Dacula resident Mala Still worked as a teller at Gwinnett Commercial Bank, located at Clayton Street and Scenic Highway in Lawrenceville, GA. Christmas Eve in 1973 fell on a Monday, and the bank closed early for the holiday. Mrs. Still elected to have lunch at the bank during the short workday, enjoying two cheeseburgers. She left around 1 PM and disappeared without a trace. What happened to her would leave a giant scar on the community. As one area resident said, “Christmas will never be the same.”
Mala Still was, by all accounts, a fine person. Daughter of O.J. and Peggy Pharr, she was a 1970 honor graduate of Dacula High School. There she had been a varsity cheerleader, President of the Beta Club, and member of the Thespian Society and Future Teachers of America. She taught Sunday School at First Baptist Church of Dacula. Her Mother was the Postmaster for Dacula, and her Dad was a City Councilman.
Sonya Turner knew the Still and Pharr families well. She was born Sonya Chilton, grew up in Dacula, and graduated from Dacula High School in 1980. She recalls Mala Still very well and says, “She was just one of those girls that, when you’re ten or eleven years old, that’s your role model, your idol.”
Mala and Bruce visited Sonya’s brother two weeks before Christmas. Mala said she had a sinus infection and hadn’t yet decorated her Christmas tree. Sonya, who was eleven at the time and thought Mala hung the moon, volunteered to go home with her and help. As they decorated the tree, Mala shared her desire to have children with Sonya.
Mala and Bruce were high school sweethearts. The two had been married for about two and a half years. Bruce had just moved his church membership from Ebenezer Baptist, where Bruce’s Dad was a deacon, to his wife’s church, First Baptist of Dacula. The Still family were chicken farmers and ran a store at Harbins Road and Bold Springs. The couple lived in a home their family owned in Harbins.
Mala and Bruce had attended their church’s Christmas program the night before her disappearance. The gifts from her Sunday School students were still in her car. On Monday night, Mala planned to attend a church supper with her husband. She didn’t show up.
After checking with family and friends and confirming that no one had heard from her, the family called the police. Bruce showed up at Sonya’s family’s home, as he was friends with Sonya’s brother. She remembers answering the door and Bruce dropping to his knees, saying, “Mala hasn’t come home. Will y’all help me look for her?” They immediately piled into a car and began searching for Mala.
Mrs. Still’s car, a light green 1970 Chevy Impala, had been observed on Ga Highway 20 at 8 PM on Christmas Eve by a Georgia State Patrol officer, W.N. Duckworth, who made a routine report to his headquarters. Authorities had not yet learned that she was missing, so there was no red flag. Once that information was released, searchers located the car around midnight.
The vehicle had been cleaned with a scrubbing compound type cleaner. All the contents had been removed. The under chassis of the car had a significant amount of gray mud associated with a specific area nearby, known as Tribble’s Mill. Authorities began to search that area.
That night police estimate that around 75 volunteers, relatives, and members of law enforcement searched through the evening. On Tuesday morning, Christmas Day, a family friend and soon to be a special prosecutor in the case Hughel Harrison, along with his son Sam, were searching the Tribble’s Mill area and found a grocery list, scribbled on a piece of paper used at Gwinnett Commercial Bank, in Still’s handwriting. Soon her handbag, coat, a slip, and some of the groceries she had purchased were located in the same area, and the search became focused there. The groceries led investigators to the Big Star grocery store located at Lawrenceville Square Shopping Center, where witnesses confirmed she had shopped in the store on Monday afternoon. She was placed there by witnesses shortly after 1 PM.
Investigators began interviewing shoppers at the center. Police questioned a man that witnesses said had been bothering women at the center. He was given a polygraph exam and ruled out as a suspect. In total, Gwinnett Police conducted over 350 interviews in this case.
The number of searchers grew to around 250 people, including a National Guard unit and civil defense units. Heavy fog and rain rolled into the area around sunset on Tuesday, Christmas Day, hampering the search. No new clues were found on Wednesday morning, so the searchers took a break for lunch. When the search resumed afterward, her body was found immediately by searchers Danny Redmond and Roy Still (no relation to the victim), who roped off the area and notified police at the scene. Her body was face down, in a clump of briars. She was fully clothed, in the same outfit she had worn the day she disappeared, except for the slip found on the roadside. Her husband, Bruce, was said by Chief Crunkleton to have been searching the entire time.
Loganville resident Gary Sprose drove around with two of his children in the Tribble Mill area near sundown on Christmas Eve. There they found and picked up two calendars and a carton of eggs. Unaware of any incident in the area, he gave one of the calendars and the eggs to his Mother-In-Law, Mrs. Leila Walker, who he had been visiting on Ozora Church Road. When Mrs. Walker heard that a body had been discovered near her home, she called the police, and a detective came out and picked up the eggs and calendar. The calendar was sent to the crime lab to be inspected for fingerprints.
Mala Still was laid to rest on December 28, with services held at her home church, First Baptist of Dacula. She had been re-baptized in the church just four weeks earlier. Her pastor, Rev. Lamoyne Sharp, was the officiant. He said of Mrs. Still, “She always had a smile on her face, good word on her lips.” A crowd of 300 filled the sanctuary, and the overflow crowd lined the sidewalk outside. She was buried in the church cemetery, in her wedding dress.
Her husband, Bruce Still, gracious in an incomparable time of loss, wrote a letter to the local paper, The Gwinnett Daily News, thanking the community, the searchers, and the Police Department for their efforts. Members of the community and area businesses contributed to a reward for information leading to the identity of the killer.
Apprehension of Jarrell
Pieces of the case began to come together. The day after searchers discovered Still’s body, a witness, John Thomas Wallace, came forward and described a man he had seen with Still at the shopping center on Monday. A sketch artist from DeKalb County was able to draw the suspect.
The food in her stomach allowed authorities to establish a time of death. The autopsy of Mrs. Still, conducted by Dr. Byron Dawson of the state crime lab, showed that she had been shot three times, once on the head, twice on the back. A bullet had been removed from Mrs. Still, which testing showed to be a .45 caliber.
David Jarrell’s name entered the investigation when a family neighbor, Mrs. Joan Pruitt, called the police on January 4. She received a concerning phone call that caused her to look for her husband’s pistol. When she could not locate it, she realized that Jarrell may have stolen it.
She told authorities that on December 21, her husband had been called into work in Atlanta around 2 AM. After waking from a nightmare, she located her husband’s .45 caliber pistol and then called Jarrell to come and stay with her. He had the gun, and she advised him to put it away. That was the last time she saw it until the police showed her the weapon.
Now 89, then DA Bryant Huff recalls the case clearly. “We went and got bullets from Mrs. Pruitt. We sent them to the state crime lab.”, he said. On Saturday morning, January 5, crime lab analyst Roger Wayne Parin concluded that the tested bullets contained a “remarkable similarity” to the one taken from Mrs. Still’s body. At that point, Huff asked for any prior records on Jarrell. He recalls viewing the record, “I pulled it out and found a record of assault with intent to rape. I said, ‘My God. What more do you want?”
Gwinnett County Police immediately began searching for Jarrell and interviewing his friends. One friend, 15-year-old Mike Littleton, told authorities that he had seen Jarrell walking on the highway on Christmas Eve around 12:30 PM, heading toward the kidnap location. Later that same afternoon, Jarrell had come to the Littleton home to take Mike for a ride. The vehicle he was driving, which he claimed to have borrowed from a friend in Norcross, fit the description of the Chevrolet of Mala Still.
Another friend of Jarrell’s, later identified as 15-year-old Johnny Simmons, told police that on December 29, Jarrell had taken him to a wooded area off of nearby Johnson Road and retrieved a pistol he had stashed there previously a .45 caliber Smith & Wesson. Jarrell desired to sell the weapon, and Simmons connected him to Bobby Cannon, who paid Jarrell $30 by check for the gun. Cannon surrendered it to the police after his January 5 interview. The pistol was sent to the crime lab and determined to be the murder weapon.
Police staked out the Jarrell home, hoping to apprehend David if he returned. Jarrett, however, was out cruising that day with a friend, according to records, named Haney. The City of Lawrenceville police stopped them for a traffic violation. They reportedly had been drinking and smoking pot. The two were taken to the police station, which was located just down the street from Mrs. Still’s kidnapping site. Haney was arrested. Lawrenceville City Police Chief Bobby Plunkett noticed that one of the men looked similar to the description of the man wanted for questioning in the Still case. He called Sergeant Burt Blannott at Gwinnett Police headquarters to advise them they had a potential suspect in custody. Blannott sent the two officers heading up the investigation, Investigator Cox and Charlie Bishop, to ask Jarrell to come to Gwinnett County Police Headquarters.
Arriving at City Hall and being led into Chief Plunkett’s office, Bishop administered the Miranda warning and verified Jarrell understood each point. They advised the suspect that his name had come up in the Still case investigation, and they invited him to come to headquarters for questioning, and he voluntarily agreed.
Haney and Jarrell were taken to GCPD headquarters and separated. Blannott confirmed that Jarrell had received his Miranda rights and began questioning him. After 20-30 minutes of questioning, investigators decided to transport Jarrell to the D.A.’s office for a polygraph. They were at the D.A.s office for about an hour, then returned to headquarters for further questioning. On the return ride, Jarrell asked the officers if the husband of the murdered girl would likely kill the person who had killed her. They assured Jarrell of protection if he were in custody.
When the interview resumed, Jarrell initially confessed to the kidnapping but denied murdering Mrs. Still. Eventually, he confessed fully and made his confession in writing. After the admission, Jarrell took officers on a trip retracing his steps the day of the crime and his actions in hiding the weapon. District Attorney Bryant Huff recalls, “He led us over to a side road where he had thrown the gun. We soon found the gun, and we tied it to him.”
Jarrell’s Narrative of the Crime
Based on the information provided in his confession and the retracing of steps Jarrell provided investigators, police could establish a timeline. Jarrell had been in the shopping center’s parking lot and observed Mrs. Still exiting the grocery store with her packages. When she placed her bags in the car and entered the front seat, he opened the passenger door, slipped into the seat, and showed her the pistol he was carrying.
He forced Still to drive around to Nash Street, by the old Hooper-Renick gym, and out to Scenic Highway when he made her turn left and travel to New Hope Road and down to the secluded Tribble Mill Road area.
Once he had Still stop the car and exited, he led her into a wooded area where he forced he to remove her clothing, down to her bra and panties, at gunpoint. He fully intended to rape her. However, he changed his mind much as he did in his first rape attempt and ordered Mrs. Still to get dressed. This explains how her slip was located away from her body and how the autopsy discovered leaves and straw between her clothes and skin.
The car had been left where the road was blocked, and soon they heard a car horn. Jarrell moved the vehicle and returned to Still’s location. He instructed her to walk further into the woods. He said she looked like she would run, so he shot her. He shared with the officers that he had thrown her belongings from the car as he drove away from the scene. Searchers later recovered those items. He next took investigators to the site where he had buried the pistol and to where he had left her car.
Attorney James Venable
Jarrell’s family retained the services of Decatur attorney James Venable. One of the state’s most prominent attorneys, Venable had represented some high-profile clients, like Gary Krist (Barbara Jane Mackle’s kidnapper); Douglas Pinion, a Dixie mafia member who blew up the solicitor in Jackson County with a car bomb; an accused Atlanta synagogue bomber and the man eventually convicted of the Heinz murder, one of the highest-profile crimes in Georgia history. He was also an avowed white supremacist and the Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Former D.A. Huff said of Venable’s legal abilities, “He was a good lawyer and got a lot of people off. We just had such overwhelming evidence he didn’t have a chance of getting him off.” Seven term Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said of Venable, “In his time, he was a great attorney but held toxic, horrible beliefs, and he made no secret of them.”
Shortly after retaining counsel, Jarrell recanted his confession and claimed he had no recollections of the crime, his arrest, the interviews, the confession, the road trip, or showing authorities his movements on the day of the crime.
David Jarrell was born in Eden, NC, near the Virginia border. His mother left his father less than a month after he was born. His family moved to Norwalk, CA, then Norcross, and Lawrenceville, where he attended Central Gwinnett High School. His mother married his stepfather when he was seven, and, in 1973, he had dropped out of school and lived with his Stepfather, Mother, and several siblings on Grayson Highway. A high school dropout, he stated his employment was as a laborer and truck driver. On the witness stand, his mother said he had a happy childhood calling him good-natured and adding that he did not use profanity.
This description stands in sharp contrast to the image of Jarrell from his record and observations of his classmates. In 1970, when he was 15, he attempted to rape a young girl in Norcross at gunpoint. According to records, he admitted abducting her, taking her into a wooded area, and beating her about the face. He left her in the woods but then returned to the location to bury her wallet and schoolbooks. Court records show he then returned home and watched television. He was indicted by a Grand Jury and sentenced to a three-year jail term. Because he was a minor, he never served time, and those records were sealed. His mother, on the stand in his trial, admitted that he never completed the court-ordered counseling that was part of his sentence in that case. In Lawrenceville, his Central Gwinnett High School classmates recalled him as “weird” and “unsettling.”
After his arrest, Jarrell was held at an undisclosed location, later revealed as the Fulton County Jail. A grand jury returned a four-count indictment on January 21, Charging Jarrell with kidnapping, aggravated assault with intent to rape, armed robbery, and murder. After mutual agreement from the D.A. and Jarrell’s legal team, he underwent a psychiatric evaluation at the Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.
On Monday, March 4, the trial began in Gwinnett County Superior Court, with Judge Reid Merritt presiding. Merritt had been the District Attorney who prosecuted Jarrell’s first rape trial in 1970.
Both sides began grilling the 82 prospective jurors about their willingness to sentence someone found guilty of murder to the death penalty. A 12-member, all-male jury was selected by the end of the day, and proceedings began on Tuesday morning. D.A. Huff said, “One of the interesting things about Gwinnett County was that the juries there could sort out truth from fiction and render their verdicts.”
The state’s case presented the physical evidence found during the investigation and learned from Jarrell’s confession. The defense focused on the recantation of the confession, with Jarrell claiming he had been “drinking and smoking pot” the day he gave it. He claimed to have just stumbled upon the Still car and had never seen Mala Still in his life. His attorney, James Venable, attempted to have the confession excluded. Still, Judge Merritt allowed it into evidence, and it was supported by testimony from the officers in the interviews and physical evidence.
Sonya recalls her Dad checked her and her sister out of school to attend the trial. They sat on the Jarrell side, not three rows back from him. Her Dad said, “I want you to see what monsters look like. They can look normal, but they’re not.”
Jarrell’s family members offered testimony that would have placed the defendant elsewhere during the time of the crime, but those claims were refuted by testimony from friends of theirs. On the witness stand, Jarrell’s stepfather said he did not remember a conversation testified to by Assistant District Attorney Gary Davis, where he supposedly said to Davis, “I just want to know one thing. Do you think he really did it?” After Davis confirmed that he did, the stepfather then said, “I am not surprised. I felt kinda funny since that girl had been missing.”
A late entry into the state’s case was the confirmation via expert testimony of Jarrell’s fingerprints and palmprint found on one of the calendar wrappers that had been in Still’s car and located on the roadside by Gary Sprose. The case was concluded on Thursday afternoon.
On Friday morning, Judge Merritt gave instructions to the jury that they must find the defendant guilty or not guilty on each of the four counts. The jury deliberated for around ninety minutes and returned with a guilty verdict on all counts. The jury recommended death sentences for the kidnapping, murder, and armed robbery charges each plus ten years for aggravated assault. The sentences were assessed by Judge Merritt the following week, and Jarrell’s execution was set for June 7. His attorneys immediately filed an appeal and requested a new trial.
Jarrell was sent to Georgia’s “Death Row” at maximum security Reidsville Prison. In 1980, along with five other convicted murderers, he planned an escape. The group included Jarrell, Carl Isaacs, sentenced to death for the vicious murders of the Allday family, Johnny Johnson, who murdered a young lady after a concert in Savannah, Timothy MacCorquodale, convicted of what experts say may be the most brutal murder ever in the state; Troy Gregg, who was convicted by the same DA as Jarrell and was one of the cases that compelled the Supreme Court to reinstate the death penalty, and Jack Alderman, convicted of murdering his wife for insurance money.
The inmates concocted a sophisticated scheme for the escape, where over several months, they created uniforms and badges to pass themselves off as guards. They were able to saw through the bars in their cells. They had assistance from guards, a biker gang, other inmates, and family members. Isaacs was transferred to another facility just before the escape, and Alderman elected not to participate. The four were free for just under two days when police captured the three escapees hiding in a house near Lake Wiley, S.C. The fourth, Gregg, was beaten to death in a bar for disrespecting a biker’s wife.
Through a series of appeals and filings based on jury instruction in the original trial, Jarrell was able to get a new sentencing hearing. In 1991, Gwinnett District Attorney Tom Lawler was unsure about getting another death penalty sentence, so the state made a deal that the sentence was commuted to life in prison in exchange for Jarrell agreeing to never file for parole.
As of this writing, Jarrell is housed at the Washington State Prison in Davisboro, GA. As we near the half-century anniversary of this horrible crime, it still is fresh in the mind of those who knew the victim and who lived in the area then. Those who had never even met Mrs. Still felt a personal loss as Gwinnett in those days was a tight-knit community. My hope in writing this is to ensure Mrs. Still and the tragic loss suffered by her family, friends, and hometown is never forgotten.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
The Gwinnett Daily News
Justia-transcripts of Jarrell appeals
Duke University Archives
Inside Detective Magazine
The Charlotte Observer