Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tomato Patch Murder: Crowder up for parole review

Crowder’s file up for parole review
Long County case became infamously known as Tomato Patch Murders
Patty Leon
After serving 14 years of a life sentence Billy Crowder has become eligible and is currently under review by the Georgia Department of Pardon and Paroles Board.
Crowder garnered unwanted notoriety during his murder trial held in the summer of 1998 in Long County Superior Court. He, his family and his friend Jason Jordan stood accused of a heinous crime against his grandfather, Thurman Martin.
The trial and subsequent series of events placed the small community of Ludowici on the map as events unfolded on the local news and later became a national sensation when a documentary about the family, murder and trial aired on A&E, Court TV and even 20/20.
The story involved the alleged abuse of an entire family, a murder and a cover-up; all culminating to Crowder’s verdict and what even some of the jurors called a miscarriage of justice in the sentencing.
Crowder, who was 19 at the time, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and was sentenced to 10 years. But it was his life sentence for his conviction on armed robbery; the removal of $600 from Martin’s wallet after being killed that caught the jurors off guard. And the story of abuse he and his family faced at the hands of Martin captured the nation’s attention.
Crowder’s life was dramatically altered in the summer of 1997.
Case background
According to earlier print and television news reports and transcripts from A&E’s “American Justice: Justifiable Homicide,” program recounting Crowder’s case, Billy Crowder and his sister Katie, then 18, were living at Martin’s house in Ludowici during the summer of 1997. Crowder’s mother Diane Stanton and step-father John Stanton lived in a trailer at the rear of Martin’s house. All appeared normal but on May 19, 1997 Crowder called the Long County Sheriff’s Office to report his grandfather was missing. Not having any reasons to suspect foul play the Sheriff’s Department, the City of Ludowici Police Department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened a missing person’s case.
Some of Martin’s clothes were missing and being that Martin was a former auto mechanic and truck driver it looked as if he had left on his own accord. But subsequent visits to the family’s house and a sudden shocking and untimely allegation by Martin’s daughter, who claimed she had been raped by her father multiple times, led authorities to believe the family knew more about his disappearance than they led on.
Authorities eventually got a break in the case. Crowder’s friend Jason Jordan, then 17, went to vacation in North Carolina shortly after Martin disappeared. After a night of heavy drinking he reportedly bragged to his friends saying he witnessed a murder in Ludowici.
That information made its way to the GBI and all the parties involved were brought in individually for questioning.  After failing a polygraph test administered on June 30, 1997 Jordan reportedly confessed they he had been involved in Martin’s murder. Shortly afterwards Crowder also failed a polygraph and when pressed by police he gave a voluntary confession to murdering his grandfather, saying that he, John Stanton, and Jason Jordan had shot and killed Martin in his sleep.
On July 3rd, 1997 Crowder and Jordan were arrested and police found Martin’s body, wrapped in a plastic shower curtain and buried under a freshly planted strip of tomato plants in his back yard - the case of the Tomato Patch Murder was born.
John Stanton later confessed to his role in the murder and Diane Stanton and Katie Crowder later pled guilty to their role in concealing the crime.
The Trials
Jordan was tried and found guilty of murder and hindering the apprehension of a criminal. Long County Judge Robert Russell sentenced Jordan to life. Katie Crowder pled guilty to hiding evidence, was sentenced to 100 days in a detention center and five years probation. Diane Stanton pled guilty but mentally ill to hindering the apprehension of a criminal. She was sentenced to 360 days in a detention center, 12 months of psychological treatment at a Florida hospital and five years probation.
John Stanton and Crowder were tried last and together.
It was during their trial that the Crowder testified to years of abuse at the hands of Martin. Crowder’s defense attorney Hal Peel, since deceased, hired an expert on domestic abuse, psychologist Daniel Grant who interviewed Crowder and his family and it painted a grim picture of Martin. The interviews and testimony were presented during Crowder’s trial.
According to reports the abuse began when Crowder’s mother was a child and allegedly subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse throughout her life. By the time she reached 19 Diane Stanton moved out of her father’s house but already struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Shortly after she moved out she gave birth to Billy.
It was reported that Martin took Billy away from his mother and raised him as his own. Crowder said as he became older he began to experience his grandfather’s abuse.
“He just slapped me and kicked me and punched me; hit me with wrenches, hammers, welding rods, fan belts, water hoses, just whatever was in arm's reach,” Crowder told the news crew during the documentary.
It appeared that Crowder had only one nurturing influence in his life during these troubled times, his grandmother Lula Kate.
When Crowder’s beloved grandmother, who was suffering from lung cancer, became too ill to manage household chores in 1991, Martin reportedly called Crowder’s mom and demanded she send Crowder’s younger sister Katie, then only 12 to live with him. Diane Stanton reportedly feared her father so much she obeyed.
During the trial Crowder recounted beatings he took for simply waxing the car incorrectly. Abuse he, his mother and other relatives that testified said went on for several years.
Years of torment that eventually trickled down to Katie and abuse against his beloved grandmother Lula Kate.
Crowder said they couldn’t flee, couldn’t leave because Martin always threatened to find and kill them.
“He come out there and basically put a gun to our head and said, ‘If you don't come back, I'll kill you,’” Crowder told reporters. “Plus I had my sister there with me, and I just couldn't leave her with him.”
Crowder’s grandmother died in February 1997, just three months before Crowder took measures into his own hands.
Shortly after Lula Kate’s death Crowder’s sister begged her mother to move into the trailer behind Martin’s house saying she was terrified of the old man.
Diane and her husband John Stanton moved in. Crowder’s mom said the abuse she experienced as a child soon resumed.
Crowder testified that shortly after waxing his grandfather’s car, on May 18, 1997, Martin lost his temper and lashed out at him for using the wrong type of wax.
“He sat there and beat me and busted my nose, mouth,” Crowder told new crews. “I had blood all down my T-shirt and all. And he just kept on beating me.”
Something Snapped
Crowder said something just happened that night. He called his friend Jason Jordan and he worked out a plan.
Crowder reportedly got some guns, picked up Jordan and went back to his mother’s trailer. John Stanton agreed to be a part of the plan and joined the two young men. Crowder crept in Martin’s house through the back window and let his accomplices in through the front door. Jordan stayed in the kitchen while Crowder and Stanton walked toward Martin’s bedroom. Crowder reportedly walked in the room, found his sleeping grandfather and shot him several times in the head.

Stanton then took his turn shooting Martin. Jordan reportedly turned down his turn to shoot saying Martin was already dead. The trio started to cover up their tracks wrapping Martin up in a shower curtain and buried him in a shallow grave in the back yard.
Then they made it appear as if Martin had left town. As he threw Martin’s belongings in a bag Crowder found his wallet. It contained $600 and Crowder said he used the money to buy groceries and pay some household bills. It was the taking of the money that would lead to the armed robbery charge and a life sentence.
The next morning May 19, 1997 Crowder reported the old man missing.
Crowder’s mother and sister learned the truth about the murder and allegedly cleaned up the crime scene.
Realizing the shallow grave would give them away; Crowder and Jordan went to the garden store and found some tomato plants. It was later reported that Crowder got the idea from a 1995 movie called “The Last Supper.” The film featured a group of young friends who killed unsuspecting dinner guests and buried them in a tomato garden.
As the story unfolded in the court room the local news and print media dubbed the trial – The Tomato Patch Murder.
Stanton was found guilty of murder but acquitted of armed robbery. Being frail and battling bone cancer throughout most of the trial and the latter part of his life Stanton died while serving his prison sentence.
Crowder was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and was sentenced to 10 years. But the jury also found him guilty of armed robbery and Judge Robert Russell sentenced Crowder to life for the offense.
Many jurors felt the sentence was excessive and filed a letter of appeal asking the judge to reconsider his life sentence for armed robbery, to no avail. An appeal was also filed by Crowder’s attorney challenging the charge of armed robbery but it was denied.
Crowder was taking to Telfair Prison but was transferred to Wilcox state Prison in December 2009. He is now 34 years old.
Current Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden was the prosecutor for the state during for Crowder’s trial. He said he can’t believe it’s been 14 years since Crowder’ s hearing and sentencing but added he stands by the jury’s and judge’s decision.
“It was interesting trying the case and interesting watching press coverage of the trial,” Durden said. “However it is what it is and the evidence stands for what it is. I can’t quarrel with what the jury did or what the judge did nor would I. That is not my place in this system. It was a tough decision for the jurors, it was a tough decision for the judge in sentencing and I still believe that justice was done.”
The Coastal Courier newspaper received a hand written letter from Billy Crowder on Jan. 27, 2012. He said he has spent his time in prison developing his working skills.
Before his life changed forever Crowder had graduated high school and was attending a technical college to pursue his passion for automotive technology. In his letter Crowder said he has completed his studies in automotive technology. He has also studied computer technology and electrical and mechanical engineering among other things.
 He said he longs to open up his own automotive repair shop but more importantly he longs to be with his new wife and family who live in Alabama. Crowder got married this past New Year’s Eve.
“I have all his certificates and all the things he has done,” Tonia Crowder, Billy’s new wife said. “He’s actually worked for the warden and his staff. I’ll tell them (parole board) who I am and that he has a good family to come home to. “I met Billy in 2004. I had watched the show just like everybody else…the one that aired on A&E. I watched it…my grandmother had raised me and I just wrote Billy a letter telling him that I had seen the show and was sorry for what happened (to him).”
Tonia Crowder said her three children were much younger when she and Crowder started corresponding. She said at that point in her life her kids and job were her first priority but they wrote letters to each other and she visited him a few times maintaining a cordial friendship.
“She has been in my life for the last year but first came into my life in 2004,” Crowder wrote in the letter. She has always been a magnificent woman…always wanted to stand by me...I just wouldn’t allow her (at first). I did not want to rob her of her life back then. I had a long time to go before parole.”
But back in February 2011, and with her kids now grown up, Billy and Tonia Crowder reconnected and their relationship intensified. On New Year’s Eve the couple exchanged vows at Wilcox State Prison.
“She has always been so supportive of me,” Billy Crowder wrote. “She is a fairy tale come true and has always been there for me…and she has shown me true love.”
“He still has a lot of compassion and has a positive outlook and just wants to make something of himself,” Tonia Crowder said. “Even after all that has happened…He is looking forward to getting out and pursuing his automotive career and start a small business. Billy is very smart and everyone who knows him knows he is an intelligent person. I still see that in him. He has a big heart and is a caring person.”
Crowder has expressed remorse for his actions.
I am sorry that I took a human life,” he wrote in the letter. “I wish I had not snapped.” Crowder said, given the knowledge he has now, he would have somehow captured the abuse on video, cell phone or other means. He said that way he would have something concrete and credible to present and maybe it would be Martin serving time in jail not him.
“People knew he was being abused but they were actually afraid to confront anybody fearing that he (Martin) would turn around and hurt them,” Tonia Crowder said. “People knew of the abuse but they were scared to bring it to anybody’s attention because they didn’t want something bad to happen to Katie and them.”
Parole Process
The fate of Crowder’s parole lies in the hands of the five people that make up the parole board. According to Georgia Pardon and Paroles Public Affairs Director Steve Hayes the entire process begins with the clemency division preparing the offender file for the boards review and consideration.
The file contains the entire case transcripts, Crowder’s prison files listing his work, behavior and accomplishments during his incarceration, submitted information from his wife about where he would live and work if released. Offender files may contain victim impact statements and previous correspondence from victims as well as any other pertinent information submitted into his file.
 “And in this case, on a life case, it would be to either grant parole or not to grant at this time,” Hayes said. “They individually will review all the material and then they will make their individual decision. When it’s a majority decision, three out of five board members, once you get a majority decision to grant or not to grant that is the final decision.”
If Crowder is denied parole his case would be reconsidered at a future date, decided by the board, which could span a period between 1-8 years.
“If they decide to grant parole and there are victims, there is a process for victims,” Hayes explained. “Our office of Victim Services will notify registered victims and let them know that the board is considering the case.”
Hayes said the victims would then have a specific period of time to submit information to the board for consideration.
 “If they grant parole they may make a condition of work release so it would be a conditioned upon the completion of a Department of Corrections work release program,” Hayes said. The Department of Corrections assigns the offender to a transitional center work release program to acclimate that offender back into the community and a working environment. He would go to work during the day and go back to the center at night and they could make that a pre-condition to his parole… if he wasn’t able to complete that for some reason it could lead to the board rescinding his parole grant. The board can rescind a parole grant at any time up until the actual release.”
Tonia Crowder said she is looking forward to the day she and Billy can be a normal loving family.
“He has been locked up for 14 years after going through all the stuff that he did,” she said. “But he has turned out to be a really good man. He is good with my kids. My youngest daughter absolutely loves him. She actually wears him out during a visit. She is all over him and he loves it. He just wants to have a family and he is looking forward to being with all of us.”
Tonia Crowder said if Billy is released there is one place he does wants to go to first.
“The first place he did tell me he wants to go to if he gets out is to go visit his grandmother’s grave,” she said.
As for re-connecting with his family, Tonia Crowder said Crowder’s sister has been somewhat estranged from Billy and he hardly talked to his mom.
“I think he got one phone call from his mom and she was ugly about his grandmother and he hasn’t talked to her anymore,” she said. “He has no plans to look back. He doesn’t want to look back.”
She is also determined to stay on top of things should her husband be denied parole.
“I told him as far as that goes we would still hang in there and be positive about it. I want to do everything possible that I can to get him out. He has done enough time. We are still going to try and be positive and pursue every option that we can. What can we do? Fourteen years was mandatory….so if he is denied…it can up again anytime again after that,” Tonia Crowder said. “I will probably be staying on the parole board pretty hard. They will know me personally.  I will be there for every little thing and they will probably get tired of dealing with me.”
“I pray that this year I get the chance to finally start my life,” Billy Crowder wrote.