By Greg Gelpi
She may have been homeless, but a woman police suspect was murdered found a home in the hearts of many Riverdale residents.
An anonymous caller alerted Riverdale police to the body of "Janice," a homeless woman, a fixture of the Riverdale area of Ga. Highway 85 and beloved member of the community, Sunday afternoon, and police are now initiating a homicide investigation.
"This was Riverdale's homeless person," Riverdale resident Sharon Owens said of the woman she identified as Janice Cunningham. "She belonged to the people. She knew thousands of people. This was her home up and down here."
Riverdale police said a GBI autopsy showed that Cunningham, who was thought to be around 55 years-old, was strangled and "possibly" sexual assaulted. Cunningham was found by police at the vacant gas station on the corner of Highway 85 and Bethsaida Road where she slept.
A makeshift memorial sits on the curb now. Cards from friends and police officers, stuffed animals and flowers represented the emotions felt by the community.
Friends described her as always giving and with so much pride that she wouldn't easily accept gifts or charity, Owens said. Riverdale residents would hang plastic bags of food in a tree near where she slept regularly, and one such bag was still hanging Tuesday.
And the little she had, the items given to her, she insisted on giving back, Riverdale resident Myrtice M. Shelton said.
"She was always trying to give something," Shelton said. "She would try to give me money for gas."
Shelton said the homeless woman gave her a doll to give to her granddaughter for Mother's Day, and Annie Harris, who works at Long John Silver Seafood Shoppe on Highway 85, shared similar stories.
Harris said the fast food restaurant would give Cunningham seafood, including her favorite, giant shrimp. Around the holidays, though, Cunningham returned the gestures by giving gifts to the employees, showing receipts for the gifts as a demonstration of her pride.
Harris was one of more than 100 area residents who stopped by, shared memories and contributed money and flowers to Cunningham Tuesday.
"If I didn't see her, I would get really worried," Geraldine Porter said tearfully. "She's somebody's child, somebody's mother."
Mona Mitchell said she saw Cunningham Saturday, sitting on her curb, hunched over with a hat over her eyes.
"I told her she reminded me of my mom," Mitchell said, recalling when she first met Cunningham. "I do believe in my heart that she must have been dead Saturday."
Mitchell works for the Social Security Administration helping people get benefits, particularly those with mental sickness. When she began seeing Cunningham, she tried to offer her assistance in obtaining benefits, but Cunningham refused.
"It just touched my heart," Stephanie Glass, 44, of Riverdale said of the news of Cunningham's death. "It made me sad all day."
"She was a sweet person," Shelton said. She met her several years ago and took her into her house to let her clean and earn some money, drove her to yard sales and brought her to her church Macedonia African Methodist Episcopalian.
Anne Marie Vermillion, 50, who works at Top Nails, a shop near where Cunningham slept, said she didn't know Cunningham personally, but always saw her around.
"My heart goes out for her," Vermillion said. "I said it can't be her (who is dead). I saw her Friday."
She couldn't make sense of what police are investigating as a crime, and Glass was disturbed such a thing could happen in this country.
"We're one of the richest countries in the world, but we still have homelessness," Glass said.
Funeral services for Cunningham have been set for 10 a.m. Monday at World Changers Church International in College Park, and a sympathy card is available to be signed at Top Nails.