Murder In Oak Meadow|
Georgia Online News Service
I've always felt safe at home.
About 16 years ago, my wife Eileen and I and our two daughters moved into a new home built for us by one of my old high school football teammates in the Atlanta suburb of Snellville. Our subdivision, Oak Meadow, is made up of about 100 homes, most of which are more comfortable than fancy. It is a great place for young families seeking a "starter" home.
For us, it is our starter and finisher home. We'd moved 17 times before coming here. Most of that time we'd lived in rental houses, because moving up in my work as a journalist often meant moving out of town.
I'd never done more in the way of yard work than mow someone else's lawn. But once we settled in Snellville, I discovered a passion for landscaping and gardening. I planted weeping cherry trees, flowering crabapple and peach trees and lilacs and firethorns in what had been a bare backyard, and a glorious pink-blooming cherry to complement the young pecan tree in front. I scoured Georgia for pieces of colored rocks for the border of a perennial garden where I grew dahlias and peonies and hollyhocks and irises and gladiolas and calla lilies and dozens of other varieties.
Oak Meadow is a little hard to find, which is just fine with most of the residents. There was a protest, when a developer wanted to connect the back end of the subdivision to another arterial road. To get to the lone subdivision entrance, one must take a winding road that looks more like a driveway leading from an arterial road, and twisting behind a little Baptist church. People rarely come here, unless they belong here.
Nothing ever happened to disturb my rock-solid sense of security – until a recent Sunday afternoon. I had hurried home from the gym to catch a pro football playoff game, and as I pulled into my garage, I saw two crime-scene vans parked beside my garden.
At least a half dozen other police vehicles were parked at or near the house across the street from my backyard. Other patrol cars were being used to block traffic on the street in both directions. Yellow crime-scene tape was stretched across the front yard of the house. There were 20 or more pink evidence markers in the home's driveway, and a trail of flag-like markers led away from the driveway and into the home's backyard.
I was startled, but not shocked.
About a year ago, a couple in their 60s bought the house. They shared it with the wife's elderly mother and a teenage boy, their grandson.
The home quickly became a hangout for young people. On most nights, there were three or four cars in the driveway. Small groups of teens talked and otherwise goofed around in the driveway, the action often spilling over to my backyard. Other than picking up the soft drink and beer cans they frequently left behind them, I had no problems with them.
But I knew their activities had galvanized the subdivision's Crime Watch group into a higher state of alert. Police had been called to the house more than once to quiet the kids down. Rumors of drug dealing flourished on the neighborhood grapevine.
Still, I had no run-ins, until the day in late December, when a neighbor lady rang my front door bell to report that someone had pulled out of the driveway of the home across from my backyard and bashed in the door of the pickup truck I'd parked on the street. It was an old truck, but it was borrowed from my son-in-law, and now its driver's-side door was deeply dented. What made me really upset, though, was the fact that the offending driver had simply driven off.
I went to the house — the first time I'd ever spoken to anyone there — and confronted the three teens in the yard with the eye-witness reports of the hit and run. One boy was indignant, another tried to suggest that a driver from another house had done it. They all professed ignorance when I pressed them for the driver's identity. I asked to speak with an adult, and the boy who lived there, I'll call him Corey, said his grandmother was sleeping. I insisted, and he went in and fetched a young woman, who came out and said maybe somebody named Vincent was the driver, but she didn't know him.
Later, I saw Corey's grandmother at the house and came back to involve her in the investigation. She agreed that the driver was wrong to drive off and said she'd help find the mysterious Vincent.
Two days later, my daughter and granddaughters came over for a visit. They came through the front door, which I rarely use, and breathlessly asked, "What happened to the porch?" I stepped outside and saw that the powder-blue siding of my house had been splattered with pink paint. Fortunately, it was one of those rainy days, and the dampness made it easy to wipe off the splotches left by some cowardly paintballer.
Now, I was really angry. I marched back to the house across from my garden, and confronted Corey and his grandmother with the latest outrage. Corey professed his innocence and informed me that he knew an Asian teenager who lives up the street that was known to enjoy playing with paintball guns. Corey's grandmother sympathized with my anger, and she said she would see that Corey would provide me with contact information for the young woman, whom I'll call Becky, who was at the house at the time of the pickup bashing.
I went off in a huff to the Asian family's home, taking the pinkish rag I'd used to wipe off my porch as evidence. The father said he'd never seen his son with a paintball gun, but he promised to inquire. Later, the father said his son hadn't been involved, and I believed him.
The next day, Corey, under his grandmother's stern gaze, still claimed he didn't know anything about the accident. But he gave me Becky's cell phone number and directions to a house where I might find her. I went there and was met at the door by the homeowner, Becky's grandfather.
He was very familiar with the group of kids I was talking about. He said he'd had to threaten violence to run them off his property. He suspected them of breaking into his house and stealing items, including a gun. He promised to get word to Becky that she needed to call me.
Hours later, Becky called. Her cooperative tone told me right away that the game-playing was over. She admitted that she and all the others who'd been at the house that day knew who the hit-and-run driver was. She gave me his address and phone number.
Then, more than a week after the incident, I found the boy who did it. His mother was home. I told her what had happened. The boy denied being involved. I told him I knew he was lying. He then tried to suggest someone else had done it. I reminded him that I had eyewitnesses, and that leaving the scene of an accident was a crime. Did he really want a dented pickup truck to cost him his driving privileges? The boy's mother assured me that this would all be straightened out.
That night, the boy came over to my house, admitted what he'd done and apologized for lying. I thanked him for his honesty and told him I'd be back in touch after I'd obtained a repair estimate. That case seemed closed, but a new one was about to be opened.
Less than a week later, the police were out in force at the house across from my garden. They'd been summoned by Corey's grandmother, after she found that her 88-year-old mother, Beulah Viola Gotwalt, was lying unresponsive in her bed.
The first officer on the scene reported that he found Mrs. Gotwalt dead, with injuries that were later confirmed to be stab wounds. The case then became a murder investigation. No arrests have been made.
Since that Sunday, no groups of young people have been hanging out at the house across from my garden. A half-dozen pennies remain in the driveway, apparently left by police photographers who used the coins to gauge the size of bits of evidence they'd photographed. The path of flag markers remains, perhaps showing the killer's escape route.
I had been unsettled by the minor-league vandalism, irresponsibility and deceit that had come from people at my neighbor's house. Things like that just don't happen in Oak Meadow. The evil that followed shouldn't happen anywhere.
I still take my nightly walks around the subdivision. As I pass the now-quiet house, my sense of safety is only slightly diminished — but my illusions that my little neighborhood was somehow a safe haven from the ills of the outside world have been shattered.
Bill Osinski has been a reporter for 36 years and during his tenure at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he reported from 130 of Georgia's 159 counties for his Main Street Georgia column and for in-depth stories. Osinski was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting. [full bio]