By Daniel Silliman
The solar-powered cross is supposed to light up over the grave, at night. But it doesn't.
Donald Ray Skinner's grave is shadowed, all day, and the small solar panel doesn't get the sunlight needed to light the cross. The dead man's mother and sister visit him every day, and they move the cross to a lighted patch of yard, and return again, in the evening, to replace the grave ornament for the night.
The two women visit the grave every day, and every day Donald Skinner's mother cries, sobbing like a child.
"That was her only son," said Robin McPherson, Donald Skinner's sister. "He was like the pick of the litter. I'm his baby sister, and me and him look alike, and I used to be his sidekick when I was little. He's just really going to be missed."
There is a stone bench over Donald Skinner's grave in Douglasville. There is a picture of a tractor trailer on one side, and a picture of a man fishing on the other, because those are things he loved.
It says "In Loving Memory," on the bench and it has his nicknames inscribed: "Bubba," and "Donnie Ray Skinner." It doesn't have his real, full name. His mother, Carol C. Skinner, is trying to get that changed. It's hard, though, because the burial arrangements are legally controlled by Donald Skinner's wife, who is in jail on charges she conspired to murder him.
His widow, 51-year-old Carolyn Allene Skinner, wanted her husband's life insurance money and convinced a police officer to murder him, according to Clayton County police and prosecutors. The investigators say she asked a relative to help her kill her husband about eight years ago. The relative said, no, but Allene Skinner allegedly began an affair with a Atlanta State Farmer's Market Police Officer in 2006, and convinced him to ambush her husband, chase him across the parking lot of a truck depot and shoot him four times.
The officer, 49-year-old Charles Alan Smith, confessed to killing Donald Skinner, who was 49 when he died. He said he waited for Donald Skinner to drive the refrigerated semi truck into Cool Cargo Inc., on June 9, and shot him with a .40-caliber police pistol.
Smith told police he did it because he loved Skinner's wife, Allene. He said she told him a fantastical story about how she was an undercover government agent, and her husband was going to get her killed. He said he did it because she asked him to.
Allene Skinner was driving the police officer's truck, the days following the killing, and almost immediately applied for his life insurance benefits, according to Clayton County detectives.
Donald Skinner was shot four times, at the Forest Park trucking depot, in the early morning hours: once in the thigh, once in the left hand, once in the side, the bullet fatally piercing his liver, and once in his eye. Investigators found high-quality bullet shell casings, scattered at the scene, and connected them to the police officer's gun.
On June 9, a trail of Donald Skinner's blood zig-zagged across the parking lot, and the veteran detective said he could picture the 49-year-old truck driver's last, futile efforts, running back and forth before he died.
Carol Skinner and Robin McPherson went to the murder scene. They stood there, in the parking lot. Just looking at the place where the man they knew as son and brother died.
They imagined that his ankle, injured in an accident when he was 19 or 20, was stiff after the long drive, and it was probably hard for him to walk. They wondered why he left his two pistols in the cab of the truck, tucked in a black bag. He carried the guns for fear of robbery, they knew, and they wondered why he hadn't been robbed. They tried to picture their loved one's last moments.
"He was pushing away on his elbows, when he died," Carol Skinner said. "My son did not know who that man was. He had no idea who that man was, who was killing him. I know my son was looking up at that police man, when he shot him. That's the question I want to ask that man, 'Was my son looking at you when you shot him?'"
McPherson is a former crime scene investigator, so she had visited crime scenes before and knew how to look at the left-behind details and picture the violence happening. This time, though, it was her brother.
"I kind of know what my brother went through," McPherson said, and that's all she will say about it.
The two women are still, sometimes, shocked by the story of Donald Skinner's death. Other times, it seems like maybe they knew, all along, like maybe they saw it happening and just didn't understand it until now.
The last time she saw her son, Carol Skinner followed him outside, she said, urged by something unseen, to tell him she loved him one more time.
He went to his mom's house, in Douglasville, down the street from the graveyard where he's now buried in blue work clothes, before he left on his last truck drive. He ate dinner. He picked up a videotape of the most recent "Survivor," so he could watch it in his cab. When he left with Allene Skinner, Carol Skinner followed him outside and she said, "I love you, baby. Be careful."
He said, "I love you too, Mama."
"He was dead the next Saturday," Carol Skinner said.
It seems, the women said, like God had worked everything out before hand. Donald Skinner spent last Christmas with his mom, for the first time in a long time, and ate his favorite holiday meal, chicken and dumplings. The Wednesday before he was murdered, he attended a bible study. He was asked if Jesus was his Lord and Savior and he said, according to the people who were there, "Oh yeah," reassuring his mother that his soul was in the right place, when he died.
There were other signs of the impending murder, too. Sinister signs. Looking back, it's hard for the women to know if they recognized them.
McPherson recalls that Allene Skinner was driving the police officer's red pickup truck, when she told the family that Donald Ray had been killed. "The minute she told me," McPherson said, "I just dropped to the ground. After they picked me up off of the ground, it just come out of my mouth: 'That [nasty woman] killed my brother. That just came out of my mouth."
Skinner's mother said the family seemed to immediately sense his wife was behind the murder.
"I knew she told lies," Carol Skinner said. "I knew she had done things, conned people and all ... She was a con artist from way back. She was manipulative. She spent all his money. He told that truck driver that rode with him that she just spent too much money for him."
Allene Skinner has remained silent on the charges against her. Her lawyer cannot be reached, though he has been called repeatedly for comment.
Finances had always been a strain, on the Skinners' relationship, McPherson said, and had finally led to the couple's estrangement.
"Daddy said, 'Son, you ain't never going to have nothing as long as you're with that woman.' But he took her back, because he felt sorry for her," McPherson said.
The two women know now, that they had reason to be concerned about the woman in Donald Skinner's life. They now know that those nagging thoughts were, actually, signs pointing to something sinister.
The detective told them how their son died, and how his wife was having an affair and talking about having him killed. Now, five months after the murder, approaching the holiday season and waiting for justice, they're trying to figure out how to live with the knowledge.
"Nobody knows heartache until they've buried one of their kids," Carol Skinner said. "I miss him all the time. I remember him all the time, and they took him away from us. I don't look forward to living long, and then I'll be with him."
Carol Skinner said her anger is directed at Charles Smith -- "He knew better. I wouldn't have killed a dog like he killed my son." -- and not at the woman her son loved. Carol Skinner said she feels a little sorry for her daughter-in-law, because nobody ever loved her. Still, she hopes the woman who allegedly conspired to kill her son is sentenced to death. She hopes the police officer is sentenced to death, too, even though the district attorney's office said the case doesn't rise to the required legal standard for the death penalty.
"He was my only son," Carol Skinner said. "I want them to seek the death penalty."
McPherson's sympathies run the opposite direction. She describes her sister-in-law with words like "evil," "devil," "liar," and "manipulator." McPherson said she thinks the Farmers' Market cop fell under Allene Skinner's spell, just like her brother did.
The two women agree, though, that they don't ever want the pair to walk free. They will attend Smith and Allene Skinner's arraignment, on Dec. 5, and every court date after that, in hopes of seeing justice.
They will visit Donald Skinner's grave, every day, move the solar-powered cross and stand where his body is buried.
They are trying to get Allene Skinner's name taken off of the contract with the graveyard. McPherson visited her sister-in-law at the jail, trying to get the woman to sign over the authority for the burial plot. Allene Skinner refused, though. McPherson said she was reduced to pounding on the glass, dividing the prisoner from the visitor, hitting the glass repeatedly with her bare hand and "looking like a crazy woman."
The other day, McPherson took a recent photo of her brother, where he's smiling, sealed it in water-proof plastic and posted it at the grave. She put it next to the cross, by the bench where it says "In Loving Memory." She wasn't supposed to put anything there without Allene Skinner's approval, according to the legal contract, but she didn't care.
She just wanted, she said, to see her brother's face.