It goes against the natural order of things. Mothers are not supposed to bury their sons. Fifty years ago, as the year 1971 drew to a close, however, that tragedy is precisely what was about to happen to the families of six teenagers in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Two of the six were brothers, and we went to church together.
Gwinnett was a very different place then versus now. The population was less than one-tenth of today. Strip centers and franchised restaurants were few and far between the mostly rural counties. Small, family-owned general stores served each community. For young people, especially teenagers, cruising, drive-in theaters, horsepower, and the car culture was the center of social activities. Each town had its cruising route and hang-out spots, usually parking lots. From time to time, that also involved drag racing and other high-speed activities.
Sadly, that speed sometimes came at a high price. In 1970, just a year prior, a classmate of mine was killed getting off the school bus when he was struck by a young man running from the police. Several other friends had lost older siblings in auto accidents.
Mala Still disappeared from a Lawrenceville, GA shopping center on Christmas Eve, 1973. Read the story here.
On December 31, 1971, five teenaged boys had ventured from their homes in Lawrenceville to travel to Doraville, a suburb northeast of Atlanta. Wayne and Ricky Baker, Gerald Ruark, Roger Britt, and Larry Huff visited Britt’s uncle, J.E. McClung. They intended to celebrate the New Year there. The boys were all friends, and their families lived near each other between Lawrenceville and Lilburn. McClung’s daughter confirmed that at around 10:30 PM, the five boys decided to leave and head back to Lawrenceville to pick up a sixth friend and neighbor, 15-year-old Bruce Brady. The plan was to return to McClung’s home before midnight. They picked up Brady at his sister’s home; then, the group stopped for a short visit at the home of the girlfriend of 17-year-old Gerald Ruark.
On returning to Doraville via U.S. Highway 29, the blue GTO was spotted speeding by Lilburn Police Officer Allen Hanson, who gave chase. He described the car as traveling at excessive speeds, estimated up to 100 mph, and passing groups of vehicles. Hanson stated the GTO barely missed hitting several cars head-on. At the DeKalb County line, he discontinued his pursuit and radioed the DeKalb County Police Department with a description of the vehicle.
The GTO continued to I-285 and its intended destination in Doraville. A witness cited in the accident report, an unnamed M.D., was passed by the vehicle before the Buford Highway exit. He estimated his speed at 65 mph and that the GTO was traveling at least 30 mph faster when it passed him on I-285. The witness reported that police were not chasing the vehicle. DeKalb Police later confirmed they were not in pursuit of the car at the time of the accident.
In 1964, three Gwinnett County Police Officers were found murdered, execution-style. Read the story here.
Forensics at the scene show that the car struck a guardrail on the left-hand side of the road, destroying about 75 feet of it, caromed to the right into a bridge abutment, then flipped, leaving the roadway, and landed upside down on the surface of Buford Highway, some 150 feet below. No occupant survived the impact. At the time, that intersection was on a curve and had a history of accidents, with this being the third fatal accident there in three months.
Sadly, Roger Britt had lost his Dad, Billy, 15 years earlier in an accident where he was also fleeing the police. The elder Britt had been a passenger in a car running from Lilburn Police when they lost control on a curve and, according to reports, rolled over ten or more times. Two of the three occupants died in the accident.
Those who knew them and reached out about this article all say they were, by all accounts, good boys from good families. School counselor C.O. Roberts said then of Huff, “He was a quiet, fine boy. He was liked by all of the students.” Gerald Ruark’s niece was a baby when he died but says she grew up hearing stories about how he playfully tossed her every day when he got home from work. Roger Britt had served in the Marine Corps. Bruce Brady was in the ninth grade at South Gwinnett High School.
Evelyn Ethridge was one of thirteen Baker children. She remembers well the kindness of her older brothers Wayne and Ricky. The Baker kids often divided up and played baseball, with Wayne helping the younger kids hit and run. She also recalls the night when the police showed up at their home on Cruse Road. Her parents went to the door and were greeted by police officers with a question, “Do you have sons named Wayne and Ricky Baker?” When they confirmed that they did, the police shared the tragic news.
Rev. Preston Moore was the Baker’s Pastor at Old Field Baptist Church near Suwanee. He recalls getting a call early on the morning of January 1, advising him of the accident, and he immediately traveled to the Baker home in Lawrenceville. The preacher found Mrs. Baker walking up and down the road at their home. He exited his car and began walking with her.