It happened early one April morning, 20 years ago--a day that began breezy and cool, much like today.
A University of Georgia student, on the brink of graduation and a promising advertising career, was robbed, sexually assaulted and strangled in her downtown Athens house, two blocks from campus.
In 1992, downtown Athens was transitioning from a sleepy retail center to a bustling residential and entertainment district. The crack trade still thrived at night in some Athens side streets, but it was possible by day to window shop along downtown’s tree-lined main streets and have no idea of any illicit activity on the district’s fringes.
In 1985, a couple had restored the old Presbyterian manse at Clayton and Hull streets, as well as a small house tucked behind it where servants had lived. By 1992, the couple had moved on and the house contained offices. Jenny Stone rented the little house.
Nighttime foot traffic was primarily on Clayton, people walking to restaurants and bars further east, to the on Washington or to the B and L Warehouse on the other end of downtown. The occasional traveler moved in and out of the bus station next door to the manse. The nearby popular wasn't yet open.
“The whole atmosphere of downtown was different then,” said Kris Bakowski, who worked at the . “There was a daytime and a nighttime downtown. No one thought anything about being downtown alone after dark.”
‘End of an age of innocence’
The night that Jenny Stone was murdered, one of the first things the responding police noticed was that the killer had been hasty. The young woman’s shirt and bra were left pushed up on her chest, her shorts on the floor at the end of the bed where she was found lying. Blood was under her fingernails, apparently from fighting to get the killer’s hands off her neck. Her nose and mouth were bleeding.
Retired Lt. WJ Smith remembers every detail. He was the lead investigator on the case.
“There was a plastic shoe stacker, a fireplace here, clothes on the floor,” Smith said, sketching a layout of the scene. “There were dirty clothes here. She had cats, as I recall. Something had been knocked over. It was pretty cluttered. She had a bicycle, a sofa along here, a table.”
Using orange powder and an alternate light source technique then in use, police found a smear about midway up the wall where it looked like her face had hit, like she’d gotten into a fight or been punched.
Another horrific detail: Stone’s parents first learned about their daughter’s murder while watching the Atlanta evening news. When WXIA Channel 11 broadcast Stone’s three-room house, crowded with police, on April 23, 1992, Raymond and Joan Stone were watching from their home in the Atlanta suburbs.
The crime was the first murder in the business district of downtown Athens. It rocked the town and dominated state headlines for weeks. The public wanted every detail of a killing so close to the state’s flagship university, where Stone was a well-known senior and Kappa Delta sorority member.
“It was the end of the age of innocence for us,” said legal assistant Dan Matthews, who covered the downtown music scene as a freelance writer in the early 1990s. He remembers seeing Stone in clubs.
After the death, a wave of conspiracy theories and “crazy stuff” were whispered around town, as people tried to get a handle on the case. “You think you’re young and indestructible, and you find out you’re not,” Matthews said.
The boundaries of downtown also grew, for many frightened Athenians. “People got gun-shy about coming downtown,” Bakowski said. If something happened miles away in Beechwood, or at , it would classified by nervous Athenians as a downtown crime. “Downtown kind of got this rap,and it wasn’t right.”
Joe Burnett, then director of the ADDA, said he had been trying to reintroduce residents to the downtown mix for years. Stone’s tragic murder, he said, meant those efforts experienced a setback.
Police looked at dozens of suspects, from a judge’s son to a day laborer, and crossed the country, following leads. Homeless people got pulled into the dragnet. So did bus station vagrants, and even a well-known shoe shiner, said Frank Eberhardt, owner of Marvin’s Shoe Service on College Avenue. Police were checking everyone before the case went cold.
Twenty years later, officials with a new police unit are reopening this case and others, hoping to flush out new leads. In Stone’s case, police still hope a DNA hit might lead them to the light-skinned black man who was spotted hours after the murder, swapping Stone’s cameras for drugs just blocks from her house.
Authorities have resisted a lawsuit by local media trying to open this and other old cases, but, Smith, the case’s lead investigator, spoke candidly to Athens Patch recently about the killing, one of the town’s most enduring mysteries.
Was the attacker known to Stone, or not? Was he local, or just one of thousands who pass through the college town every year? Was he a repeat offender, and if so, why has his DNA never led to a hit on the FBI database? The questions linger.
“In my mind, with 100 years of experience, I think he was in there burglarizing the place and she had gone out for a smoke,” Smith said. “She didn’t smoke in her house, and when she came back, since the front door was hard to lock - she either didn’t lock it or thought it was locked - the dude was in there. We think he was crouched down and heard her. She walks in, comes down the hall and he gets her. I think it was like a burglary, and, with a little psychology, I think probably he was already sexually aroused because he was in some girl’s apartment and there’s clothes and that sort of stuff. And here’s a nice-looking girl.”
A ‘smile which generated results’
As an aspiring photographer, Jenny delighted in roaming the town looking for creative opportunities, said her best friend, Sandi Turner.
“She was a wonderful, fun, creative, impish, beautiful person,” said Turner, now the public information officer for Athens-Clarke County. Turner, Stone’s big sister in their sorority, would sometimes be with Jenny on these rambles. The two loved their sorority but other members considered them to be more creative, the unconventional outsiders.
“Her friends and family said [Jenny] was very happy to get a downtown apartment because she was close to everything,” Smith said. It was her senior year and Stone was 22. Photos show a pretty young woman with what her father described as a “smile which generated results.”
She had plenty of reasons to smile. She had just been picked by the Atlanta firm Bockel, Clark and Gill for a coveted advertising internship. She had “made it” with an entry-level gig inside that slick, fashionable world.
She had so much to look forward to.
On April 22nd, Stone worked late on a project for class, a mock ad campaign for peanut butter. She had eaten on the fly that day, downing some chicken strips from Guthrie’s, a local fast-food joint.
When she would get stressed, she would go outside and smoke or drive around and smoke, Smith said. The project was spread around the floor of her apartment. Her boyfriend dropped by and then left as she kept working.
About 1 a.m. on April 23rd, he called her and they talked briefly. It was to be her last contact with him, or with anyone the police could identify.
Later that day, after Stone had missed two school meetings, three classmates went to the little house on Hull Street. The door - an old heavy one - was ajar. They looked inside.
“That’s when the feces hit the ventilator, as it were,” Smith said. It was clear there had been a struggle. The house was in disarray, “a helluva scene,” he said.
As police snapped crime-scene photos and combed the area for DNA, they spotted a detail - there was a bug on Stone’s body and on the bed. Police thought it might have fallen off the attacker, and would possibly provide a clue. The entomology experts at UGA were called in, but Smith said it turned out to be a common bug, probably from outside Stone’s apartment.
A team of Athens police, aided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, searched the house and property inch by inch as a scrum of students, reporters and street people milled outside the crime tape.
Inside the house, police were able to gather some semen and hair from the bed. The facial print, visible under light, showed the side of her mouth where it made contact with the wall. Unidentified prints around the house were smeared and unreadable.
For the investigator, it’s personal
Smith, short and compact, with a wry sense of humor, spent the better part of his career trying to get inside the minds of peeping toms, serial rapists and killers. Before he retired, he was renowned for helping solve the town’s toughest cases, including the case of the Five Points Rapist, who was arrested and convicted in a string of sexual assaults against five UGA co-eds.
The Stone murder is the one Smith broods over, the one that will bring him out of retirement if a good lead surfaces. Smith now travels the country delivering BMWs, which suits his restless nature and gets him out of his wife’s hair, he said, laughing.
“What else is an old redneck country boy going to do?” he said.
The Stone case felt personal for him because one of Smith’s daughters had been enrolled with Stone in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Photographic self-portraits that Stone took still hang in his house in the country. He speaks admiringly of her talent and drive.
“I don’t think it was a serial killer. I think it was some guy who was travelling through,” he said. The hefty reward-$30,000--would have flushed out any street-level locals in the know, he said. “Hell, I had a thousand dollars of my own money I was offering, which was considerable 20 years ago,” he said. “Not so much nowadays” he adds.
The fund totaled around $30,000, he said. Then he adds: “I think it’s still there.”
Most current Grady students have never heard of the murder, but they are familiar with the award named in her honor. And when Sandi Turner speaks to the UGA ad club in presenting the Jennifer Lynne Stone Award for Creative Advertising, she makes sure students hear not just about the tragic victim, but about the flesh and blood young woman, the best friend, and the creative spirit who loved animals and cried during "Breakfast at Tiffany’s."
“We’re all thinking of her – everyone – on that day,” Turner said. “The 23rd carries special weight, and it will forever.”
After Stone’s death, safety became a major priority downtown, and the police presence increased markedly. The ADDA’s Burnett remember how officers were again stationed in the Costa building on Washington Street.
“They got the lights up – they got cameras on two streets,” said Eberhardt. “People were more cautious.”
Nowadays, the six blocks comprising the main dining and entertainment district are almost over-policed, Matthews said.
20 years of dead ends
DNA analysis at the GBI crime lab suggests that the hair found in Stone’s home was African American. The mitochondrial DNA from that hair matched DNA from the semen. That indicated the intruder was black or of mixed race.
“We found two or three of those hairs,” Smith said. But before those results came back, samples were taken from friends and acquaintances for elimination purposes.
That was a slow process.
In the early 1990s, there was no cheek swab. Blood had to be drawn, and then there was a long wait for the results from the crime lab in Decatur. At the time of her death, Stone had been caught between two boyfriends when one left town and later returned. Both young men were cleared.
“We did two boyfriends. We did the friends in the group. Before we knew the possibility of the light-skinned black male, we were hitting everybody,” Smith said. “Then, we started going wider, talking to people from the downtown music scene, townies, you know?”
Like a lot of major police investigations, the trail was full of dead ends. One kid, about 19, demanded a lot of attention from the investigators. “He kept saying, I may have killed her.”
Police found a flimsy cause – underage alcohol possession - and got a municipal court warrant. They tracked him to Shreveport, where he was working as a day laborer cleaning out a warehouse. As police pulled up, he ran. “It was a great movie shot,” Smith said, laughing. The man waived extradition and was chained up and driven back to Georgia. “That son of a bitch talked from the time we left Shreveport to the time we got back to Georgia.”
As police sped back to Athens, their hopes began to rise a little. “This guy was talking incessantly about weird stuff he’d done with his girlfriend.” So it was a big disappointment when the blood test came back negative.
Various psychics called the police department offering visions and feelings, but nothing panned out.
One of the oddest chapters in the investigation, according to Smith, was chasing down the rumor that a judge’s son had killed Stone – classic grist for the small-town gossip mill. It was a story that he said emerged out of the Athens “barslime.” Some barflies at a local watering hole were speculating on whether the man could have killed Stone. As the chatter spread, it was converted from speculation to fact, and is still sometimes whispered around town.
“It was like, ‘Damn, oh, the judge’s son killed someone and the police are covering it up.’”
In fact, police proved the man had a solid alibi. He was car-less and visitor-less in rehab in Greene County.
Police were dead in the water until Stone’s cameras came up. Two and a half months into the murder probe, Athens-Clarke drug and vice unit officer Kirk Graham searched a duplex in North Athens and found a Nikon camera in a blue bag in the bedroom. The serial number matched one of Stone’s two missing cameras. Police had kept the robbery secret from the press. The cameras led police to three suspects.
Among them was Donald “Heavy” Wilson, a one-time homeless man from Atlanta who helped piece together events between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. after the killing. As he recalled, Wilson was going up the steps to his boarding house on Hancock Avenue near downtown when a man on foot called to him from the street.
“He said ‘Hey - where can I get rid of a camera? He was carrying something,” Smith said. “Wilson said the man had a camera, and it was a nice camera.”
Wilson pointed the stranger toward a pool hall down the street on Hancock, where the man swapped it for a crack rock. As he was smoking the crack, somehow it came up that he had another camera.
The stranger swapped the second camera for another rock of crack with someone in Parkview, a public housing complex across Broad Street near downtown. The guy in Parkview took the stolen camera to his parent’s place in Oglethorpe County.
“When his name came up he said, ‘I still got that camera,’” Smith said. “The Canon was hanging on a nail in the hallway of his parent’s house. We got it back and checked the serial number and that was it.”
An analysis showed all sorts of fingerprints. A roll of film still contained shots Jenny had taken of her niece and nephew, part of the mock ad campaign for peanut butter. Other random frames showed the street where the cameras were being passed around after the murder.
Locals describe the suspect as a light-skinned black man, about five foot ten, with a moustache. But he was never identified and he disappeared.
Eventually, prosecutors dropped charges of theft by receiving stolen property against three seemingly cooperative suspects. There were few good leads after that, according to Smith, who began to get frustrated. A man in Savannah fit the description. By the time police caught up to him, he was living in Las Vegas. Sent out West to check out the man, Smith’s heart leapt when the door opened to reveal a light-skinned black man with a moustache, but it became obvious the open, friendly man was no killer. It turned out that a former tenant of his in San Francisco, somewhat unbalanced, had linked the landlord to the murder when he refused to buy the tenant a new refrigerator.
One of the last men Smith checked out had worked at the Varsity and lived for a while at the Garden Apartments at Hancock and Pope, in the vicinity of the camera swapping. Smith was sent to Houston to check him out – at the same time that a major oil convention had clogged airports and depleted the town’s stock of rental cars. It was another dead end, a case of a jealous boyfriend reporting a rival.
“That’s when I got frustrated with these leads,” Smith said. “Nobody knows who killed this girl and they’re running my ass off. So I guess that was the last trip I went anywhere looking for someone. We still gathered blood from anybody and everybody that came up.”
If the attacker is alive, and if he reoffends and is caught, his DNA will be captured as he enters the prison system. The DNA from the hair and semen collected from Stone’s apartment is still crosschecked monthly with convicted felons and unidentified criminals with genetic profiles on the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. And it will continue to be checked until the case is solved, according to Capt. Clarence Holeman, head of the Athens-Clarke County Police Criminal Investigation Division.
“That’s basically the end of it, except I sure do wish we could catch the son of a bitch,” Smith says. “I still have my thousand dollars in it. I might increase it a little bit.” He still thinks about the case, particularly when he’s watching local TV news or travelling. “I go back and ask, ‘Did I do everything I could have done?’” When he gets together with his cop friends, they ask themselves, “What if that son of a bitch is dead?”
One of these days, Smith said, he’s going to write a book, but he’d rather wait and write one about finding Stone's killer rather than one full of lingering questions.
He likes to write success stories.
(Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Athens Patch)