By Ed Brock
As the year draws to a conclusion, the sporadic acts of violence ranked as the second top story of the year.
But 2003 was an interesting and exciting year with Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport gaining a new name at the same time work continued to put in a fifth airport to handle traffic at the nation's busiest passenger airport.
The Clayton County Chamber of Commerce celebrated 50 years of service, gained a new home and lost its director. As 2004 begins, the search is on to lead that organization. The economy saw Macy's, a major anchor at Southlake Mall, shut down. A search is still under way to replace that key anchor store.
Authorities cracked down on truancy, two killers escaped from the county detention center, military families bid loved ones farewell as the war in Iraq drew soldiers from the area and voters trooped to the polls for key elections. Meanwhile, Fort Gillem supporters started rallying to save the fort from a list to be released in 2005 of fort closings.
Construction projects also ranked as top stories with the state archives building opening to rave reviews and construction beginning on the federal archives. New schools and a new fire station also opened as voters went to the polls and approved a new penny sales tax to do even more road, recreation and senior citizen facilities.
Even the final days of 2003 were marked by violence in Clayton County.
Police say that some time early Saturday morning 34-year-old Ricky Harris shot and killed his live-in girlfriend 38-year-old Cheryl Robertson in their home on David Drive near Forest Park, then drove to an area in Atlanta and committed suicide. The violent deaths of Robertson and Harris were, as of Tuesday, the last of the year in which 21 homicides (including "justifiable" homicides in which no charges were filed) took place in the county as of Dec. 29. As of Nov. 30 there were 3,627 total assaults, 3,285 of which were aggravated assaults according to the Clayton County Police Department.
"I think this year has been more violent," Clayton County Police Capt. Jeff Turner said.
"The county has grown and any time you have an increased population you're going to have more crime, including violent crime."
The first notable homicide of the year came in May with the strangulation of 27-year-old Marissa Jeanne Vaziri of Riverdale, daughter of former pro-wrestler Hossein Khosrow "The Iron Sheik" Vaziri. Her live-in boyfriend, 38-year-old Charles Warren Reynolds, has been charged with murder in the case.
Reynolds told police that the two had been drinking and taking pills the night of the incident and when he woke up the next day he called members of his church to come pray with him. One of the church members found Vaziri dead in the bedroom and called police. Vaziri's family and friends said she was trying to break up with Reynolds.
In September police arrested Tony Fitzgerald Gilbert, 38, of Atlanta in connection with the death of 43-year-old Harold Willis whose body was found in June inside Willis' house on Carlisle Drive. Willis had not been heard from since April.
Both men had been involved in "some kind of relationship," Clayton County police Sgt. Brian Busch said previously and police believe that Willis may have been withdrawing financial support from Gilbert, leading to the killing.
In July 27-year-old Arturo Sanchez was shot and killed during a birthday party at the Tara Center on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro. Pablo Gomez, 26, of Jonesboro has been charged with murder in connection with that shooting.
Gomez was being taken from the party by private security guards after a fight with another man when he drew a pistol and began firing in the direction of the Sanchez brothers, hitting Arturo Sanchez, police said.
Sanchez' brother said the victim's son saw the actual killing as the bullets whizzed over his head and hit his father. The youngster ran to his father who lay dying on the floor of the center and told him that he loved him.
August saw the city of Forest Park's only homicide of the year, the shooting death of Jose Refugio Diaz Martinez, 24, at Willow Park Apartments on Rockcut Road. Jessie Omar Williams, 31, and Corin Curtis Hampton, 17, both of Conley, were later arrested and charged in connection with that killing.
The discovery of two bodies in a burning car on Sullivan Road near the airport in early September led to the arrests of David Hendrix, 37, of West Fayetteville Road and 35-year-old Kenneth Ray Hilton in connection with the shooting death of the two victims. The victims, one of whom was identified as 48-year-old Algernon Sedrick Nash, were shot and killed in Hendrix's living room, Turner said previously, but the motive remains unclear.
One of the most dramatic incidents of the year was the Oct. 25 shooting death of 19-year-old Devon Gates during a birthday party at a Forest Park house. Vap Chhoum, 28, of College Park has been charged with murder and police say the two got into an argument at the party that led to Chhoum shooting Gates in the face.
The resulting rumors of gang fights in revenge for former Forest Park High School football player Gates' death led to increased security at several high school events and there were moments of high drama in the courtroom during Chhoum's first appearance. Gates' mother Kimberly Gates had to be escorted from the courtroom when she started shouting at Chhoum during the hearing.
Some of the year's homicides involved justifiable killings in which the victim of a crime killed the person perpetrating the crime. On Dec.15 two men, Ivan Castro, 29, of Lawrenceville and Fernando Geovany Flores, 29, a Mexican national were found shot to death at a house on Sinclair Way near Lovejoy.
Police said the two were part of a band of four home invaders who were rebuffed by the occupants of the house. Shortly after the incident the occupants of the house, two men, a woman and at least one child, packed their things and left. Police are still looking for them along with the other two home invaders.
Drugs and the drug trade are prevalent in the county, Turner said, and that contributes to some of the violent crimes. In 2004 the department hopes to increase its manpower and may form a task force to address another growing cause of violence in Clayton County, gang activity.
"We are going to take a look at that as a positive way of combating gangs," Turner said.