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After the new evidence comes to light, we look back at the investigation into the murder of Donna Brown. And share some information we didn’t quite know what to do with — information about some key players who we know shaped the outcome of the case. Players we still have questions about. One is an elusive police detective with a bad reputation. The other is a witness we’ve talked about before. Or, maybe she’s a suspect. It’s hard to tell.

 

Jordan Smith: Okay. So, by now you pretty much know the story. Devonia Inman has been behind bars for nearly 20 years for a crime he almost certainly did not commit.

Liliana Segura: He was sentenced to life in prison for the 1998 robbery and murder of Donna Brown, a manager at the Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia. It would be the first of four brutal murders in this tiny town of just more than 5,000 people. One of those murders, of a man named Shailesh Patel, remains unsolved. Just months later two beloved members of the community, William Carroll Bennett and Rebecca Browning, were bludgeoned to death in broad daylight.

Jordan Smith: A man named Hercules Brown was quickly arrested for that crime and sent to prison for life. Nine years later, DNA evidence taken from a mask found in Donna Brown’s car was matched to Hercules. And only to Hercules. And that raised a whole bunch of questions. And the biggest question? Why didn’t the police ever consider Hercules a suspect in Donna Brown’s death?

Liliana Segura: That’s the question we’ve come back to over and over again while reporting this story. Remember, people around town had told investigators that Hercules was responsible for her murder and that he’d even confessed to the crime. He was known to police and he had a violent streak.  It just seems like if we could answer that question, we could get closer to the truth of what happened — not just at the Taco Bell, but during this violent period that traumatized so many people in Adel. For The Intercept, I’m Liliana Segura.

Jordan Smith: And I’m Jordan Smith.  Welcome back to Murderville, Georgia.  When we set out to report this story, we wanted to get to understand why Devonia Inman was convicted. We learned a lot, but didn’t come away with a definitive answer. Why? Partly because — if you noticed — we got a lot of doors slammed in our face. Key law enforcement just didn’t want to talk.

Liliana Segura: But we didn’t give up. We kept trying. In this final episode, we wanted to give you a glimpse of what’s that like. First up, tracking down Adel police detective Jimmy Hill.

Earline Goodman:  I think Jimmy Hill is the reason why this case- I think because he was the lead investigator and if y’all could talk with Jimmy Hill, I think that’s who you need to talk to.

Liliana Segura: Why? You started to say you think he’s the reason that this didn’t …

Earline Goodman: I just think his investigation- he was the head investigator of the police department. I think he’s the one that put the case together.

Liliana Segura: That’s Earline Goodman. She was part of Inman’s original defense team. Remember, the Adel police department was so small that it didn’t have the resources to handle a big murder case. So they called in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. GBI Agent Jamy Steinberg took charge. Jimmy Hill was his local partner. But people like Earline Goodman thought Hill was the real driving force behind the investigation.

Earline Goodman: He’s the one you guys need to talk with. Ask him why did he think Devonia done it.

Liliana Segura: My question to him would be, “Why didn’t you pursue Hercules Brown as a suspect?”

Earline Goodman: Very good question. That’s a very good question.

Jordan Smith: We spent a lot of time trying to ask him that question and we really didn’t get anywhere. For one, Hill was hard to track down. Not because we didn’t know where he worked — after leaving the Adel police force, he went to work for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. In one of the only photos we found of him, he’s standing behind a group of smiling sheriff’s deputies. He is wearing a blue shirt and a bright red tie — everyone else is in uniform. And he’s got a look on his face that we think is supposed to be a smile, but looks more like he’s in mid-growl.

Liliana Segura: But even though he’s still active in law enforcement in this small, rural place, Hill proved amazingly elusive. We went to his house, we left messages with a good friend, we camped out in the lobby of the sheriff’s department and left multiple notes for him. Yet, no Jimmy Hill. Finally, on the way out of town after our last visit to Adel, the phone rang.

Jordan Smith: Oh. Oh my gosh. Gosh, gosh, gosh. Yeah, we’ve got to find to somewhere that we can pull over because that call was definitely from the sheriff’s office.

Liliana Segura: Yeah. Holy fucking shit. Sorry. Oh. Yep.

Jordan Smith: Sheriff’s office just called twice but-

Liliana Segura: Two times in a row.

Jordan Smith: -no messages. It’s vexing.

Liliana Segura: Yeah. Oh my god. I mean it can only be him. Who else would be calling?

Jordan Smith:  Nobody.

Liliana Segura: We were about an hour-and-a-half north of Adel. We found a gas station and pulled over. We called him back.

Jimmy Hill:  Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

Jordan Smith:  Is this Chief Deputy Hill?

Jimmy Hill: Yes, ma’am.

Jordan Smith:  Well, hey, this is Jordan Smith. It’s great to hear your voice. How are you doing?

Jimmy Hill: I’m doing fine.

Jordan Smith: So we’ve been trying to get in touch with you because we’ve been working on a-

Jimmy Hill: Isn’t it a clue when I don’t return your call I don’t intend to talk to you?

Jordan Smith: Well, no, not necessarily.

Jimmy Hill: Well, I’m not talking to you.

Jordan Smith: Can you tell me why not?

Jimmy Hill: I’ve got nothing- Yeah. I don’t want to.

Jordan Smith: Well, can you tell me why not?

Jimmy Hill: Yes, because I don’t want to talk to you.

Jordan Smith: But I mean is there-

Jimmy Hill: Now you have a nice day.

Jordan Smith: I’m sorry? Wow. That was hostile.

Liliana Segura: I think he said you have a nice day.

Jordan Smith: Well, you have a nice day too, Mr. Hill.

Liliana Segura: I don’t think he meant it.

Jordan Smith: Oh.

Jordan Smith: It was hardly a satisfying exchange. And it certainly didn’t get us any closer to understanding his role in the investigation. And that’s a problem. Because his name is all over the GBI report on Donna Brown’s murder. He’s clearly involved in key interviews. He provides Agent Steinberg with important evidence and with information about Inman, but none of the entries in the report were actually written by him.

Liliana Segura: This isn’t exactly surprising. None of the local cops who first responded to the call about a body at the Taco Bell wrote reports. There were no observations from the scene. This basic information is just absent from the GBI report. In fact, there are no reports written by the Adel officers at all. At Inman’s trial, Adel police Chief Kirk Gordon testified that his officers didn’t write reports “because we’re not going to interfere” with the GBI. Even when an officer was the first to get a tip or to develop some sort of lead. “What’s the use in writing it down when you can just explain it to them face to face?” he asked.

Jordan Smith: I’m sorry, but this is crazy. The point of writing a police report is so that there is an actual report — a detailed record of what steps were taken, when, and by whom. It is critical to understanding why leads were followed and perhaps why others weren’t. Police reports often serve as a window into who might’ve exerted influence on various players in the case or on the overall direction of the investigation. Without a full accounting written by the individuals who actually handled specific tasks, there is simply no way to know.  And certainly no way to know what might’ve fallen through the cracks, or was ignored, or was left out of the record on purpose.

Liliana Segura: But there was another reason we really, really wanted to talk to Jimmy Hill. It wasn’t just about the murder at Taco Bell. It was also about figuring out why there seemed to be no trace of an investigation into the killing of Shailesh Patel. Remember the page on the GBI website listing unsolved homicides? The one with the short entry about Patel that has that weird sketch of a possible witness but no actual suspect? There are two investigators listed on that page: one, an agent with the GBI. And the other is Jimmy Hill. We tried him again.

Jimmy Hill: Cook County Sheriff’s  Office.

Liliana Segura: Hi, this is Liliana.  Is this Jim Hill?

Jimmy Hill: Yes.

Liliana Segura: Well, you  spoke to my colleague a  day or two ago. We’ve been  trying to get in touch about this  project we’ve been working on, and she  didn’t really, you know-

Jimmy Hill: Ma’am, I told  you, I don’t want  to talk with you people.

Liliana Segura: Well-

Jimmy Hill: And,  I’m not going to  talk to you people.

Liliana Segura: I  just have a very  important question, which  is-

Jimmy Hill: You  have a nice day.

Liliana Segura: Did  you know about the  DNA-

Liliana Segura: The phone calls really didn’t amount to much, but they did give us a sense of what was behind Hill’s reputation.

Johnny Daugherty: He’s the most hated guy in Cook County, there’s no doubt about it, from one end of the county to the other.

Liliana Segura: This is Johnny Daugherty, the former Cook County Sheriff. And one of the only people who would talk with us on-the-record about Jimmy Hill.

Johnny Daugherty:  He’s a vicious little man. He is a vicious little man. He’s always threatening. He’s threatening something all the time. If you go in to talk to him, first thing you’re going to find out is he thinks he’s already smarter than you are when you walk in the room. And I can tell you what he would say if you walked in the room, as soon as you walked out of the room, “That bunch of dumb bitches.” That’s Jim Hill. I don’t know how else to put it, but that’s Jim Hill.

Liliana Segura: The prosecutors in Inman’s case described Hill in very different terms. They said he was an aggressive investigator with a strong personality. Maybe a little rough around the edges, but he got the job done. One called him a “true detective.”

Jordan Smith: But Inman’s family said he targeted black people. Here’s Takeisha Pickett, Inman’s cousin.

Takeisha Pickett: I just heard that he was always not a good cop. He was just always trying to get the black people off the streets, he wasn’t giving you a chance. I just always known him to not be a good person.

Jordan Smith: And Inman’s aunt, Ethel Pickett.

Jordan Smith: Is Jimmy  Hill’s reputation so terrible?  What was it?

Ethel: ’Cause  he always doing  stuff to people. He- Jimmy  Hill always doing to young, you  know, young black mens. He was always  pinning stuff on them and then make it stick  ’cause of what he say. You know? What he say  goes. That’s the type of reputation he got.

Liliana Segura: Inman’s family says that this, combined with Hill’s vindictiveness, drove him to go after Inman for Donna Brown’s murder. Dinah Ray, Inman’s mother, remembers her son calling her after his arrest.

Dinah Ray: My son, I spoke to him on the phone when he was in jail and he told me that he had smart-mouthed a police officer.

Liliana Segura: She’s convinced this is why Hill was out to get him.

Dinah Ray: I strongly believe this is the reason. Him disrespecting authority, does that equal to life in prison?

Liliana Segura: In the end, it’s hard to know exactly how this went. We never really got to know Jimmy Hill at all. Except by reputation. So we still don’t know how deeply he influenced the case.

Jordan Smith: There’s another character in this story that we want to come back to. One we know far better. But one whose influence on the case, or even potential involvement in the crime, is a similar mystery. That person? Marquetta Thomas.

Jordan Smith: If you remember, Marquetta Thomas was the sister of Inman’s girlfriend, Christy Lima, and she really hated Inman for the way he treated her sister. So when the cops came around asking where Inman was the night of Donna Brown’s murder, Thomas threw him under the bus. Said he hadn’t been around that night. And worse, later she said that he’d talked about “jacking and robbing” places around town. Eventually she said he’d talked about robbing Taco Bell.

Liliana Segura: Then, she took it all back. She testified at Inman’s trial that she’d been coerced by the GBI into implicating him. When we met Thomas, she was filled with remorse. She had only recently gotten out of prison herself and her son was serving an 80-year sentence for a robbery murder. She told us she thinks about Inman all the time.

Marquetta Thomas: I haven’t spoke with him. I would like to, but I don’t know if I could handle his rage if he is angry or mad or hurt because of what I said or did, which I’ll accept, but I would like forgiveness. That would be peace.

Liliana Segura: She also told us that she had worked hard to turn her life around. She became involved with a ministry while in prison. When she got out, they put her up in an apartment and paid the rent for three months so that she could get job training. She found work in a warehouse and devoted herself to her church. Now she’s a youth minister and sings in a traveling choir.

Jordan Smith: You should sing for us.

Marquetta Thomas: I will. I can. I can. I’m not shy, it’s a gift. Let me see what I could sing. Here’s just a worship song that we sing. It’s called How Great Our God. Let me get my breath right.

[SINGING]

Jordan Smith: Look. We liked Thomas. She was personable and open. But, you know, she’s also- what’s the word? Complicated. This too comes back to the GBI report. We’ve talked a lot about how confusing it is. And about how some key things — like really any mention of Hercules — seem to be absent. But what we haven’t said before is that Marquetta Thomas is all over it and not just as the person that implicates Inman. A lot of people around town seem to think she had something to do with the murder at Taco Bell. We didn’t bring this up before because, honestly, it raises way more questions than answers.

Earline Goodman: Marquetta, I’ll never forget Marquetta. Marquetta was something else. Do I believe Marquetta was involved? Yes, I think so, because Marquetta was involved in everything in Adel it seemed like.

Liliana Segura: That’s Earline Goodman again. She’s not the only one with that impression of Thomas. When it came to the murder at Taco Bell, a bunch of people had stories for the cops that somehow involved Thomas. One was her manager at Waffle House. Remember, Thomas worked the night shift there. But the night of Donna Brown’s murder, the manager said Thomas didn’t show up for work. Then, the next day, she showed up acting so nervous the manager sent her home. A different woman, who worked at the Hampton Inn, had some third-hand information to share. She’d heard that Thomas was initially planning to rob a convenience store with her sister’s boyfriend. In other words, Inman. But when they got there it was closed, so they decided to rob the Taco Bell instead. This was pretty sketchy stuff, but we asked Thomas about it.

Jordan Smith: What’s weird is in the big police report, there are places in there where people are basically pointing at you as possibly having been involved in that crime.

Marquetta Thomas: Right, I heard about that a while later, but it didn’t bother me because I didn’t have anything to do with it or I wasn’t around, so it really didn’t bother me at all, didn’t penetrate me, because I was like, “Yeah, whatever. Yeah right.”

Jordan Smith: Whatever might’ve been behind these various rumors, it’s hard to know what the cops made of them, if anything. In part, because the GBI report, as you know, is totally opaque. In fact, the report was so confusing, at a certain point Liliana decided to make a master timeline. One that included everything that happened in Adel over a period of about two years, and including all four murders. It was to get a better sense of how all the pieces fit. It became an epic document, like 15 pages long. And when you read it? There are things that really jump out.

Liliana Segura: One of the main things is what happens after November 11, 1998 — roughly two months after Donna Brown’s murder. Until then, the cops don’t seem to be all that interested in what people have said about Thomas, only what she said about Inman. But on that day, the Adel News Tribune runs a front page story identifying Inman as the “prime” suspect in the murder at Taco Bell. That same day, Thomas is booked into jail in a neighboring county on a totally unrelated charge. And then it just gets weird. Within a week, Agent Steinberg is all over Thomas. Interviewing all kinds of people about her.

Jordan Smith: There are a couple possible reasons for the sudden interest. The first? Virginia Tatem. Remember, she’s the newspaper carrier who had a dramatic story about seeing Inman fleeing the Taco Bell the night of the murder. A story she never bothered to mention until after there was a hefty reward offered for information about the crime. And a story that was totally implausible. A story that her fellow newspaper carrier, Lee Grimes, says was a total lie. Tatem also told the GBI she saw a woman in a second car that night, one the cops decided looked like Marquetta Thomas. This could explain their sudden interest in her. It could explain it. But what it doesn’t explain is the one thing that Thomas has insisted on for years: that early on she had recanted her story about Inman’s involvement in the murder. This is conspicuously absent from the GBI report.

Marquetta Thomas: And I was like, “Yeah, he didn’t do it.” I don’t know if they recorded it…

Liliana Segura: There’s something even bigger that is also missing from the GBI report. Something we only discovered earlier this year at the end of our reporting. That there was another person who came forward with information that should have made investigators question whether Inman was really the right suspect. And that’s Kim Brooks.

Jordan Smith: Brooks is the woman who took over as Taco Bell manager after Donna Brown died and who tried to tell the police that her co-worker, Hercules Brown, was acting odd and that he’d all but confessed his involvement in the murder. Remember, this is the new evidence contained an appeal filed last winter. It is still pending. According to Brooks, she came forward with this information by December of 1998. But, as usual, instead of looking at Hercules, the cops looked away. They seemed to obsess over Marquetta Thomas. It’s pretty inexplicable, but totally par for the course.

Liliana Segura: They talked to a couple of Thomas’ old school counselors, then a guard and a nurse at the jail, and then a bunch of jailhouse snitches. Women who said Thomas had variously confessed to being involved in Donna Brown’s murder. One said she mentioned having $800 from the crime. Another said Thomas had bragged about burying the gun. A third mentioned something pretty out there about Thomas having made a bomb from a Coke can.

Jordan Smith: This is how they spent the month of December. No sign of Hercules in the report. By the end of the year, Steinberg had refocused all of his attention on Inman. There is one sign in the report that Hercules was on their radar. Less than a week before Inman was indicted for murder, on January 4, 1999, Steinberg got a tip that Hercules shot Donna Brown and tossed the gun behind a convenience store. That same day, he went to the store. He didn’t find anything. And that was it, it was over.

Liliana Segura: So, what does this all mean? Jordan and I have had this conversation too many times to count.

Jordan Smith: To me, it’s just that GBI report is just a hot mess. It’s a pretty crappy narrative of a pretty important investigation. So you’ve got a woman, Donna Brown, brutally murdered, and she deserves justice. But you’ve also got someone who could potentially be sentenced to death. Inman wasn’t, but that was on the table. I mean, there’s a premium on getting this shit right. And it doesn’t seem that anyone really cared about that. And the one thing we know for sure is that Hercules was in Donna Brown’s car. And he’s the only one that the evidence shows was involved in her murder. The only one. And they completely ignored him. Even when they were told multiple times about his involvement. And then even more egregious, when they found out there was DNA tying him to the crime, they essentially shrugged their shoulders.

Liliana Segura: For me, when I back up and look at everything that happened after Kim Brooks comes forward, it’s just so damning. Here was this woman who was courageous enough to contact police, not just to share information that might be relevant to the murder of Donna Brown, but to warn them that Hercules was a dangerous man. If you look at the overall timeline, every time Hercules comes up after Inman is indicted, he’s committing some kind of violence. There’s the woman he beats up in June of 1999, then the man he sent to the hospital the following summer. And then, just a month and a half before Hercules kills Bennett and Browning, there’s his run-in with police, where they find a gun and a black cloth cap with two eye holes cut out. It’s like this rolling disaster in slow motion.

Jordan Smith: And then there’s Shailesh Patel.

Liliana Segura: Right. He’s killed right in the middle of all of this. And his murder is still unsolved.

Jordan Smith: Exactly. Is there a connection? We don’t know.

Liliana Segura: Did anyone look for one? We don’t know that either.

Jordan Smith: We decided to check in one last time, to see if the GBI had any updates about that supposedly ongoing investigation. We called agent Mark Pro.

Mark Pro: We’re trying to do some stuff, the case agent has got some stuff that he’s trying to do as far as any physical evidence that they’re trying to work on. Basically that’s where he’s at. He’s got some people that he has to make contact with. Once he does that and secures stuff with him, we’re going to have to have that stuff tested. Then we’ll kind of go and see what we got once we do that, that could be something that could be, I don’t want to say something that will…

Jordan Smith: Again, it was a bunch of bullshit.

Mark Pro: …help us in a direction that we need to go based on what he’s looking at right now because we’ve been going in a direction but if the information doesn’t pan out the way we think it will, we’ll have to take a new direction.

Liliana Segura: Okay, just to be clear, the physical evidence you’re talking about for testing, is that new evidence?

Mark Pro: No, we’re just following up on existing evidence that we have. It’s nothing new.

Liliana Segura: Is there a potential suspect in the case?

Mark Pro: No, not right now.

Jordan Smith: Not very enlightening.

Liliana Segura: Over the last 20 years, Inman has been transferred a bunch of times, to prisons all over the state. We sent him a card around Christmas last year, but we never heard back. Then in January his mom, Dinah Ray, told us he’d been transferred again, to one of the most notoriously violent prisons in Georgia. She sends us emails pretty regularly, asking about our investigation. But sometimes, she also talks about how she’s feeling and her guilt about sending Inman to Adel in the first place.

Jordan Smith: She wrote to us: “I have taken over half my son’s life away by leaving him there. Never in a million years did I think this would ever happen to him, I still think this is a dream that I can’t wake up from.”  She wrote that Inman tells her that he doesn’t blame her, that it isn’t her fault.

Liliana Segura: “But it was,” she wrote. “A mom is suppose to protect her kids and I failed him and I will have to live with that for the rest of my life.”

Jordan Smith: She tries to keep busy. Because, “when I sit still,” she wrote, “I can hear my son saying to me over and over, mom, don’t leave me. It’s like a recorder I can’t turn off.”

Liliana Segura: For now, she’s waiting to find out if her son’s appeal will be granted and she’s grateful for all the people who are trying to help him. “It gives us hope,” she wrote. “I just pray that whoever has the authority to make it right, does so.”

Murderville, Georgia is a production of The Intercept and Topic Studios. Alisa Roth is our producer. Ben Adair is our editor. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Bryan Pugh. Production assistance from Isabel Robertson. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. For The Intercept, Roger Hodge is our editor and Betsy Reed is the editor-in-chief. I’m Liliana Segura. And I’m Jordan Smith. You can read our series and see photos at theintercept.com/murderville. You can also follow us on Twitter @lilianasegura and @chronic_jordan. Thanks for listening.