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December 18, 2003 Issue

This is how you wear it...
The only thing missing at the Christmas parade in Louisville is the snow. Overcast skies and cold temperatures make a perfect backdrop for the Dec. 13 parade, sponsored annually by Louisville Lions Club. The parade is always preceded by a showcase of crafts by local artists and an endless variety of food.







Avery lived with death threats

• She knew what her ex-husband was capable of

By Parish Howard

"If anything ever happens to me, it was him."

Becky Kirby Avery told friends, family and coworkers if she ever turned up dead or missing who would be responsible. She told them more than once.


The threats weren't secrets she kept; they weren't bruises she was ashamed of and she didn't blame herself. No, the pain was a part of her life and she took the threats and dealt with them straight on, like she handled everything else.

While she may never have foreseen that her ex-husband, the father of her two children and a man she had once loved, would show up at her home with a loaded shotgun and actually use it, she definitely knew he was capable of it.

Her friends knew Becky carried a .38 caliber handgun in her purse next to her coral-colored lipstick and that she took it with her everywhere she went.

"She knew it was going to happen," more than one family member has said in the days following her body being found in her Stapleton home on Dec. 4. More than one friend has hauntingly said, "She told us."

While they'll never know all the answers to why this happened or how things could go so wrong between her and Jim Avery, the man she was married to for nearly 20 years, Becky herself has answered some of the questions of what led up to her murder and her ex-husband's subsequent suicide.

As coworkers at The News and Famer/The Jefferson Reporter cleaned out her office last week, placing her miniature fountain, herbal remedies and other personal items in two cardboard boxes, they came across a sheet of stamps with the crayon image of a crying woman running from a square little house and the words "Stop Family Violence" in each tiny frame.

"There were a tea pot, little pieces of poetry stuck on the wall and her computer," said Joyce D. Beverly, the newspaper's publisher. "What struck me most was that this was a person who very much desired some peace. In the midst of all this chaos, she was just trying to hang on."

While going through her computer, saving the digital images from her 21-year-old daughter, Deidra's September wedding into a special file, they came across something else. Becky's own answer to how this happens, to how she saw things escalate from anger to threats to acts to worse was saved there in a text file.

Her family says she had been recording these events for court. The day after she was killed, she and Jim were expected to appear in court in what they both believed would be the final hearing for custody of their 14-year-old son, Bryan.

In her words

The events she recorded begin a couple of years ago, not long after settling the divorce Jim, a trucker at the time, had asked for.

"On one occasion, early on, after he told me he wasn't going to pay me $300 a week (child support) anymore... We argued over the phone, he threatened to see to it that I was 'out on the street.' The next time he came in off the road, he did not tell me, and went to the house, picked up my kids and left with them. I had no idea; I was at work. I kept calling the house…I panicked and left work to find them."

A short while later, she passed them in the road.

"He finally pulled over, got out, came to the back of the truck and told me he was taking the kids with him. I said, 'No, you can't do that.' He said he would. When I tried to go to the truck to get the kids, he started shoving me backwards and said he would kill me."

Eventually, after calling the Glascock County Sheriff, the children left with her.

"I called him later and told him he could take the kids out to dinner and spend time with them, but he had to agree not to ever come unannounced again, because he really scared me."

He agreed and while she went back to work, he picked the children up from her house.

"He sent them out to the truck and proceeded to use a screwdriver punching holes in the tower unit of my computer."

She describes another occasion where she told him of a plan to sell some of their property to pay for some repairs on the roof of their house. She says that he told her he wanted half the money, regardless of the fact that she had been making the payments and that he had not been paying child support.

"He then told me he was going to solve all his problems, he was going to kill me, and that I could call the police, it wouldn't matter because they would not be able to recognize me when they got there. I said 'you're threatening to kill me over money? And not even a lot of money?' to which he replied, 'I would kill my own mother over money.' I take his threats very seriously. I never feel safe when he is around. I have not yet sold the land."

The threats took their toll, but it was the people closest to her who really saw it.

At her funeral, Becky's mother, Joann Kirby, recalled her daughter as the determined child marching off to kindergarten.

"No tears, no fears...just a resolute, 'I can do this myself!' and Becky marched into life," Kirby read her daughter's eulogy. "She heard the beat of a different drum, a beat not always understood or approved by others. Nevertheless, where Becky thought she needed to go, she turned her face in that direction and moved on, usually confident and upbeat. And yet in recent years, as some of you know, an uncustomary sadness moved into Becky's life, over some things she did not seem able to conquer. Although she tried, every way she knew, she tried."

Yes, her mother knew about the threats, but she also knew her daughter's determination.

"He has threatened to file bankruptcy and force me to sell the house, land and truck if I didn't agree to accept $50 a week as child support…I reluctantly agreed," Becky wrote.

Not long after that, he stopped paying even that.

On August 1, about four months before the killing, he announced that he had decided to sue her for custody of their son.

"I asked Jim why he was doing this, his reply was 'I'm going to live every day of my life to make yours miserable.' It was then I realized I could no longer handle this situation and decided to retain a lawyer."

Remembering the threats

When the threats got really bad, she had an alarm system installed that would call law enforcement at the push of a button. But, with money getting tighter and tighter, she had to have it turned off.

Becky regularly spoke to her mother in California about the threats.

Kirby said she knew her daughter was afraid of Jim. She said her daughter had not yet sought a restraining order because she was trying to keep a low profile. She wanted things to go smoothly and she didn't want to make him angry.

"It was after he called and told her he was going to get her and she wouldn't know when, but that he was coming that she went out and got the gun," Kirby said. "She told me that when she came in from work, she always tried to keep an eye out for parked cars on the side streets near her house."

Within the month before he killed her, he had turned off the power on her Stapleton home. The service was still in his name and he canceled it on a Friday, when according to Becky, he knew she would have to go through the weekend without electricity, without heat, before she could have it turned back on the next week.

That weekend she went to her aunt Ruth Blanchard's house and the two of them painted their toe nails and talked about the future, about her recent raise and coming move from the local paper's graphic artist position to The Augusta Chronicle's new community desk. A week or two later she bought a new car to get better mileage on her coming trips to Augusta.

Then sometime between 9:30 p.m. Wednesday Dec. 3 and Thursday morning Jim came to her home and shot her several times. He then went home, took their son to school the next morning and later, as officers stormed through the door of his Gibson home, he took his own life.

"That Friday," Kirby said of the day after her daughter's body was found, "they were supposed to go to court for the final custody hearing. And she had resigned herself to the fact that her son was going to live with his father."

What can be done

Since that day people have asked, "What can be done? How can this be prevented?"

Those who knew Becky, who saw her living through it everyday, just shrug their shoulders. They don't know the answers, but some of them have ideas.

"In school now they are taking all threats seriously," said Julie Seargent, a cousin, coworker and close personal friend of Becky's. "Why can't our system do that?

"Every time she tried to do something to get ahead, to dig herself out of debt, he was there to knock her back down, emotionally, mentally. You're only a bully up to a certain age. After that you're just an aggressive, abusive person."

Officers with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office said they were surprised when they heard that the threats were common knowledge.

"I wish we'd known something about it," Sheriff Gary Hutchins said. "We might not have been there to stop it, but maybe we could have done something before it got that far."

Jefferson County officers alone have responded to 180 domestic dispute calls since December of 2002.

Of those, 65 or 70 have resulted in some type of charge. Others were handled by talking it out.

"It seems to be on the rise," Hutchins said. "And not just men against women, but women beating up men, and parents children, and even sometimes, children getting aggressive with their parents."

A lot of the time they say they find they are called to break up a fight, but are then asked to get out of it.

"They just want us to stop it; they don't really want us to send their family member to jail," Hutchins said. "But we have the power now to take out a warrant against either or both parties we feel was the aggressor."

The sheriff said he would really like to catch these cases before they get too far. He recommends anyone whose life is threatened contact either law enforcement or some type of support system for the abused.

"Even if you don't have proof," he said, "just letting officers know so they can fill out a report will help. Maybe a judge can send him to counseling, something, anything to try to prevent it from going any further."

Linda Walker, a victim advocate with the Sunshine House, a local advocacy center which works with victims of domestic abuse, says that education is the answer.

"One big problem with domestic abuse, and officially that can be any abuse between two people who have ever lived together is that nobody wants to talk about it," Walker said. "Something has to be done about it before it gets so bad that someone has to get x-rays."

In the end

In the end those who knew her, those who loved her, are left with a lot of maybes. Maybe her husband couldn't stand that she could make it without him. Maybe something snapped or something was said or he realized that as much as he wanted it to be the other way around, he needed her a lot more than she needed him.

"You can't know what's eating a person," Becky's mother said Monday, the day after she had entered the shotgun blast- riddled house for the first time. "He wasn't always like that. They had a beautiful wedding and they were in love, once."

At some point he changed and it is impossible to say for sure when or why.

"Deidra (their daughter) told me the other day that her father had been dead a long time," Kirby said.

Over the last few months he had changed. He had tried to take Becky's money, her sense of safety, her family, her self respect. But if he succeeded in these at all, it was only for a little while. Throughout it all she persevered, she took it and took it and did what she believed was right and best for her children.

"She loved Deidra and Bryan, and her attention in recent times was turned toward them," Kirby said at the funeral. "Becky never coddled them. She knew love had to be tough in a tough world."

In the end her ex-husband had to know this. He must have realized that with her recent promotion and the support of her family and friends, Becky was doing better for herself and, in the end, he decided to take the last thing from her he knew he could take.

"We have a wild rose blooming on the hills of home today," her mother said last Tuesday, standing over her daughter's casket. "Becky is at peace and not afraid anymore, safe in the arms of our loving Lord."

Search warrant reveals reasons for investigation of coroner

• Among the possible charges under scrutiny are theft, false statements and writings, concealment of facts and violation of oath by a public officer

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

Recently obtained information from search warrants executed Sept. 19 at the home and office of Jefferson County Coroner Johnny Nelson questions whether criminal actions had been committed.

Issuance of the search warrants stemmed from an affidavit filed with Superior Court on Sept. 17, based on a June 2 request from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office that Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) look into the matter. Facts of the agency’s investigation, leading to the application for the search warrants, “tend to establish probable cause that a crime has been, or is being committed,” the application said. Potential violations stemming from the ongoing investigation include theft by taking, false statement and writings, concealment of facts and violation of oath by a public officer. Copies of the search warrants and accompanying information were obtained under the Georgia Open Records Law.

Documentation seized in the searches of Nelson’s residence and office included two computers, 207 file folder(s) containing documentation relating to deceased persons/coroner’s investigations, a 2001 invoice to the Jefferson County commissioners, a hospice document, a file folder containing hospice records and four death certificates. The search warrants contained a no-knock provision at both locations, allowing agents to enter the property immediately without knocking or giving verbal notice of their intent to enter.

Nelson declined to make a statement regarding the investigation.

Under scrutiny

One of the areas of inquiry involved Nelson receiving a $200 check from Hawthorne Funeral Home in Mt. Vernon, Washington. The affidavit stated that a conversation with the funeral home revealed that the check had been issued. Nelson reportedly said he “would need the money prior to signing the death certificate.” The agent was told that Nelson also requested that the funeral home send him “a few hundred dollars so that (he) could pay a life insurance policy on a family member.” The funeral home furnished GBI with a copy of the cancelled check with Nelson’s endorsement and indicated that they did not send the additional funds he requested.

Another area of inquiry involved included Nelson’s claim to local health officials that “There were new procedures for handling deaths occurring in nursing homes and emergency rooms” and that Nelson said “it was now his responsibility to sign all death certificates because the attending physician could no longer sign death certificates because they did not know the circumstances surrounding each death,” the affidavit said. Health officials told GBI agents Nelson never brought paperwork reflecting the changes in policy, as they requested, according to the affidavit.

When contacted last week, Georgia Coroner’s Training Council Chairman Edgar Perry said that while coroners do investigate deaths in emergency rooms and nursing homes, he was not aware of any new policy that would make all deaths coroner’s cases.

Also questioned was Nelson’s investigation into hospice cases. Agents interviewed several persons whose family members died while in hospice and “learned that the coroner had claimed to have initiated an investigation, but had never contacted the families concerning his investigation or come to the scene where the death occurred,” the report said. A check of county records, agents said, revealed that the coroner or his deputy had been paid the customary $125 death investigation fee for investigating several deaths of people in hospice care. Hospice deaths do not fall under a coroner’s jurisdiction unless according to Perry, foul play is suspected. The affidavit said probable cause “exists to show that the coroner falsified documents in order to receive payment from the county for investigations the coroner’s office did not conduct.”

A September Open Records Law request made to the Jefferson County Commission office in Louisville showed that a total of 304 deaths have been investigated by the coroner’s office between the time Nelson took office Jan. 1, 2001 and August 2003. Jefferson County Health Department reports a total of 515 death certificates issued during the same period.

Coroners in Georgia are paid $125 per death investigation. Of the deaths investigated, Nelson was paid $17,500 for the 140 deaths he investigated since taking office. Deputy coroner Mike Bennett was paid $20,250 for investigating 162 deaths and former deputy coroner Fay McGahee was paid $250 for investigating two deaths.

County Administrator Paul Bryan said in September that the coroner receives compensation for death investigations after submitting an itemized invoice to the commission office. He said the coroner’s office is not a revenue-generating center in the county budget and there is no provision within the budget to accept revenue for charges for his services. The coroner and deputy coroner receive a modest salary as required by law beginning in 2002. They also receive a mileage reimbursement for travel to the site of death investigations.

The state requires that either a coroner or a physician certify a death. Funeral home directors may sign a death certificate but only as it relates to the disposition of the body for purposes of burial or cremation.

Also required by the state and routed through local health departments are the fees associated with death certificates. A $10 fee is charged for a records search and one copy of the death certificate. Additional copies carry a $5 fee.

A Georgia Open Records Law request was made with county clerk Mickey Jones immediately after the Sept. 19 search warrants were executed. The request was made in order to determine what parameters were used as the basis of the search. Jones said he would provide notification as soon as the warrants were returned to his office. He was contacted on at least three other occasions in the following 10 weeks, where the importance of obtaining copies of the warrants, unless sealed, was stated. On each occasion he checked but determined that the warrants had not been returned to him. The most recent request was made Dec. 3. The News and Farmer/The Jefferson Reporter learned that an unsealed copy of the warrants was located in the clerk’s office only after their existence was verified later on Dec. 3 by GBI. A return visit to the clerk’s office resulted in the warrants being located by County Clerk Mickey Jones and a member of his office staff.

Concerning the three-week period the documents were located in his office without his knowledge, Jones said last week that he accepts responsibility for any actions or inactions in the office of Clerk of Superior Court of Jefferson County.

Thomson GBI spokesman Mike Siegler said Friday that the agency is still in the process of gathering evidence related to the investigation.


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