’s older generation, who began arriving in the U.S. in the late 1970s, Haribai does not speak fluent English, relying on Manishh to translate. Shailesh Patel was his younger brother, Haribai explained through his nephew. After he was killed, “I couldn’t think for three months.”
Manishh explained that his uncle’s murder was only the first in a series of horrible tragedies that gripped the family in 2000. After his death, Shailesh had been cremated and the family had gone to Savannah to spread his ashes in the ocean. On the way home, the family got into a car accident, which killed Shailesh’s young daughter. Soon after that, Shailesh’s mother died. The family was in a constant state of shock and mourning. Haribai “was nervous all the time. Just scared all the time,” Manishh says. “It was just a bad time for our family.”
If the Patels were too emotionally burdened to keep tabs on the investigation into Shailesh’s death, the authorities were not providing any information. On the profile of the unsolved murder, the GBI website puts two names as the officers in charge: GBI agent Mike Clayton, who also participated in the Donna Brown investigation, and Adel Police detective Jimmy Hill. The names don’t ring a bell within the Patel family. Nobody from law enforcement ever called them, Manishh explained. Instead they got word that something bad had happened from another Indian acquaintance in Adel, who called them the day after the murder. Manishh’s father went to the scene but was turned away. The first time an agent came to talk to them it was days later, at a motel the family owned in Locust Grove.
It is hard to piece together who spoke to the GBI and when. Harabai “was there, but he didn’t talk to anybody,” Manishh explained. “It was always some relative or a cousin or somebody that did all the talking and then told him what they said.” He estimated that the GBI agent stayed for 20 to 30 minutes, asking basic questions. “And then that was the last what they heard from him.”
At one point during our interview, as he translated for Haribai, Manishh was told something he had never heard, a revelation that stunned and confused him. According to his uncle, “the GBI came up there and said, ‘If y’all want to proceed on this case, y’all have to help us pay for the investigation, at least 30 to 40 percent of it.’” The claim sounded bizarre: Families of victims are certainly not expected to cover the cost of a state investigation. It is unclear whether there was a miscommunication or even who had the conversation in question with the GBI. (Mark Pro, the GBI agent who insists that the investigation into the case is ongoing, called the claim “ridiculous.”) Regardless, the Patels have remained under the impression for years that the murder of their loved one had gone unsolved because they could not afford to pay for it.
“We never had any kind of crime like this in our family even before or after,” Manishh explained. The older generation in the immigrant family were outsiders to the criminal justice system in the United States. They did not feel empowered to push or question the GBI. And the language barrier made things that much harder. When a news station put together a public service announcement asking for tips to solve the murder, the job fell to Manishh’s cousin, who was similarly young at the time.
“I remember the cousins used to talk about it like, ‘What’s going on?’ Like, ‘What happened?’” Manishh recalls. But they did not want to upset their parents by bringing it up. “Even just bringing this up right now is even hard for them,” he said. “Because they kind of sealed it away a little bit, you know? … They’d rather be free, not have to think about this no more.”
Still, Manishh wishes that he could know what happened. “What kind of investigation they did. … Was it a forced entry or not? What was the story?” He wonders if the killer targeted Shailesh or meant to go after his brother-in-law, Vishnu, who was the one living at the house on Gordon Avenue, where Shailesh was killed, the one who brought Shailesh to Adel in the first place. “What happened?” Mannish asks. “Even if it was Hercules Brown, what was he thinking?”
It has been more than seven years since the DNA results from the mask came back with a match to Hercules. Inman’s parents remember exactly where they were when they got the phone call from the Georgia Innocence Project. “All we could do was cry,” says Dinah Ray. “We thought, this is it. He’s going to be coming home soon. But that didn’t happen.”
David Ray becomes emotional as he describes their attempts for help. His wife wrote to everybody she could think of — even the president, he says. “We still can’t believe this. This is supposed to be the justice system? My son been wrongly accused,” he said. “Something is wrong with this system. It needs to be checked again.”
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.