AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) – Two victims presumed dead by Richmond County remain at the center of major law enforcement investigations and the hearts and minds of their loved ones. Proving murder happened in both cases will take mounds of evidence, but the feat is not impossible. NewsChannel 6’s Renetta DuBose reports on a case from the late 1990s where local law enforcement officials put a man behind bars who thought he would never get caught because there was no body to be found.
Nearly two decades separate LaTania Janell Carwell and Preston Overton from a man named William Alvin Hamilton. As the Richmond County District Attorney and law enforcement work to prove someone killed 16-year-old Carwell and Overton, who was 28 at the time, they will be working in the shadows of Al Hamilton’s case that sent his killer to jail for life with no body.
Paige Boone knows what it’s like to have an apparent murder of a loved one, yet never having a proper burial or someone in jail for the crime.
“He’s gone,” Boone told DuBose. “We have no hope of finding him alive, but we would like to find his body.”
Preston Overton is indeed gone after picking a friend up one June night.
“I didn’t want him to leave that night,” his fiancé recalled, “but he had already told DK that he would give him a ride and DK didn’t have a phone so that he could tell him otherwise so he said he had to go.”
Another case Richmond County Sheriff’s Office investigators and others are looking into is that of 16-year-old LaTania Janell Carwell.
“Our main goal is to recover Ms. Carwell’s body and the successful prosecution of this case,” Sheriff Richard Roundtree told media during a press conference following hours of searching a suspected area where her remains might be. That case is also awaiting its justice.
Like Overton, Carwell is also gone after Easter morning services. She was never seen again by anyone outside her Augusta home. But where are their bodies? The events leading up to and after their disappearances left behind traces of evidence. But will it be enough to prove the men and women behind bars charged with the crime did it?
Bobby Christine knows with just the right amount of evidence, it can be done.
“Everybody we encountered getting ready for this case we would talk to a witness or whatever, always started by saying, ‘well y’all aren’t’ charging this guy with murder are ya?’ Because you couldn’t find a body. Nobody would believe that we could win a conviction, which the jury did very rapidly,” he said while reflecting on a very old case he served on during his time as Assistant District Attorney.
Well, it’s happened before. A murder conviction with no body. NewsChannel 6 sat down with Bobby Christine, a local lawyer and judge, who in 1999 served as lead prosecutor on a case similar to Carwell and Overton’s cases. William Alvin Hamilton. Like the present day cases, he was missing for a short time before presumed dead without ever finding his remains. Rodney Richardson is serving two life sentences for the crime he thought he would get away with because he did away with Hamilton’s body.
“People lie. Witnesses lie. Families lie. Suspects lie. Forensic evidence does not lie,” said Sergeant DeWayne Piper, who is now over Miami Gardens’ Special Victims Unit.
Back in 1998, he was working with the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office’s Homicide division. That’s when Al Hamilton’s case hit his desk.
“Everything about him being missing was out of character for his life,” he began during a taped interview with DuBose.
Al Hamilton lived and worked in Augusta. The 46-year-old was known to be a nice man who loved to work on cars. At night, he worked at The Discotheque Lounge, which is exactly where he was last seen on the night of August 14, 1998, leaving the business in his 1987 gray Ford Tempo.
“Him being gone and his car being gone and his family and social network having had no contact with him since he was last seen leaving work was suspicious,” Sgt. Piper noted.
During his work as lead investigator on the case, Sgt. Piper said he realized only one thing connected Hamilton with Richardson; a woman. And it was a love triangle that lead to Hamilton’s death and Richardson’s life long time in the pen.
NewsChannel 6 obtained cassette tapes from files of the Hamilton case.
Shelly Sharpe: “They can’t find his body. They can’t find his body. You know what I’m saying?”
Rodney Richardson: “I see what you’re saying but I don’t want to talk about it Shelly.”
Shelly: “Why not?”
Rodney: “Why not?”
A police bug in the home of Shelly Sharpe, Richardson’s ex-wife and Hamilton’s girlfriend, helped lead detectives to the truth. Was Al Hamilton murdered by Rodney Richardson?
But let’s explore the circumstantial evidence used in court, first. A barrage of witnesses, clothes, money and Hamilton’s home in the 1900 block of Elizabeth Drive were all used as evidence needed to bring the case to justice. Presumably Hamilton was headed home after he left work. Piper said Richardson was there waiting. Boxes of evidence in the District Attorney’s office reveal Richardson was at Augusta Manor, his ex-mother-in-law’s place off Mike Padgett Highway, around 11 o’clock on the night of the 14. After a threatening argument over the phone with Hamilton, Richardson asked a neighbor for a ride to his mother’s house. The directions he gave the neighbor, down Highway 56 to Phinizy Road to Old Louisville Road and Elizabeth Drive, put him on the same block Hamilton lived.
Sgt. Piper added, “Everything at the scene indicated that it was an ambush where Richardson, based on the timeline of where he was dropped off a block or so away from the crime scene was shortly before Al Hamilton got off work, which would have given him time to get to the house and hide and lay and wait for Al Hamilton to get home.”
Al Hamilton was killed in his home. And Richardson set it on fire to cover it up. But instead of getting away with it, he locked his own jail cell with the blaze.
“The heat and the fire actually seared the blood stains and the blood spatter onto the dry wall. The soot then covered it and preserved it perfectly,” the investigator said, adding it was Mark Bowen, who is currently the county coroner, who noticed something strange on the wall.
While there was blood in Hamilton’s home, proved to be his through a DNA paternity test taken years earlier, Piper said law enforcement still needed to prove it was enough blood to kill Hamilton and that Richardson was there too, dealing the deadly blows.
“It’s a simple mathematical equation,” Piper started. “Taking the length and the width of the impact stains and these happen to be medium velocity impact stains, which is indicative of being struck with a blunt object.”
Witnesses told law enforcement Richardson was looking for an aluminum bat a week before Hamilton disappeared. It’s the object Piper said could have been used to cast off blood stains in the home. Working with the GBI, Christine and his cohort at the time, Assistant District Attorney Scott Connell proved murder in court.
“A medical examiner from the GBI crime lab was able to testify that the quantity of blood found in the home and the nature of its array was likely brought about by repeated and severe head trauma, battery to the head, sufficient to have killed the victim,” Christine said.
In addition to being dropped off near Hamilton’s home hours before he was to clock out of work, police placed Richardson in the Elizabeth Drive home with two other pieces of evidence; coins found among Richardson’s belongings that were part of a collection that Hamilton owned. And sneakers that he tried washing, had a strong odor of gasoline. These pieces of the puzzle worked for Al Hamilton. Could pieces of evidence help law enforcement put Carwell and Overton’s killers away for life too?
Proving murder without a body seems impossible. But with overwhelming evidence, local law enforcement can make it happen. NewsChannel 6’s Renetta DuBose continues a story that looks at a case from the late 1990s that put a man in jail for life after he killed another man and hid the body. This case could mean two people in Richmond County missing and presumed dead just might have justice too.
We’ve seen how each step taken by a killer who assumed he was being careful can be tracked down by investigators and used by prosecutors in court to prove murder even if no body is present. In part two, we look at the pieces left behind in the case of missing LaTania Janell Carwell and Preston Overton as local law enforcement awaits the chance to prove those accused of killing the two did it.
Christine, who served as lead prosecutor on the Al Hamilton case, recalled the nearly 20 year old case just like it happened yesterday.
“Somebody said Bobby were you looking over your shoulder worried that Al Hamilton might walk in the courtroom while you’re trying the case? I said I prayed for that every day. I would love nothing more than for Al Hamilton to have not been murdered. But he was murdered and he was murdered by Rodney Richardson,” Christine said.
The man who did the crime would have never guessed he would be incarcerated at Calhoun State Prison for life. That’s because he thought he had committed the perfect crime.
Hours of audio files from the case slowly proved Rodney Richardson committed the crime.
Rodney Richardson: “That’s what you’re saying.”
Shelly Sharpe: “What?”
Rodney Richardson: “That you want me to find this body?”
Rodney Richardson: “I don’t want no part in none of that. I don’t want to lose my daughter.”
But his part was major despite his not wanting to lose the daughter he shared with Sharpe who was two at the time. In the fight to win back his ex-wife, Shelly Sharpe, from 46-year-old Al Hamilton, Rodney Richardson, turned his threats to kill the man, in his way, into reality.
Lead Investigator DeWayne Piper placed a bug inside Sharpe’s Sardis home when he knew Richardson would be there. And while he denied killing and hiding Hamilton’s body at first, his conversations with Sharpe lead to the answer they needed to prove he did it.
“He admitted that he did in fact kill Al Hamilton and that he got rid of the body in such a way that nobody and no one would ever find it.”
Hamilton’s car was also never found. But in 1999, a year after the crime, 32-year-old Rodney Richardson received two life sentences; one for murder and one for armed robbery along with 60 years for arson, burglary and theft. It was the first time locally, according to Christine, blood spatter and DNA evidence was used. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the conviction unanimously June 2, 2003.
Preston Overton’s body has not been found after he went missing June 8. His fiancé Paige Boone said he left in her Dodge Journey to give his friend Chad “DK” Garner a ride and never returned to their Hephzibah home.
And then on the way to her mother’s house from church that Sunday, June 11, she learned the worst from a scene she saw and the corresponding phone call.
“She said that they found DK and he was deceased and it was right there where we had just passed,” Boone said.
Three days into the search for Preston and the man he went to pick up that night was found inside of a shed on Peach Orchard Road.
“They said they found DK in his underwear or his shorts, but they had taken his clothes off of him and they found Preston and DK’s clothes together in a burn pile full of bullet holes and blood, so all they were missing was Preston’s body,” Boone recalled.
DK and Preston were last seen at the Studio 6 Motel on Wrightsboro Road June 8. Boone told NewsChannel 6 her fiancé was caught up in the middle of something going on between his friend DK and Vaughn Verdi and William Krepps, two men indicted for murdering both Garner and Overton along with 17-year-old Emily Stephens, who is accused of burning the two friends’ clothes after they were killed.
She said she has a message for the alleged culprits. “I hope you spend the rest of your life in prison for what you’ve done or you at least find it in your heart to tell us what you did and where you left Preston’s body.”
Like in the Hamilton case, prosecutors will need to prove Verdi and Krepps were at the Peach Orchard Road property with Garner and Overton and that a murder happened, even without Overton’s body ever being found. Boone said evidence in local law enforcement’s possession are Overton’s bloodied clothing with bullet holes and her Dodge Journey with DNA inside, dumped in Savannah by Verdi and Krepps, allegedly.
“To not know exactly what happened or where your loved one’s final resting place was dumped off like trash, it is horrible,” she said. “You drive by every patch of woods you wonder if you’re driving right by them. Every body of water, you’re wondering if they’re in it. Everywhere you go, if you see buzzards, it makes you think about their dead body laying anywhere out in the wilderness. Every time it rains you’re just thinking about them laying out there all alone.”
Many people in the CSRA and beyond want to know if a teen is out there somewhere too.
“Based on the information that we have obtained we feel that we are working a homicide investigation,” said Sheriff Richard Roundtree about the Carwell case.
16-year-old LaTania Janell Carwell’s body has not been found either. And like Hamilton and Overton, there’s evidence.
Sheriff Roundtree explained, “We have enough forensic evidence to put Ms. Carwell at the home that night.”
Cell phone towers show Carwell’s mother, Tanya Tripp, her stepdad Leon Tripp and even her phone pinging on cell phone towers around the family’s Tate Road home and the Regency Mall area. Law enforcement has also stated that Carwell and her stepdad’s phones also pinged off a tower in Atlanta, near where Leon Tripp lived. It’s also where he was found, giving law enforcement evidence between Augusta and Atlanta.
But Tanya Tripp told a missing person story originally.
“Really, he married to all this prettiness and he gon run away with our daughter, that’s stupid,” she responding after a question of an assumed love affair between her husband and her daughter.
But despite denying kidnapping was real, Tanya Tripp is charged with concealing a death and hindering the apprehension of a fugitive, while her husband is charged with murder. District Attorney Natalie Paine said in court that Leon wrote a statement that said Carwell is no longer alive. With this knowledge of her death, law enforcement can zero in on Leon Tripp, just like they did Rodney Richardson.
Murder convictions without a body are not impossible. It just takes more work proving the murder happened. The one difference between Al Hamilton’s case and the Carwell and Overton cases is that the murder scene could be outside of Richmond County. Count on NewsChannel 6 to keep you informed as the men and women connected to the killings of both Preston Overton and LaTania Janell Carwell move through the legal process.
Photojournalists: Renetta DuBose, Mark Gaskins