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End of innocence: The unsolved murder of Leigh Bell, 40 years later

The Macon County Courthouse in Oglethorpe was the scene of the trial of George Gignilliat for the June 1979 rape and murder of 15-year-old Leigh Bell.

Sumter County Deputy Sheriff Chuck Hanks is shown in November 1979, with George Gignilliat, in cuffs, and his court-appointed attorney, William Tarver.

Part 4: The trial, a verdict, and fresh information

 

By Beth Alston

 

NOTE: The information contained in this five-part series is taken from the murder case file and interviews with key individuals, and media reports. Those interviewed include law enforcement and other first responders, a local journalist, and friends and family of Leigh Bell. The case was officially closed on Feb. 15, 2019, by Lewis Lamb, Southwestern Judicial Circuit District Attorney, following the death of the last suspect. Leigh Bell, a 15-year-old cheerleader, and daughter of the Americus city manager Leland Bell, disappeared on the evening of June 6, 1979.

 

 

AMERICUS — The rape and murder trial of George Gignilliat, having been moved from Sumter to Macon County by Superior Court Judge William F. Blanks at the request of co-defense attorney William Tarver, lasted four days at the county courthouse in Oglethorpe, beginning on Tuesday, Jan. 29 and concluding Friday night, Feb.1, 1980.

It was on the second day of testimony when the state’s start witness, its 25th witness, Debra Slaughter, Gignilliat’s girlfriend, was called by the state. She testified, as she had during the committal hearing, to having given the authorities permission to search her car, the Camaro Gignilliat had driven on the night of June 6.

At Special Prosecutor J. Frank Myers’ urging, Slaughter began to relate what had occurred after her car had been returned to her, when she finally told Gignilliat that she had allowed the car to be searched. Slaughter had testified during the committal hearing that Gignilliat, in the presence of Bishop and his girlfriend Paula Shoupe, had said he raped and murdered Bell. But on this day in court, Jan. 31, Slaughter made a complete 180-degree turn and testified that Gignilliat had said to her, “Debra, you think I did it. Well, what do you want me to do? Do you want me to say I did it?”

Myers reacted quickly, reminding Slaughter what she had testified to during the committal hearing. Slaughter said she had told Myers that Gignilliat told her he had done it but was not saying that today in court. Myers, addressing the judge, said he wanted to “plead surprise and treat her as a hostile witness.” He also requested to “make a showing on it,” and wanted to read the transcript of Slaughter’s previous testimony. District Attorney Claude Morris told the judge he thought the jury should not be in the room which was echoed by co-defense counsel Lyn O’Berry. The jury was removed and O’Berry asked to speak following the district attorney.

Myers told the court that he had given Slaughter a copy of her previous testimony the Saturday before the trial started and asked if that was what she was testify to at trial. He said Slaughter told him she didn’t have any choice but to do so. O’Berry told the court he, too, had spoken with Slaughter and she told him the state advised her that if she failed to testify exactly as she had before, she would be charged with perjury. O’Berry said being that the state knew previously of inconsistencies in Slaughter’s statements, they could not come into court and treat her as a hostile witness.

Myers asked the judge to allow him to ask Slaughter “leading questions” to show that other statements made by Slaughter would also be denied by her in court. The judge concurred, saying that if Slaughter admits them, there would be no problem but should she deny them Myers would have the opportunity to prove them, and Slaughter could give her reason for making the statement, and it would be up to the jury to determine what weight they should put on her testimony.

After the jury was brought back into the courtroom, Myers started again with Slaughter. He asked questions about the GBI finding blood in her car to which Slaughter responded she had first thought it was dog’s blood but later found out an injured dog had not been taken to the veterinarian in her car. She testified that her car had been cleaned at the Tripp Street Standard Station. Myers asked about her previously telling authorities that her car had not been cleaned for two or three months when she gave permission for it to be searched. This line of questioning continued at length.

O’Berry requested that the jury be removed when Myers questioned Slaughter about having given him an audio tape she had made containing what she had testified to at the committal hearing. She said the tape had mostly to do with herself and it was her discussion of Gignilliat’s “different personalities.” The judge instructed Myers not to ask Slaughter any more questions about the tape and instructed the jury to disregard the answer. At that point, O’Berry advised the court that the defense wanted to interpose a motion for a mistrial. “We don’t think that could in anyway be cured by admonishment to the jury.” The judge overruled the motion. Myers continued his questioning of Slaughter, asking about the argument she and Gignilliat had. She said she had been confused at the time when she had been questioned about that night. O’Berry objected when Myers asked the same question again. The judge ordered the jury to be removed again.

This legal wrangling continued for some time.

Myers reiterated to the judge that Slaughter had just come into court and changed her statement. “But the witness has to testify to the truth, Mr. Myers, not you,” the judge said. “But do I have a right to …” Myers started to ask, and was interrupted by the court. The judge said they were getting “farther and farther afield … What she said previously is not testimony in this trial. The testimony in this trial is what she’s going to say. Now, everything she said previously, you’re using to diminish her credibility. It attacks her believability as a witness.” The judge said it had a negative effect. “It does not have a positive effect on the evidentiary picture of this trial.”

The judge said he was still trying to determine if Myers was still impeaching the witness or was interrogating her about what happened. The judge, reading from his charge book, explained the lawful way a witness can be impeached. He told Myers that at issue was a group of statements made by Gignilliat or Slaughter and he wanted to “get back to basics.” He said what they were getting into was a group of statements made by Myers that were “extrajudicial and made out of the presence of the jury, out of the presence of the court, not on this witness stand, that could hopelessly prejudice this jury as to any impartial decision that they had to make.”

Myers said if he had made any such statements, he apologized. The judge said Myers had to elicit testimony from the witness in order to impeach her, disagree with it, and give her an opportunity to reconcile it. If she doesn’t reconcile it, Myers could then bring in independent proof.

“But this is how it has to proceed,” the judge stated. “Now we’re not going with a rifle approach. We’ve got a double barrel sawed off shotgun and we’ve just sprayed numerous shots out in the general direction of the jury. And there’s no way they can understand it, and I want to get this case back to the basic issue.”

Myers asked Slaughter if she had told the sheriff or Myers on any occasion that when Gignilliat came to her apartment on the night of June 6 that she and Gignilliat had an argument and he slept on the couch while she slept in the bed and she did not know if he left during the night or not. Slaughter did not respond. The judge ordered her to answer and she said yes, she had said that previously. Slaughter said she had told them that between 6 and 7 a.m. Friday but the more she talked about it she didn’t know exactly when.

The judge then explained to the jury that impeaching a witness “is to establish that he or she is unworthy of belief.” He also cautioned the jury that any testimony made anywhere other than the witness stand would not be considered as probative evidence, and could not be used to determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The judge said such statements could be admitted only to discredit Slaughter’s credibility.

 

More on Dr. Wiggins

O’Berry, on cross-examination, questioned Slaughter about her days and nights in the Best Western Motel in Dr. Stewart Wiggins’ room. Wiggins was a clinical psychologist from the Medical College of Georgia brought in by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to help in the state’s case. Slaughter said she was questioned by Wiggins until 3 a.m. each night and then get up the next morning when questioning began again. She said she was provided one meal a day, served between 10:30 and 11 p.m. She said Wiggins mixed her drinks “all day long,” and Wiggins had drinks as well. She also testified that Wiggins had a gun which he showed her, as well as some other weapons he wanted her to identify as evidence. She testified that one weapon was a shotgun and Wiggins taught her how to shoot it. She said she was “very tired” during the days and nights of interrogation by Wiggins.

 

A conversation overheard

Melanie Bartlett Rushin was called to the stand, testifying she had overheard a conversation between Gignilliat and Derek Henderson at Syndey Green Elephant, a popular night spot, about a week and half to two weeks after Bell’s disappearance. She told the court the two men talked about the fight Gignilliat had been involved in with George Davenport, Bell’s half-brother, and that Gignilliat commented “ … he got me that time but I got his.” Rushin said that Henderson asked Gignilliat about the condition of the car to which Gignilliat responded, “I think I got it clean. I don’t think Debra’s worried.” At some point in the two men’s conversation, Gignilliat, according to Rushin, said to Henderson, “ … Don’t talk to loud.  You’ll tell it all.”

 

Law enforcement testimony, and the doctor again

Other witnesses were called, among them Sumter County Sheriff Randy Howard, who was asked by Myers about the condition of Slaughter’s car when it was searched, as well as other matters.

On the matter of Slaughter and Wiggins in the Best Western Motel, the sheriff said he was unaware that Slaughter was in the motel. He said he knew Wiggins was, because his office had made the motel reservations. He told the court that a deputy on routine patrol that Wednesday morning had spotted Slaughter’s car at the motel and that’s when he and GBI Special Agent Jim Baker became concerned and set up surveillance on the room. He said they called Wiggins’ room and no one answered. They knocked on the door and no one answered. He told the court he did not see Slaughter until Thursday. He testified that Slaughter had not been ordered to go to the motel and she told them she feared for her life and for her family. Howard said they provided a guard who escorted Slaughter’s mother and sister from school and work to the Best Western Motel.

On cross-examination by O’Berry, Howard was asked if he had sworn out a warrant for Wiggins for aggravated assault on the Saturday morning after he left the motel. Howard said yes and O’Berry asked the sheriff if it was because Wiggins had attempted to murder a deputy sheriff. “I don’t know whether it was attempted murder,” Howard testified. “He pulled a firearm on a deputy in a patrol car.” Howard later told the court that Wiggins had been indicted for aggravated assault.

O’Berry asked the sheriff about allowing Slaughter free access to Gignilliat while he was in jail awaiting trial. Howard told the court that he often made arrangements so that family of inmates could visit on weekends and/or weekdays, and Gignilliat could have no visitors without Howard’s “personal knowledge,” and Gignilliat had no family to come and visit him.

Myers called Jim Baker to the stand and questioned him about Gignilliat’s arrest and reading the defendant his rights. Baker testified that he had read Gignilliat his rights after they put him in a patrol car for transport from Warner Robins back to Americus.

The jury was removed from the courtroom for the Jackson-Denno hearing. This comes from a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Jackson vs. Denno) which requires a trial court to hold an evidentiary hearing outside the presence of the jury to determine if a criminal defendant’s confession is voluntary and can be admissible in the trial, according to uslegal.com

O’Berry called George Gignilliat to the stand to refute Baker’s testimony. The defendant testified that he was not advised of his rights when he was arrested and was first advised at his arraignment hearing.

Randy Howard

Under cross by Myers, Gignilliat said neither Howard nor Baker ever read him his rights when he was arrested. When Howard was brought back on the stand by the state, he testified that Gignilliat had been read his rights.

 

Forensic evidence

Two GBI agents and a female Americus Police officer gave testimony about taking evidence (pubic hair and head hair samples) from Slaughter to the crime lab for examination.

Dr. Larry Howard, head of the state crime lab, testified about his autopsy findings of Bell’s body. He placed the time of death at around midnight, June 6, “plus or minus several hours.’ Another GBI agent, a forensic serologist, testified about the examination of Slaughter’s car. Microanalyst, John Simms, testified that pubic hair found on Bell’s body could be Gignilliat’s. Simms also told the court that the hair taken from the back seat of Slaughter’s car bore an “overwhelming similarity” to those head hairs taken from Bell.

Under cross-examination by O’Berry, Simms could not say the hair samples were the same identical hair, yet under examination in the laboratory, “there is a strong preponderance that the hairs did have a common origin.” A forensic serologist at the state crime lab, John Wegel, testified that he found traces of blood in the backseat area of Slaughter’s car but it was such a small amount that it could be determined to be animal or human blood.

 

Who was where and when

Betty Farr was called to the stand, testifying for the defense that she had seen Gignilliat at the ballfields around 7 p.m. June 6 the first time and later around 9:30 p.m. and that Gignilliat, Derek Henderson, Cathy Bell, George Davenport, and her husband James Farr were standing behind the bleachers talking. She said she left around 9:55 and did not return to the ballpark that night.

Greg Farr

Greg Farr was called as witness for the defense and testified he arrived at the ballpark around 9 or 9:30 p.m. June 6. He stated that he, Gignilliat, Henderson, and Randy Bishop sat together and drank a few beers and stayed until around 10:30 p.m. when the game was over and the lights were turned off. He testified that he saw Gignilliat “off and on” from the time he arrived at the ballpark until the time he left. He also said the car Gignilliat was driving, his girlfriend’s car, did not leave the ballpark during that time either because “they had some beer in it and I was drinking beer out of their car.” O’Berry asked about there being any rules regarding beer at the ballpark and Farr said it was supposed to be put in a cup. “You’re not supposed to drink it, but everybody puts it in a cup,” Farr said. He also testified that George Davenport had been his roommate until about a week after June 6. Farr said he had talked with the sheriff and Jim Baker. On cross-examination, Myers asked Farr if Gignilliat had ever lived with him or ever spent the night at his house or visited Farr’s house after the fire (Aug. 28, 1979). Farr said no. Farr stated he and his father had given a statement to the sheriff on June 11, 1979. Myers read from that statement that Greg Farr had told the sheriff that Gignilliat had hurt his foot at a party at Greg’s on Monday night (June 4). When Myers cited inconsistencies between what Greg Farr had just told O’Berry in court, and what he had said in a statement to the sheriff on June 11, Farr said the sheriff had not written down everything he had said. Myers asked if Gignilliat’s clothes and mattress were at Greg Farr’s house when the fire occurred. Farr said some of Gignilliat’s clothing was at Farr’s residence, and Gignilliat’s mattress, and that Gignilliat had stayed at Farr’s house one night.

James Farr took the stand, testifying that he saw Gignilliat at the ball park June 6 around 8 or 8:15 p.m. and saw him on and off that evening and did not see him leave.

Nelson Brown

The defense next called three members of the Americus Police Department — Nelson Brown, Johnny King, and Moses Bridges. All three testified they viewed the sheriff’s character as “bad”

Johnny King

and that he was not to be believed under oath. They all said the same about Jim Baker with the GBI.

The defense rested at that point.

Sheriff Howard was recalled by the state to rebut the testimony of James and Greg Farr. Howard testified that when he interviewed the father and son on June 11 at the family business in Americus, they both told him they had arrived at the ballpark around 9 p.m. June 6. He told the court he took notes on a legal pad during the 30- to 45-minute interview. On cross-examination by O’Berry, Howard said he and the Farrs also discussed furniture during that time and a customer came and went, and Howard used the phone twice.

In his 65-minute closing statement, O’Berry charged that the state “put together a case against George Gignilliat and forgot about everyone else. They came up with a shotgun and ended up firing a pop gun.” The Times-Recorder reported O’Berry calling evidence against Gignilliat circumstantial, and the state was trying to convict the defendant “on the flimsiest of evidence.” Tarver, defense co-counsel, said the state “went out and found a scapegoat and railroaded him in here.”

Special Prosecutor Myers, in his hour-long closing, said “overwhelming circumstantial evidence and direct evidence had been proven and that it must be admitted by reasonable hypothesis that George Gignilliat committed the crime” as reported in the Times-Recorder.

 

The verdict

The jury was charged and sent out to deliberate. According to the Americus Times-Recorder, the jury of 11 women and one man took almost four hours to reach their conclusion.

Leila Barrett (Case), a reporter with the Americus Times-Recorder at the time, waited for the jury to come back with its verdict. She said when the jury was ready, everyone returned to the courtroom from the hallway, the doors were locked and state troopers, sheriff’s and police officers, “shoulder to shoulder,” stood around the room.

“After the verdict of not guilty was read,” Case told the Times-Recorder for this series, “the judge banged the bar and said ‘remain seated until the defendant is out of the courthouse and off the grounds.’”

“Everybody was stunned,” Case said. “The Bells were in tears; the whole family broke down,” she said.

“There was obvious surprise and almost disbelief on the faces of most of the some 200 persons who sat quietly as they waited for the panel to file into the courtroom,” wrote then-managing editor Rudy Hayes for the Times-Recorder. Hayes wrote that Gignilliat, sitting between the two defense attorneys, “looked quizzically from one to the other as if he did not comprehend what had happened. Then he began sobbing quietly,” before the judge ordered him to be escorted out.

 

A ‘second investigation’

Two weeks after Gignilliat’s acquittal, Judge William F. Blanks banished him from Sumter County. The case went cold. Although still officially unsolved, nothing else was done on the case, that is, until sometime between 1997 and 2000, when a confidential informant approached someone he knew and trusted, someone who previously had been in law enforcement. The informant had some “fresh” information about the Leigh Bell case he wanted to share.

 

Read about the new information in Part 5 in the July 3 edition of the Times-Recorder, as well as hearing from the victim’s mother.