1 year later, unsolved Tyrone murder haunts deputies
If anybody deserved to be spared a deadly bullet, it was Donna Denice Roberts.
Known to everyone as Denice, she never, ever missed Sunday school at The Rock Baptist Church. She collected Barbie dolls, keeping them in their boxes in pristine condition. She loved horseback riding. She also suffered from cerebral palsy, a physical disability that necessitated her grandmother’s care for many years.
Denice died of a single gunshot wound to the head nearly a year ago, on Aug. 10, 2012 on the picturesque front porch of the home she shared with her grandmother at 192 Bohannon Road in rural northwest Fayette County. Denice had been shot by one of the burglars who were making their getaway from the home, just outside Tyrone near the Fulton-Fayette county line.
The shot came from a handgun more than 60 feet away, according to Fayette County Sheriff’s Detective Josh Shelton. Most marksmen would chalk that up as a “fluke” shot, given the distance involved.
The bullet struck Denice in her face just as her grandmother Betty Brown’s cellphone connected with a 911 operator in Fulton County. With a mournful wail, Betty tried to describe the horror she had just seen, that she was witnessing that very second. Her beautiful granddaughter, who never hurt a fly and loved the Lord, was dying right in front of her eyes.
Though they were caught by surprise, the burglary crew got away with enough jewelry to make it worth their while, even if they left behind a flat-screen TV in their rush to leave.
Seconds before the shooting, Betty spotted the burglars as she and Denice returned from a grocery trip. She retreated to the front porch, warned Denice, and called 911 on her cellphone.
“Mrs. Brown told Denice, ‘Don’t worry, I’m calling the police, honey,’” Shelton recalled.
The getaway car, which had backed in to the residence, reached the end of the driveway. Instead of speeding off, it slowed down. A window rolled down, and the deadly shot rang out.
Denice may have been an adult, but she was still Betty’s grandchild. On their way home from the grocery store, Betty spoiled her one last time. Celebrating their recent dietary willpower, they picked up ice cream from the nearby Sonic on the way home. A special treat.
Detectives summoned to the crime scene later would spot the melting ice cream next to Denice’s body — evidence of a very normal life that ended tragically.
“You just couldn’t have a more innocent victim,” Shelton said. “Never did anyone wrong.”
At a press conference pleading for information on the case days after the shooting, Betty Brown was surrounded by family members seeking to comfort and support her. Betty said that she and Denice were inseparable: together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
“She was my best friend, and I’m totally lost without her.”
Those involved in Denice’s murder have not been caught, as leads have dwindled in the investigation. Not knowing the make or model of the car, and without a solid description of the burglars, deputies early on took to knocking on neighbors’ doors, asking about suspicious activity in the area. Flyers were posted at stores in the area, and video footage from stores was reviewed in detail.
Deputies were so desperate for any information they conducted a roadblock in the area around the time of day the crime was committed, hoping to find anyone who may have seen anything that might break the case open.
Physical evidence is scant, and Shelton didn’t elaborate, on the chance it could lead to an arrest some day. There were no tire tracks, in part because of the gravel driveway and the dryness of the ground, Shelton explained.
It’s not much to go on, but Shelton is holding out hope. There were at least two burglars at the home that day, but only one of them fired the deadly shot.
“More than one person knows about this, and someone’s not going to be able to hold this in forever,” Shelton said.
Until that day comes, Shelton stays at the ready. The investigative file rests in his office in a white three-ring binder, with a church portrait of Denice Roberts on the front, with her beaming smile.
The binder is never far away from Shelton’s grasp, and for that matter neither is Denice’s spirit.
“This case is constantly in our consciousness. We are always thinking about this case because it is unsolved,” Shelton said, speaking for the multitude of detectives who worked the case from the get-go. A murder case at the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office is an “all hands on deck” probe from the very beginning, Shelton noted.
“It’s always in the back of your mind and more often than not in the front, especially at the anniversary now. We all think about it a lot but we’ll never give up on working it until it’s solved. It will never be pushed in the back of a drawer or forgotten about.”
There was a solid lead early in the case that was very promising relating to a possible connection between the murder weapon and a stolen car. Video surveillance, however, ruled it out as the car remained in a parking lot during the entire time the crime occurred, Shelton said.
Early on, Fayette detectives worked with their counterparts in Fairburn, and because Betty’s 911 call was routed to Fulton County’s E-911 system, Fairburn police and fire officials were first on the scene, Shelton explained.
Fairburn detectives and others in the south metro area were briefed in detail on the case in hopes that a burglary crew with a similar mode of operation would lead to the killers, Shelton explained. Fayette detectives have also kept an eye on pawn shops in case the stolen jewelry turns up.
Among the stolen jewelry was a class ring from 1968 with the name “Joey” inscribed on it, a class ring from an Alabama school. Also taken was a metal silver box with roses engraved on the top, a plain silver wedding band, a square-faced watch and two angel lapel pins.
Detectives interviewed Denice’s pastor to see if anyone had any ill will toward her in church.
They even spoke with a Direct TV installer on the outside, outside chance he may have somehow been involved, Shelton said.
Everywhere, a dead end.
Though Shelton feels confident he and his compatriots have followed every lead, the case has stuck in the back of his brain, with no chance of shaking it … until perhaps an arrest can be made.
“I never would have imagined having an open homicide would stick with you so much, be so present in your consciousness all the time,” Shelton said. “I really feel like we did what we could have, and that we’re doing what we can do, but that doesn’t make it any better.”
A year later, the resting place for the body of Donna Denice Roberts is the cemetery at The Rock Baptist Church, where she never, ever missed Sunday school, one and a half miles away from where she died.