In 1981 the population of Richland, Georgia was 2,000 souls . . . and at least one maniac.
On June 18th she scooted off for a quick moped ride after leaving church.
Approximately an hour later, perturbed by her failure to return,
Tanya’s family set off in search of her;
they located her motorbike a mile away,
abandoned on a country road—the gas tank was empty. Tanya, age 14, was nowhere to be found.
Although Tanya’s family immediately contacted authorities
the Richland Police Department declined to investigate—as was standard at the time,
officers assured Tanya’s loved ones she’d run away.
The Nix family knew something dire had transpired—Tanya was happy at home and hadn’t taken any belongings—but authorities were adamant no crime had been committed
and the Nixes had no choice but to search for Tanya on their own.
“The law enforcement officials said she ran away. I knew she didn’t run away, but they wouldn’t believe it. It was like she had vanished in thin air. This is something you see on television in Atlanta, Chicago or New York. We don’t have but about 2,000 people here. You think it couldn’t happen here, but I think [the abductor] is someone right here in the county—someone very sick.” Tanya’s father Grady Nix, UPI, December 28th, 1981
Four months after Tanya’s disappearance
firemen were called to extinguish a blaze in a rural shack three miles south of town;
amid the rubble lay a charred corpse bound with wire hangers.
Although the state of the remains precluded a determination of cause of death a wire ligature was wrapped around the corpse’s neck, indicating probable strangulation.
The body was that of a teenaged girl but the remains weren’t Tanya’s—with the aid of a spinal surgical pin and a melted class ring detectives were able to identify the decedent as Valerie Marie Sellers, age 17.
Although Valerie lived in the nearby town of Blakely she’d last been seen near her boyfriend’s house in Richland.
He was out hunting at the time, so Valerie left a note indicating she’d stopped by;
she was last spotted walking down a country road in the rain, presumably heading home.
The Nix family’s relief when Tanya was ruled out as match for the charred remains would prove short-lived:
two months later, on December 26th, a deer hunter in deep woods three miles north of town discovered another body.
Almost completely skeletonized, the corpse had been trussed to several small trees with thin metal wire,
the hands positioned and bound together as if resting in a coffin.
One of the bony fingers sported a small gold ring with a diamond chip.
It had been a Christmas gift—six months after taking off for a quick moped ride Tanya Nix had at last been found.
The similarities in Tanya and Valerie’s autopsy findings were extensive.
The state of both girls’ remains prevented the medical examiner from detecting evidence of sexual assault or a fixed cause of death,
but like Valerie, a wire garrote around Tanya’s neck indicated she’d likely been strangled.
Although local law enforcement was loath to proclaim the crimes linked the similitude between the girls’ murders was undeniable,
and the townsfolk of Richland quaked in terror.
Hospitality is a hallmark of small-town life, but locals began to look askance at strangers and longtime friends alike.
“Everybody in this town lives with fear day in and day out. I can’t leave my house without calling my mother. I’ve got a 15 month-old child and when I take her out of the car I’ve got her on one hip and a gun in my other hand.” Local resident Debra Perryman, Rome News Tribune, June 11th, 1982
Richland residents took measures to keep their children safe—curtailing outside activities and traveling in pairs—but vigilance failed to prevent another attack.
On March 28th, 1982—three months after the discovery of Tanya’s remains—7 year-old Laticia (sometimes spelled Latacia) Reddick was awakened at 3am.
Someone was crawling over her, and it wasn’t her sister Wanda Faye with whom she shared a bed.
A stranger sporting a large afro had broken into the Reddick home intent on abducting Wanda, age 16;
in the darkness Laticia couldn’t make out the intruder’s face—only his size, which was formidable.
When he reached Wanda the faceless stranger grabbed her by the throat and swung her off the bed;
her neck compressed, her screams were reduced to gurgles.
The assailant then walked out of the bedroom and out the Reddick front door,
still clutching his prey by the throat.
Laticia ran to wake her mother but the family’s search was momentarily delayed—the lights in the house didn’t work.
All the sockets were empty;
after gaining entry via an unlocked window the abductor had entered every room in the home and removed every single lightbulb.
The law enforcement response was swift;
more than 200 searchers scoured the local woodlands but no clues or evidence could be located and no trace of Wanda Faye could be found.
Due to jurisdictional issues a task force comprised of detectives from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Sheriffs’ Offices of Stewart and Webster counties was established,
but days passed and Wanda Faye remained missing.
“I just want her back—I just hope ain’t nobody killed her,” Wanda’s mother Rushie Reddick told a reporter from the UPI.
Five days after her abduction a rural mail carrier spotted Wanda Faye’s body face down in a secluded creek,
an area which had previously been searched.
The state of her remains indicated she’d been submerged shortly after being kidnapped,
leading investigators to surmise her corpse,
clad only in a tee-shirt, had only recently surfaced due to decomposition.
Wanda’s post mortem findings differed significantly from those of Tanya and Valerie.
Wanda had been wearing a tee-shirt and grey sweatpants when kidnapped, and her sweatpants had been repurposed as bindings—no wire had been utilized in her murder.
Her cause of death was dissimilar as well:
facial bruising indicated she’d been beaten,
and the back of her skull bore a gaping wound from a hatchet or axe.
Authorities have never announced whether Wanda was sexually assaulted,
and the current existence of physical evidence in all three murders is unknown.
Although there were some similarities in the crimes—all three victims were teenaged girls abducted, bound and murdered—a connection between Wanda’s death and the two previous slayings was far from clear-cut.
In the days before DNA linking crimes was a more difficult proposition—it was months before authorities admitted the first two murders were almost certainly related—and investigators tended to err on the side of caution.
Citing the differing causes of death and racial disparity—Wanda was black and Valerie and Tanya white—officials deemed Wanda Faye’s murder unconnected to the preceding crimes.
On the streets of Richland, however, most residents disagreed with this assessment.
Noting Wanda Faye’s relatively light complexion and Valerie and Tanya’s olive skin and dark hair
local Methodist minister Harold Brunson opined the disparities were inconsequential—common sense and the law of averages dictated the crimes were linked.
“I just don’t believe there are that many pathological killers walking the streets of a small community like this,” he told a journalist from the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
Within a span of twelve months three teenage girls had been murdered;
the community was in an uproar, with guns and home security devices flying from hardware store shelves.
As was de rigueur for the 1980s, many Richland residents were certain the crimes must be the work of Satanists—no god-fearing human could possibly be so depraved, townsfolk reasoned.
Investigators dutifully scrutinized all aspects of the crime for ritual trappings but no connection to lunar cycles or fingerprints of the dark lord could be found—this failed to assuage the populace, however, and the town rumor mill kicked into overdrive.
“In the last three cases one girl was found three miles north of Richland, another was found three miles to the west, and another three miles to the south. Folks think that if this is all connected another person may be found three miles to the east. I have a 16 year-old sister who was friends with Tanya Nix—she’s petrified. My mother just went to Columbus and bought a German Shepard.” Local teen Jack Keller, Rome News Tribune, April 5th, 1982
Richland was a town in turmoil;
residents were heavily armed and jumping at shadows—an accidental or mistaken-identity shooting seemed inevitable.
Hoping to hasten the investigation Richland mayor Adolph McClendon offered a reward of $650 to spur informants;
Georgia governor George Busbee later added $1000 to the fund.
(Those numbers aren’t typos, by the way—a buck went a lot further in days of yore, particularly in the Deep South.)
Weeks passed and the investigation remained at an impasse; local officials were feeling the heat.
Funeral director T.V. Williams gave voice to the community’s frustration:
“[The unsolved crimes] got everybody afraid and in a town this small I don’t see why we can’t find the fellow,” he told a reporter from the Greenwood Index-Journal.
“It’s got to be somebody from around here; how else would he know about the location of the creek?”
In a bid to squelch media attention local authorities sought and received a gag order covering all aspects of the murders—the aptly named Judge Blanks of the Southwestern Judicial Circuit issued a blanket decree applicable to all public officials,
even those not involved in the investigation.
When an Associated Press journalist asked when the ban would be lifted District Attorney John Parks replied, “Whenever [the judge] feels like lifting it.”
(In the 1980s a dollar went a lot further but the First Amendment, not so much.)
there has been only one named suspect:
local pulpwood worker Marcellus McCluster,
in his early 20s
at the time of the crimes—despite law enforcement’s public avowal Wanda was slain by a different assailant he is a person of interest in all three murders.
Although details of his conviction are scanty,
ten months after Wanda’s abduction
McCluster was arrested for
and subsequently pleaded guilty to
the murder of Major White,
a 56-year old man described in some news accounts as a “cripple.”
(In the 1980s a single dollar would get you to the moon and back and political correctness was for communists.)
A resident of the nearby town of Lumpkin,
Major White was last seen on January 4th, 1983
en route to the bus station;
the following day an off-duty police officer discovered his body on an old logging road—he’d been blasted three times in the back and once in the face with a shotgun.
Despite the obvious differences—the motive was robbery—Major White’s murder shared a few similarities with the Richland slayings:
like Tanya Nix, Major White had been tied to a tree,
though he was bound with rope, not wire—and like Valerie Sellers he’d been set on fire.
And McCluster was also the prime suspect in another crime which in many respects bridges the gap between the slaying of Major White and the Richland murders.
On April 29th, 1982—a mere three weeks after Wanda Faye’s abduction—20-year old Private Rene Dawn Blackmore borrowed a friend’s motorcycle for a quick jaunt and disappeared.
Stationed at Fort Benning in Cusseta,
30 miles outside of Richland,
Rene was known to be a dedicated soldier with no history of misbehavior.
Yet despite her history of good conduct the Army brass failed to notify the Blackmore family of her disappearance; Rene was listed as a deserter and no search or investigation undertaken—even when her purse and sweater were found discarded on a country road several weeks later.
On June 28th, two months after her disappearance, Rene’s skeletal remains were discovered by a hiker;
she’d been killed with a single shotgun blast—due to decomposition a determination of sexual assault was impossible.
It’s unclear how McCluster became a suspect in Rene’s murder—he may simply have been a convenient scapegoat—but I can see how in some ways her slaying seems to provide a nexus between the Richland slayings and Major White.
Like the male victim Rene was killed with a shotgun, and as a young woman she shared a victimology profile with the murdered girls—and like Tanya Nix she’d disappeared while riding a motorbike.
McCluster certainly fits Laticia Reddick’s description of Wanda’s abductor—he’s 6’4” and currently weighs in at a whopping 380lbs.
As of 2016 McCluster remains in Georgia State Prison serving a life sentence for Major White’s murder;
he’s never spoken to the media about his status as a named suspect,
and the current status of the investigation into the deaths of all four female victims—Tanya, Valerie, Wanda and Rene—remains unknown.
Although I have no idea what type of evidence the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is holding back,
I’m underwhelmed by the facts and circumstances
tying McCluster to Rene’s murder and the Richland (semi) serial slayings.
While it’s certainly possible he’s guilty of all four murders
without a confession or a DNA link publically branding him a suspect seems a bit premature.
I can’t help but wonder if authorities named him simply to mollify the hoi polloi;
I’m sure the townsfolk of Richland sleep easier believing their local maniac is behind bars.
The good folk of Richland may be sleeping easier, but I certainly am not.
The creepy little details of these murders—the gurgles and the posed, skeletonized hands—have haunted me for weeks.
At least I don’t have to worry about someone breaking into my home in the middle of the night
and unscrewing my lightbulbs—I always sleep with the lights on, so every bulb in my apartment is scorching hot.
As long as the bushy-haired stranger doesn’t bring along a pair of oven mitts I’ll be safe.