It seemed like a Hollywood movie plot, but it was sadly authentic. Three Police Officers were handcuffed together, shot execution-style, and Gwinnett County, Georgia, would never be the same again.
In 1964, Gwinnett County was quite a different place. Nearing a million residents now, 56 years ago, the population was around 50,000 people and quite a contrast to today’s hectic pace. Dirt roads were common, and crops grew where stores and subdivisions exist now. At a glance, it could seem like Andy’s Mayberry, but the innocent, bucolic image didn’t reveal the complete picture.
Rapid growth loomed on the horizon, spurred by the new Interstate System’s highways and the newly created Lake Lanier. Interstate 85, then known as the Northeast Expressway, was to eventually run from Atlanta to Charlotte, but in 1964, it ended in Gwinnett. That highway played a large part in the county’s criminal element’s rise. This new access route made the heavily wooded nearby areas prime locations for chop shop operators stripping and rebadging stolen vehicles. Cars were stolen in the city, rushed up to that area, stripped, and rebranded. They were then returned to Atlanta and sold to unsuspecting buyers. Some of the nation’s largest auto theft rings operated in Gwinnett, with annual revenues in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, massive money in 1964. Bootleggers also utilized the area for making illegal liquor and storing moonshine distilled in the mountain areas before using the new direct route to deliver it into Atlanta. These circumstances locked law enforcement in an ongoing battle with criminals, and sometimes the lines blurred as to who was on which side.
In 1963, Gwinnett’s Sheriff, Daniel Cole, was arrested in a sting involving a moonshine still that Cole had previously confiscated in a raid. Federal guidelines dictated the destruction of the still and its products, but Cole had stored it for resale. Sheriff Cole was removed from office after a jury convicted him of possessing many jars (over 3,500) intended to contain non-taxed moonshine and possessing and intending to distribute almost 200 gallons of illegal whiskey. Federal agents had coordinated the raid with Lawrenceville City Solicitor Bryant Huff. Huff later gained notoriety as the District Attorney prosecuting Larry Flynt when a sniper shot Flynt and his attorney Gene Reeves. Prosecutors dismissed additional charges alleging Cole had sold seized moonshine equipment. Two of the individuals involved in the Cole case, Alex Evans and M.C. Perry, would be significant figures in the murders of the three policemen.
After Cole’s removal, efforts began to form a new Gwinnett County Police Department and to transition primary enforcement responsibility to the new entity, away from the Sheriff. A retired Navy veteran, J.O. Bell, was chosen to be chief, and he began putting together a force. By April 1964, the department numbered ten officers, including the Chief and Assistant Chief, M.J. Puckett.
In 1964, Arc Lane in Lilburn was a dirt road between Beaver Ruin and Pleasant Hill Roads. On April 17th, 1964, an area resident, A.C. Mills, was kept awake by his dog’s continuous barking. After looking to see what was going on, he noticed vehicular movement and headlights going into a nearby abandoned driveway with the lights shining directly into his bedroom. He called the Sheriff’s Department to report the suspicious activity.
Gwinnett County Police officer Marvin Jesse (Pop) Gravitt worked an accident near I-85 but became ill at the scene. Two other Gwinnett officers, Jerry R. Everett and Ralph Davis, swung by to pick up the sick Gravitt to give him a ride home. During this ride, the suspicious activity call came in, so they headed there first.
Days earlier, Venson Williams and Wade Truett had purchased a wrecked Oldsmobile from a body shop in Decatur and carried it to a shop they owned in Hartsville, SC. Driving a white Chevrolet, they returned to Gwinnett on April 16th, stopping at Thomas Stephens’ home. The trip’s purpose was to arrange to steal a car to transfer the serial number from the wrecked vehicle. While there, they met William Bohanon. That evening they left to meet former Deputy Alex Evans at a Moose lodge near Buford, GA. Evans was to help them steal one like the stolen Oldsmobile. Evans had located a potential vehicle close to Atlanta. The three left Gwinnett and successfully found and stole the target car at an apartment near Briarcliff Road in Decatur. They then returned with the Oldsmobile to the Lawrenceville area around 1 AM. They pulled onto Arc Lane to switch tags on the stolen car. The headlights from the two vehicles were what triggered the resident’s call.
According to the trial testimony of Truett, when the three officers arrived to investigate the reported suspicious activity, the three criminals were in the process of changing out the ignition and license plate on the recently stolen Oldsmobile. Seeing the officers, Truett tried to run in the white Chevrolet but was stopped by two of the officers and returned to the scene. There they found Officer Everett behind the wheel of the stolen car, inspecting the ignition switch, with former Deputy Evans in the passenger seat. When the two exited, Evans pulled a weapon on Officer Everett. Williams and Truett disarmed the other two officers, and all three officers were handcuffed together. The nearby residents who called in the initial complaint heard loud voices during all of this but could not make any details or see what was happening.
The handcuffed officers were placed into the recently stolen car and driven into a more remote area. Truett hid the squad car, then headed to the new location. Williams decided to execute the officers. He stated that “when they had put on the uniform, they automatically became dirty sons of bitches”. The three officers were shot, still handcuffed. According to Truett’s testimony, one officer, surviving the initial shots, was shot two more times by Williams. In all, the three executed officers were shot 14 times with their own weapons.
After the killings, the thieves burned the stolen Oldsmobile and departed the area. The trio tossed the three slain officers’ flashlights and weapons from the car. After dropping Evans off in Buford, Williams and Truett drove the white Chevrolet to their shop in South Carolina, where they threw the clothes they were wearing into a river. The next day, they had the Chevy tires replaced with recaps and threw the old tires into the same river.
At around 8:30 that morning, a house sitter in the Mill’s home noticed the police car dumped in the woods and notified the homeowner, who called the police. Officers arrived soon after discovering the abandoned police car and the burned Oldsmobile. The officer’s car had the wires stripped from the rooftop red light and radio. Tire tracks and footprints were observed, as well as the discarded paperwork from the stolen Oldsmobile. A foot search by responding officers soon discovered the three executed officers’ bodies.
Searchers combed the area, and on the second day after the murder, a young man walking his dog discovered a pistol in a ditch on Beaver Ruin Road. Police were called, the area searched, and soon they found the other guns and a flashlight belonging to the murdered officers. The evidence gathered at the scene indicated three perpetrators and three cars there at the time of the murder. Investigators soon deduced that the burned car was a key to the case.
Immediately rewards were posted, and newspaper stories pleaded for any information to help police find the murderers. Multiple law enforcement agencies were involved in the investigation.
Two officers talked with former Deputy M.C. Perry in a chance encounter at a Buford filling station in the week following the crime. Perry, a figure in the Sheriff Cole moonshine scandal, was well known as a career criminal. At the time of the interview, he was within days of reporting to prison to serve a federal sentence from his conviction on liquor charges. Perry indicated that Williams and Evans had contacted him before the murders about stealing a specific Oldsmobile model, similar to the burned one found at the crime scene. This brought initial suspicion on the two, but absent any other evidence against them, the investigation continued, and over a year passed without arrests.
Based on a tip and then a hunch from lead Investigator DeKalb County Vice Lt. John Crunkleton, accident records were searched. Investigators found a report of an accident involving an Oldsmobile almost identical to the burned one found at the scene. Just weeks before the murders, the vehicle had sideswiped a firetruck and been considered a total loss. The car’s owner led investigators to his insurance company, who advised that the car was sold as salvage and ended up at White’s Body Shop in Atlanta. The owner told police that the salvaged vehicle had been sold to Leroy Thomas, who was financing Venson Williams’s purchase. Information from the shop led to the wrecker that towed the car after purchase, which led investigators to the South Carolina shop of Williams and Truett. This was the first solid connection to suspect Williams and the first time Truett had entered the investigation.
Pieces began to fall into place. Investigators gathered additional evidence. This set the stage for a series of interviews with Truett in a Federal Corrections facility in Tallahassee, Florida. Confronted with the evidence and the probability of seeing the electric chair, Truett revealed the details of the murders, and his account was consistent with the known facts of the case. Truett added other facts, like the stolen car’s license plate’s location and keys to the police car. When police returned to the murder site and found the plate and keys where Truett had described, the story of that horrible night became completed. Following the Truett interview information, the tires Williams and Truett had discarded were recovered from the river in South Carolina. They matched tire prints from the scene.
Prosecutor Reid Merritt, who was the Gwinnett County Solicitor, presented the evidence in the case to a Grand Jury. Merritt received indictments for the three, and arrests were made. When arrested, Evans was serving a sentence in a federal prison in Milan, MI, on another illegal liquor charge. Venson Williams had been arrested for the hijacking of a trailer filled with liquor. Wade Truett was a truck driver and body shop operator before serving time for stealing an interstate shipment of liquor. The accused were returned to Gwinnett to stand trial.
Merritt prepared to prosecute Williams and Evans in the 1965 trial. He and co-counsel Luther Hames went to the slain officers’ families with a choice. They could give Truett immunity to testify against the two defendants they believed were most responsible in exchange for more likely convictions or prosecute all three with a less certain outcome. The group reached a consensus, and prosecutors offered immunity to Truett in exchange for testimony against the other two.
Media swarmer the county seat. Aubrey King, a City of Lawrenceville Police Officer at the time, recalls the extra hours that the department was putting in to provide security and traffic control for what was a significant event in the small town. “Twelve hours shifts every day were the norm then,” King said.
The State of Georgia tried Williams and Evans separately for the murder of Officer Jerry Everett. Charges were never filed in the other two murders as they would not have changed the sentences. In Williams’ 1965 trial, the evidence against the defendant was corroborated primarily by the testimony of Truett. A witness that had been incarcerated with Williams, Lynn W. Shaw, testified that Williams had confessed to the crime, complaining that they would never be in this situation had it not been for “that dirty SOB Evans.” Witness E.F. Willing sold auto parts in S.C. He testified that Williams, after the murders, had asked him to change the date on a purchase order of some Oldsmobile parts from April 24th to April 2nd, to appear that the two accused already had the needed parts to repair the wrecked Oldsmobile. Another witness, M.C. Perry, the source that initially brought Evans and Williams under suspicion, testified Williams had contacted him about stealing a similar vehicle. The prosecution presented much of the same evidence in Evans’ trial.
Williams was found guilty after the jury deliberated for around an hour. Williard Swanson, who served as a juror in the trial, said in a recent interview that Merritt presented the facts in a way that made a compelling case and that the defense never made credible points on Williams’ behalf. Williams was sentenced to death, as was Evans in his trial. Williams and Evans each appealed the guilty verdicts to the Georgia Supreme Court. Both were denied, but courts later commuted both sentences to life in prison.
Arnold Stephens had served as a bailiff in both Williams’ and Evans’s trials. In the Williams trial, he was attached to the jury, spending the night with them in the nearby hotel where they had been sequestered. He also knew Everett and Davis personally. A long-term friend of both and a Police Officer in Suwanee, the two would sometimes pick Stephens up at the end of his shift, and he would ride with them, making their rounds all around Gwinnett. Stephens’ full-time job was in facility management with Emory University, and Everett’s father worked there. Stephens was at work and took the police call for Everett’s father, alerting him to come home that his son had been killed. Years after the trials, when an acquaintance suggested that authorities had framed Evans, Stephens told the individual that he had heard every word of both trials and seen all of the evidence. To him, there was no doubt of the guilt of Evans and Williams. “Guilty as sin,” he stated.
Steve Merritt, the late prosecutor Reid Merritt’s son, said that his Dad was always proud of the work he did on these cases and that the verdicts stood up on appeal. He fondly remembers his father’s accolades from those in law enforcement for bringing justice to their fallen comrades and punishment for the guilty. Merritt added that he believes his father’s experience on this case strengthened his already iron resolve that justice always is fairly served. Merritt gained a reputation as being stern but fair and was extremely well respected. Reid Merritt had a long and distinguished career as a Solicitor, District Attorney, and judge. He passed away in 2008.
Truett died in 1983 in a car crash. Williams was paroled in 1989, lived in Conyers, GA, and died in 1999. Evans, denied parole several times, died in prison in 2016. The three officers are memorialized in the Gwinnett County Police headquarters and on the Memorial Wall at the Gwinnett County Justice Center.