Cold case justice — Man gets 30 years in prison for brutal rape-assault 22 years ago

Joe L. Arnold. Photo/Fayette County Jail.
Joe L. Arnold. Photo/Fayette County Jail.

A McDonough man on March 10 pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in a cold case from 1998 in which he was accused of beating a Fayette woman with a baseball bat and raping her. Sheriff Barry Babb acknowledged the work of investigators in solving the cold case.

Joe Louis Arnold, 46, entered a guilty plea to one count of rape and one count of false imprisonment, and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, according to District Attorney Marie Broder.

Broder handled the case and presented the plea to the Superior Court Judge Rhonda Kreuziger, who accepted it. The victim and her family were present at the plea and addressed the court in a victim impact statement.

“Arnold pled guilty to entering the home of the victim on March 24, 1998, beating her with a baseball bat, and raping her in her kitchen. The case went unsolved until Nov. 18, 2020 when the defendant was arrested,” Broder said.

“The Fayette County Sheriff’s Office in 2020 requested that the DNA from the rape kit undergo familial DNA analysis. After that analysis, the defendant’s profile emerged as a match to the profile from the rape kit. A confirmation test was performed at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the defendant’s DNA was indeed a match to the DNA in the rape kit. After the confirmation, the defendant was arrested,” Broder continued.

Commenting on the work involved that culminated in the plea, Broder said, “This was truly a team effort between my office and the Fayette County Sheriff’s Office. I cannot say thank you enough to the sheriff’s office and the work they did on this case.”

“I am so proud of the victim and the strength she displayed throughout this case. She is a remarkable person, and I am honored to know her. This plea is a testament to tenacity and a refusal to give up on the part of all involved,” said Broder.

As noted in a Nov. 22, 2020 report by The Citizen, Sheriff Barry Babb said it was on March 24, 1998 at approximately 4 p.m. that the Fayette County 911 Center received a frantic call from a female in a residential area in the northwestern part of unincorporated Fayette County.

“As the first deputies arrived, they located the victim and secured the home,” Babb said. “Investigators arrived shortly after to process and document the crime scene. The victim was sexually assaulted and brutally beaten by an unknown lone assailant.”

Babb was a patrol sergeant at the time, whose shift was off duty when the rape occurred. Like others who were with the sheriff’s office in 1998, Babb said, “I won’t forget the call. It shook the county and us.”

Babb said the victim submitted to a sexual assault exam and evidence collection at the Fayette Community Hospital, in operation at that time for approximately one year.

Numerous man hours were put into solving this case, he added. After canvassing the neighborhoods, traffic checkpoints and multiple interviews, the leads were exhausted. The case went cold.

“We always knew the answer to solving this would lie in the DNA collected during the sexual assault exam and other variables relating to the case. In late 2019, newly promoted Chief Investigator Major Ethon Harper reopened the case,” said Babb. “Maj. Harper spoke with the victim, and with her permission, began an almost-year-long look back into time. The investigation developed enough probable cause for an arrest. Detectives met with District Attorney Marie Broder, who has cold case prosecution experience. With D.A. Broder’s support, detectives moved forward with arresting the suspect.”

Babb in the 2020 report said Harper was working as a patrolman the day the incident occurred 22 years ago, and never stopped thinking about solving this case after he became an investigator.

“When I promoted him to Chief Investigator, he stated he wanted to look back into some of our cold cases,” Babb noted. “I don’t think I have ever met anyone that works any harder for justice for victims. He is a true credit to his calling.”

Commenting on the case and giving credit to so many others, Harper said, “After an initial case review and strategy session I handed the developing investigation over to one of our best and most experienced major case detectives, Sgt. Clint Patton. He has done an amazing job picking up where the team in 1998 left off.

“None of this could have been accomplished without the effort put in 22 years ago,” Harper continued. “Lastly, there are no words to describe how it feels to break the news of an arrest to the victim and her husband. What an amazing story of strength, survival and devotion to one another.”

Babb said special appreciation goes to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab, the Federal Bureau of Investigation Atlanta Field Office and members of the U.S. Marshal Service Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force. All have made contributions to the case.