End of innocence: The unsolved murder of Leigh Bell, 40 years later
Published 10:58 am Wednesday, June 12, 2019
Part 2: The investigation
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 — After having been last seen the evening of June 6, 1979, it was not until early afternoon Friday, June 8, when her body was located in Muckalee Creek in Twin Bridges Road (no McLittle Bridges Road). Van Peavy, a tracker from Dooly County, was contacted to bring his dog over to the bridge and the dog lead him directly to the creek. When he entered the water, he felt something against his leg. It was the body of Leigh Bell. The body was underneath some branches and a log under the right side of the bridge, if traveling from South Lee Street Road to U.S. Highway 19.
Sumter County Sheriff Pete Smith, who was a Georgia State trooper in 1979, said he was there at the creek when the body was discovered. “When her body was pulled up,” he told the ATR recently, “I saw her face coming up out of the water. That’s something I will never, ever forget that.”
At 2:25 p.m. GBI Special Agent Scott Roberts had contacted the Georgia State Crime Laboratory and requested a pathologist to come to Americus to conduct an autopsy. Roberts also requested a mobile crime scene unit.
At approximately 3:35 p.m. June 8, Bell’s body was removed from the creek, examined on scene by then-Sumter County Coroner Larry Hancock and then taken in an ambulance to Americus-Sumter County Hospital.
Americus Police Department Lt. James Tondee, an investigator, was on scene at the time the body was pulled out of the creek. He said Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jim Baker ordered someone to remove a blanket from the trunk of his car to wrap the body in. An ambulance from Americus Sumter County Hospital was on scene as well, and sheets were available but it’s not known why one wasn’t used. Sumter County Sheriff Randy Howard, when interviewed recently about the case and asked why a blanket was used, said “because there were so many people at the site at the time.”
Dr. Larry Howard, chief pathologist at the GBI State Crime Lab in Atlanta, flew down to Americus to perform the autopsy. Dr. Charles Sheffield, on staff at Americus Sumter County Hospital, had pronounced Bell dead at 3:56 p.m. When Leland Bell, Leigh Bell’s father, was led into the morgue to identify her body, he fainted and collapsed onto the floor.
The pathologist was not happy about the blanket the body had been wrapped in. At one point during the autopsy, Howard asked, “what idiot is responsible for this?” according to Pete Smith. Because of this error in judgment, no fibers could be had during the autopsy, Tondee said.
The autopsy report states that one pubic hair was found on the victim’s pants. The victim had been raped vaginally and anally, and shot in the back of the head, the bullet exiting her two front teeth, damaging one. A small amount of alcohol was found in her bloodstream — .03 percent. The body was fully clothed but the jeans were not zipped or buttoned. Blood was detected in the panties. No blood was found under the fingernails.
Tondee’s orders were to stay with the body until he was relieved by someone else. He had followed the body to the hospital and was standing outside the door to the morgue when he saw George Gignilliat walking down the hallway and looking toward the cafeteria. “He (Gignilliat) just stood there,” Tondee told the Times-Recorder. “He never said a word.”
Gignilliat had injured his foot on Monday, June 4, during a fight with George Davenport and visited the ER that day because it was infected.
At 7 p.m. that day, Agent Baker received one set of car keys and one ladies Timex watch from Dr. Howard. The watch had been taken from Bell’s left wrist. It had stopped at 6:52. Baker attempted to wind the watch but found that it was already tightly wound. The car keys were removed from the right front pocket of the blue jeans Bell was wearing.
On the radar
George Gignilliat, a 27-year-old who had only been in Americus a few months, came under scrutiny early, about two days after Bell’s body was recovered, according to the record. A story in the Americus Times-Recorder quoted GBI Special Agent Baker saying that Sumter County Sheriff Randy Howard met with the GBI early the morning of June 7, the day after Bell disappeared. Howard and Deputy J.D. Durden went to the home of Gignilliat’s girlfriend, Debra Slaughter, at Kingstowne Apartments to question Gignilliat who told them he had been there all night since around 11 or 11 p.m.
The local daily newspaper kept people informed of the search, and the ensuing investigation with stories appearing almost every day. Leila Barrett (now Case), a retired reporter and current columnist, recalled how she and Rudy Hayes, then-managing editor, worked many long hours reporting the story as it unfolded.
Meanwhile, local authorities, working with the GBI, were trying to find out who was involved in the murder and rape.
The sheriff told the local newspaper, “everybody is suspect.” He also announced the creation of an eight-man task force to find the killer.
Americus businessman, Carlus Gay, now deceased, worked with other businessmen to establish a reward fund and told the ATR that $25,000 had already been pledged.
Leads were pouring in to authorities and friends and associates of Bell were being interviewed. Pete Smith told the ATR that around 40 possible suspects were interviewed. Some gave public hair sample and underwent polygraph testing.
Being a small town, rumors were rampant. Somebody told somebody that someone else had told them they had overheard Gignilliat talking with Randy Bishop at Sydney Green Elephant, a local nightclub, about a fight with George Davenport, Leigh Bell’s stepbrother. Another told authorities she had heard Gignilliat talk about “getting even” with Davenport, and also mentioning Leigh Bell. Authorities spent many man hours running down these stories circulated by young women in Americus. Nothing came of it though.
Meanwhile, some of Bell’s closest friends were interviewed such as Patti Horton (Griffith), who talked with the ATR for Part 1 of this series, and Margie Robinson. Robinson told authorities that Gignilliat had asked Bell to go out with him once or twice. She said Bell ran into Gignilliat at a graduation party the week before she was killed, and he asked her what grade she was in. Bell told him she was a senior and had graduated that night. Robinson said Bell was just playing around, as she was really a rising sophomore at Americus High School. Robinson said Gignilliat had tried to date Leigh Bell and her sister Cathy but their mother wouldn’t allow it. When asked if Leigh Bell was afraid of Gignilliat, Robinson told them, “sort of. I think so.”
Robinson told authorities that she thought Gignilliat was responsible for Bell’s death. “… that day after Leigh was missing, me and Lori Farr and her (Leigh Bell’s) sister Cathy Bell was going out toward the twin bridges … And he [Gignilliat] was behind us or something and he was trying to get Cathy to stop, and when he saw where we was going he turned around. We stopped at the bridge and looked down into the water. When we was coming back, he stopped and asked us if we knew where she was. He said what could have happened to your sister or something like that to Cathy.” This was the day prior to the discovery of Bell’s body but Robinson and others went there in the hopes of finding something to lead to Bell. Bell’s friends searched all over.
Leigh Bell had been dating Doug Parrish, and he told authorities in an interview on June 7, that the last time he had with been with her was the Tuesday prior. He told them he had no knowledge of her whereabouts and that he did not believe she had run away. Parrish said he not been at the ballfields the night she went missing.
Gignilliat went to the Bell residence the morning of June 7, asking some of Leigh Bell’s friends if they knew anything about her whereabouts and telling them he had not seen Leigh, and that he didn’t know she was missing until they (law enforcement) knocked on his door earlier that morning. Gignilliat sat down in a chair in the Bell carport. No one sat next to him.
Gignilliat has been seen in the area of the ballfields on June 6 driving a green Camaro, owned by Debra Slaughter, his girlfriend. He was in the presence or Randy “Rat” Bishop and Derek Henderson, both of whom would be interviewed by authorities more than once.
As the investigation continued, in the days immediately following the recovery of Bell’s body, Lila Martin was interviewed by GBI Agent Scott Roberts and Americus Police Lt. Tondee on June 10. She said she and her husband Lamar went to the ball games almost every night. She knew Leigh Bell and had seen her at the ball park often. On the night of June 6, the Martins recalled seeing Bell between 8:45 and 9 p.m. walking toward the city league field from the direction of the church league field. Bell and a young man were pitching a softball between them, and stopped next to the Martins’ car for about five minutes and then moved behind the car. The male walked toward the track down Oak Avenue, walked a few feet and returned to Bell. They didn’t see either after that.
Cathy Bell, Leigh Bell’s older sister, was interviewed on June 12 by GBI Special Jim Baker and Americus Police Department Chief Detective Rindell Dunston. She told them she had not dated Gignilliat in the past but that on one occasion in April she had left with him in his dune buggy to go to C.B. Liquor Store. On that occasion, Gignilliat asked her to go to his house but she refused and asked him to return her to the ballfield. She said she had been at parties that Gignilliat also attended and he had asked her out and she had refused, telling him that her parents would not allow it. She recalled him coming to her house once and she went to the street to talk to him.
On June 13, Baker and Dunston interviewed Gignilliat. He said he did not see Leigh Bell the night of June 6. He said he was with Derek Henderson and Randy Bishop, getting together at about 8:15 p.m. and going to the ballfields. He was driving his girlfriend’s green Camaro. They left and went to a friend’s house and then came back to watch Smith’s Gulf softball team play. They stayed until about 10:45 or 11 p.m. when the game was over. They then went to Gignilliat’s apartment on Felder Street where he dropped off Henderson and Bishop before he went to his girlfriend’s place at Kingstowne Apartments where he spent the night. About 15 minutes after he arrived, Bishop did too and spent the night with another girl there in another room. Gignilliat said he did not know Bell was missing until the following morning when the sheriff came and asked if he had seen Leigh Bell.
At least two people said they saw Leigh Bell the night of June 6 riding in a car. William Randy Fulford, who had been at the tennis courts, said that around 8 p.m. he saw Bell in a Firebird with a blond-haired boy he took to be Doug Parrish. He said he waved at her but she didn’t respond. He said a few minutes later, Meredith Reese arrived at the court and they talked for a few minutes before she left on her bicycle. It started to rain and Fulford also left. Harold Lee Bowen, made statements to investigators that he saw Leigh Bell riding in a car around 7:30 p.m. June 6 with Doug Parrish, leaving the ballfield. Bowen said he waved at Bell and she waved back. Later, around 9:30 to 10 p.m. Bowen said he was at McDonald’s and saw Bell again in a different vehicle, “a dark green Chevrolet Impala or Caprice.” He couldn’t tell who was driving but he waved at Bell; she failed to wave back that time.
Lori Farr was interviewed by phone by authorities. She told them that she had run into Bell at a party at Lee Smith’s house recently when Gignilliat walked up to Bell and “ascertained who she was.” Bell told Gignilliat, “I’m a Bell. You might know me. I’m Cathy’s sister.” Gignilliat said he knew her and started chatting with them, asking if they were having a good time, etc. He asked Bell who her boyfriend was. Bell told him Doug Parrish and that he would be there at any time. Lori Farr left the party. She told authorities that a lot of girls at school were envious or jealous of Leigh Bell and that she “had a lot of fellows wanting to date her, and not only that, she had alot of friends and seemed to have everything going for her in the world.” Farr was a grade ahead of Leigh Bell at Americus High.
Gignilliat was 27 years old that summer of 1979. He had received an “undesirable discharge” from the Army in 1971. His parents died when he was 10 or 11 and he lived with his grandmother for a period of time in Unadilla, and later with an aunt in Elko. After running away from home, he was sent back to his grandmother’s in Unadilla where he graduated high school and stayed approximately three years after. He said his father died of cirrhosis of the liver and his mother of a heart attack. He said he had no vehicle but borrowed his girlfriend, Debra Slaughter’s green Camaro.
Gignilliat came to Americus in October 1978, to work at Still Gas Co., but quit after about four months. He had been unemployed for about five months at the time of the Bell murder.
On June 11, James Farr, owner of Farr’s Upholstery on whose softball team Gignilliat played, and his son Greg Farr, were interviewed by authorities to determine whether or not they were at the ballgame the night of Bell’s disappearance. Both said they were there, arriving around 9 p.m. or later. They said they saw George Davenport, Bell’s stepbrother, but did not see Bell. They said Gignilliat, Henderson, and Bishop arrived at the ballgame in Slaughter’s car, after the Farrs did and they were drinking. They all engaged in general conversation. They asked Gignilliat why he was limping and Gignilliat told them he has hurt at Greg’s party the Monday night before, and it looked like he might have to go the hospital to have it checked out. Greg Farr confirmed that Gignilliat and Davenport had been in a fight that Monday night but everything seemed to be “back to normal and peaceful” and Gignilliat and Davenport were friends. Davenport had confirmed to investigators that he and Gignilliat has been in a fight and that Gignilliat had hit him in the nose and knocked him to the floor, before leaving the party. Davenport said he ran into Gignilliat the following night at the ballfield, on June 5, and told him there were no hard feelings.
Enter Dr. Wiggins
On June 26, Agent Baker and Lt. Tondee flew to Augusta and met with Dr. Stewart Wiggins, a clinical psychologist with the Medical College of Georgia. Wiggins came to Americus for the purpose of hypnotizing Meredith Reese. Under hypnosis, Reese recalled meeting Bell between 9 and 9:15 p.m. June 6 at the intersection of Harrold Avenue and Glessner Street. While under hypnosis, she recalled seeing three cars at the intersection. One of those vehicles, she described as traveling on Glessner Street from Oak Avenue “in a very fast manner.” She could recall the color of the vehicle or now many people were in it. She also said she offered to let Bell ride her bicycle back to the softball field to get her sister but Bell declined her offer.
On June 28, Debra Slaughter gave her voluntary consent to GBI Agent Scott Roberts Jr. and Sheriff Howard to impound her car. Her car was at Tripp Street Standard Station, 502 Tripp St., where it had been for several days for repair.
On June 29, J. Frank Myers was appointed as by Sumter Superior Court Judge William F. Blanks. Southwest Circuit District Attorney Claude Morris was not happy with the decision. It was reported in the media that Morris said he had not been contacted about the special prosecutor until the action was complete. Morris said it was unique in the court district and he could recall only once before that it had occurred. Morris said, “I am the district attorney. I should handle the case. I object because I was duly elected by the people of the Southwestern Judicial Circuit. I was not consulted in this matter. This is not the way to do it.”
In a story published in the Times-Recorder 27 days after the murder, Sheriff Howard said, “the investigation is terribly time-consuming and we have to be tremendously careful because we don’t want to overlook any possibility that might have an important bearing on this case. You simply have to let the evidence lead you in the direction of the solution.” He added that the investigation was spreading to North and South Carolina and Oklahoma. “No lead is treated too small for us to not check [it] out and resolve,” he said.
An arrest, and motions
George Gignilliat was arrested on Nov. 11, 1979, in Warner Robins and charged with the rape and murder of Leigh Bell. The arrest was made by Sheriff Howard and GBI Agent Baker, “under the authority of two warrants issued by Justice of the Peace J.W. Southwell upon affadavit by Sheriff Randy Howard.”
District Attorney, pro tem, J. Frank Myers issued a statement after Gignilliat’s arrest, saying that “the investigation was intensified on Oct. 29 and has been under the direction of Myers. The warrants and arrest came as a result of additional evidence obtained against the suspect.”
Gignilliat was arraigned on Nov. 12 before Justice of the Peace Southwell at the Sumter County Courthouse “under tight security.” William S. Tarver of Oglethorpe was appointed as his attorney of record. Tarver requested a committal hearing be set for Nov. 21. Tarver requested that the judge appoint a co-counsel “because of the enormity of the case and the inherent pressure.” Tarver also requested of the judge to move Gignilliat to another jail outside the Sumter County area because he felt in danger. The judge denied that request, as he also denied the request for co-counsel. Tarver had also requested an investigator, which was also denied.
The committal hearing was held and Tarver “was ordered to spend two hours in jail after a verbal encounter with J.P. Southwell,” according to the ATR, for badgering a witness. The newspaper also reported that Gignilliat’s girlfriend, Debra Slaughter, testified at the committal hearing that a few weeks after the murder, Gignilliat told her he had raped and shot Leigh Bell and put her in the water. During questioning by the defense, Slaughter said she didn’t believe Gignilliat because he was “mad with her at the time.” Slaughter said she was put under protective custody at a local motel five days before the arrest of Gignilliat.
GBI Agent Jim Baker testified that Gignilliat was considered a suspect two days after the discovery of Bell’s body and that at the time he was “not convinced that the suspect was guilty.”
Southwell’s decision to bind Gignilliat over to a grand jury was based on “weak and circumstantial evidence,” according to Tarver.
The ATR reported that the courtroom where the hearing was held was filled and spectators were required pass through gun-detection devices before entering. Each person also had to provide identification and no cameras were allowed in the room. Twelve witnesses were sworn by Special Prosecutor Myers: Jim Baker (GBI), Sidney Connelly (friend of Leigh Bell), John Sims (GBI), Paul Henley, John Wegal (GBI), Donnie Spence (Gignilliat’s roommate), Meredith Reese, Derek Henderson, Debra Slaughter, Becky Jones and Sheriff Howard. The defense called no witnesses.
If indicted, the case was expected to come to trial during a special session of criminal court. The judge set aside four days, beginning Jan. 29, 1980, to hear evidence in the case, if an indictment was returned.
Defense attorney Tarver filed a motion for a change of venue for the trial, which was denied by the judge at a Dec. 19 hearing. The motion cited wide media coverage in newspapers and radio and TV. “This information tends to severely prejudice” the defendant, according to the motion. The defense also filed a motion to have Myers removed as special prosecutor in the case.
In early December, the judge appointed co-counsel for Tarver, Lyn O’Berry of Georgia Legal Services
A 20-member grand jury was convened, and indicted Gignilliat on charges of rape and murder in the June slaying of Leigh Bell. Gignilliat had been held in jail without bond ever since his Nov. 11 arrest.
The ATR, in a Dec. 11 story, reported that a Macon Telegraph reporter, Edith Ann McNeill, tried to pass herself off as a para-legal in an attempt to get an interview with Gignilliat in jail. In a phone interview with McNeill, she told the ATR she did not identify herself as a para-legal but that Tarver did. A deputy allowed Tarver in to see his client but denied the woman access.
On Dec. 12, Myers filed a motion to limit all attorneys, law enforcement officers, and other court officers from publicly commenting to members of the press and news media.
At the Dec 19 hearing, the judge ruled to grant the defense motion for a change of venue. “I know maybe the testimony is not as conclusive as the feeing of the people generally, hut I think it too much of a burden to put it on 12 people sitting on the case in this county,” Judge Blanks said. He moved the venue to Oglethorpe, in neighboring Macon County.
Read about Dr. Wiggins, an arson, and the trial in Part 3 in the June 19 edition of the Americus Times-Recorder.