The Accused

A survivor’s frightening account.

ATLANTA MAGAZINEMAY 2002

Mike Garrish took the stand and swore before God and judge and what appeared to be all of Habersham County to tell the whole truth and nothing but. His wife sat anxiously in the courtroom, as did his only remaining sister. His parents, barred from watching the trial because they were on the witness list, waited in a room down the hall.

At the prosecution table sat Jim Hallman, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who sat Mike down at the kitchen table one November night twenty-two years ago when Mike was 16 and his sister lay murdered in a bedroom down the hall and said, “You did this, and I’m going to see you go to the electric chair for it.”
Behind Hallman, filling the courtroom, were the people of Demorest, population 1,000. All these years they had watched Mike, judged him, refused to let their daughters date him, kept the gossip alive as only a small town can do: That’s the boy who killed his sister.

Until this day, Mike had never opened his mouth. He knew the danger of talking. The day his sister was killed he opened his mouth and his words were misunderstood, twisted, and for that he had paid. He had resolved to say nothing until his day in court, which he had stopped believing would come. Now that it had, he thought it should feel like deliverance, some sort of turning point toward resolution and freedom, but the slant of the questions and the fear in his wife’s eyes told him this might not be the end after all.

“Do you remember talking to Angel Hallman here that day?” asked District Attorney Mike Crawford.

“Yes, sir,” Mike said. He was in his late thirties now, thin and balding, with a deep drawl and big serious wary brown eyes.

“And do you remember him asking if you had killed your sister?”

“… Yes.”

“What did you say?”

“I said I did not kill her,” Mike said.

“Do you recall ever telling Jim Hallman that ‘If I did, I don’t remember’?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why did you tell him that?”

“I was mad at him for asking me the question,” Mike said. “And it wasn’t – the statement was said, ‘If I did, I don’t remember it.’ It was more or less a hateful remark.”

“You were a suspect in this case for a long time, were you not?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What kind of effect did that have on you?”

Now here was a question—the central question, in fact, of Michael Garrish’s life. What kind of effect does it have on you to be called home from work one day when you’re 16 years old to find your house and yard full of investigators, medics, crime scene technicians, and neighbors, your 13-year-old sister lying dead in a back bedroom, her blood still wet on the shag carpet; your father, who discovered the body, in tears and shock on the front walk? What kind of effect does it have on you to have the GBI interrogate you at length about your whereabouts until you make the mistake of uttering the seven most poorly chosen words of your life, words that make you a temporary suspect in the eyes of the law but forever guilty in the eyes of the community?

What kind of effect does it have on you when the police stop suspecting you but no one knows that, not even you – because they keep that little tidbit to themselves?

What kind of effect does it have when the case stays open and the real killer goes uncaught for more than two decades?

“What kind of effect did that have on you?”

From the stand, Mike said, “It made me angry.”

The DA wound it up. “Did you have anything to do with your sister’s death?” he asked.

“Absolutely not.”

When he finished testifying, Mike stepped off the stand and walked past the judge, lawyers, bailiffs, and townspeople, past agent Hallman, and ultimately out of the courthouse, free.

Mike Garrish had always in fact been free. He just had never felt free.

•••

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 1, 1978

He is 16 years old, a tenth grader in Demorest, a good little place to grow up. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody knows everybody’s dog. The Garrish house (modest one-story brick ranch) is on Hancock Road, a two-laner through the pine barrens of Habersham County, 80 miles northeast of Atlanta. The house seems big to Mike, the woods out back so vast, the walk up the driveway to catch the school bus interminable when in fact it is maybe forty yards at most. The closest neighbors are the Hansards, across the road, and the Pruitts, next door, a couple of acres away. A prison guard and his wife and son live there. The boy, Tony Pruitt, is 14. He rides the school bus with Mike’s younger sister, Lisa.

In the Garrish house live father, son and daughter. They have been through a lot lately. A move from Demorest to LaGrange and back again, a shift in the family structure. They are three where once they were five: father, John; mother, Pat; children Vicky, Mike, and Lisa. But then John and Pat divorced, and Pat stayed in LaGrange. Vicky married and moved to Michigan, leaving John, Mike, and Lisa in the house on Hancock road.

John fixes Pepsi machines and restaurant fountains. Mike works after school as a doffer at the Chicopee textile mill across town. Lisa takes care of the house and is good at it. She’s a tough little kid with a strong sense of self, a unique way of doing things. When the teacher asks for, say, a report on a foreign country, most kids might pick England or Spain, but Lisa never fails to pick some place no one has ever heard of, just to be different.

One Saturday when she was 8, Lisa walked through the back door with fists full of change and her mother asked, “Where did you get all that money?” Lisa had been selling pony rides for a quarter to the neighborhood kids. Now she is 13—actually, two weeks away from 14. When she grows up she wants to be a lawyer, rock star, and horse rancher, all at the same time. She plays clarinet in the band. She is starting to curl her hair and experiment with makeup and jewelry. She is five foot six and weighs 130 pounds. She is mature for her age, and boys notice.

As brother and sister, Mike and Lisa are typical. They aren’t the Bradys and they aren’t the opposite of the Bradys; they are just two kids in your average hardworking family in a small town in North Georgia.

This day, a Wednesday, begins normally enough. Mike drives to school. He gets out around one o’clock because he has to punch the factory clock at 4:00 P.M. Meanwhile he goes over to Tower Mountain, a hangout spot, and hooks up with some friends. They decide to go to Mike’s and smoke a joint. They smoke the joint and the friends leave around 3:30 as Mike gets ready for work. Lisa’s school bus drops her off, and Mike is just leaving as Lisa walks down the driveway to the house. She has a sack of last night’s Halloween candy in her hand. Here’s some candy, she says, get some if you want it. Mike gets a fistful, they say bye.

It is just another ordinary coming and going, but then again it’s not: Mike will never see his sister alive again.

Lisa usually has a snack, does some homework, watches her favorite afternoon television shows, and waits for her father to come home from work. His schedule depends on how many service calls he has and where they are. This afternoon he finished up early with a call in Helen and arrives around 4:30. In the den he finds the TV on, a half-empty glass of iced tea on the hearth, Lisa’s Adidas and socks on the floor by the chair. In the kitchen, he stops to go through the mail on the counter. He calls for Lisa. She doesn’t answer. He looks in her bedroom. She isn’t there. He goes to the phone to call Mrs. Pruitt next door, see if she’s seen Lisa. As he picks up the phone, he glimpses through his bedroom door and sees his daughter lying motionless on the floor.

Lisa is on her back, between the foot of the bed and the dresser, a rivulet of blood and her nose and mouth, down the side of her face. Her right hand is bloody and sliced almost to the bone. She wears a brown plaid shirt with puffed sleeves, tucked into her blue jeans; the bow-tie collar is soaked with blood. On her left wrist is a bracelet, on her fingers a ring. In her earlobes are earrings in the shape of Christmas trees. Her feet are bare; her toenail polish is wearing off. The carpet beneath her is saturated with her blood. John Garrish kneels beside his girl, feels for a pulse, and believes he has found one. He calls an ambulance, and the Hansards across the road.

Across town, on the factory floor, Mike is running bolts of fabric off the machines. His supervisor comes over and says someone’s here to see you. At the door is his neighbor, Debbie Hansard, who solemnly says, “Your dad needs you at home.” Mike turns around and goes to find his supervisor. Jim Hallman and other investigators later will find this strange. Wouldn’t you ask what’s wrong? Wouldn’t you be curious about why a neighbor would drive across town to tell you to get home as fast as you can? If you don’t ask, doesn’t that suggest that you already know what happened at home? By the time Mike leaves, Debbie Hansard has gone back toward Hancock Road. Driving home, Mike thinks his father has had a heart attack. When he arrives to find the road and driveway clogged with sheriffs’ cruisers and detectives’ cars, he knows he is wrong.

Out front he meets Hallman, a young GBI agent who has been on the force for four years and before that was a Douglas County deputy under the legendary Sheriff Earl Lee. Hallman should not have caught this case at all, because when the call came in he was on his way home. For two seconds, he had thought about letting the after-hours agent handle it but then decided to go ahead and handle it. Couple of hours at most, he told himself, not knowing it would turn into twenty-two years.

Hallman questions Mike in the kitchen. The Garrish family doesn’t know it, but this is typical. You first eliminate the people closest to the victim. The father, mother, brother, and so forth. Where were you this afternoon, he asked Mike. What did you do? Say you smoked a little pot? With who? What time did you leave for work? Did you see Lisa? What time was that? Did you have a fight? Did she catch you smoking pot? Were you afraid she was going to tell on you? Hallman finds Mike vague and uncooperative. “If something happened to your loved one and we came to you with questions, we’d expect you to be cooperative,” Hallman would explain later. “Maybe you’d be cooperative for an entirely different reason. Maybe you’ve got fifty kilos of cocaine in the trunk of her car, who knows? If you’re not cooperative, that raises suspicion. He was scared. There was marijuana. And he’s a kid.”

Hallman ratchets it up a bit, tries to provoke Mike with intimidation: You did this, didn’t you? You did this and I’m going to see you go to the electric chair for it. Mike—terrified, pissed off—says, intending sarcasm: “If I did, I don’t remember it.”

Now this, to a detective, is a red flag. Mike Garrish is the last to see Lisa Garrish alive; he has spent the afternoon using drugs; does not seem overly distraught about his sister’s death or interested in answering questions. And now this little gem—If I did it, I don’t remember it. Hallman thinks he may have his man.
Having just been told he’s going to the electric chair, Mike is stunned. He staggers outside into the night and sits beneath a peach tree at the edge of the yard. He is crying now in the dark. When his mother and stepfather pull up and get out of the car, the first thing Mike says is, “Mama I didn’t kill her.” And his mother says indignantly, “Well who says you did?”

What a mess there is in the Garrish house. Because Lisa has a severely sliced hand and what looks like a cut beneath her chin, investigators first think she has been stabbed to death. It isn’t until later, during the autopsy, that they find the bullet holes in her head and chest. She hasn’t been stabbed at all; she was shot with a .38-caliber gun – and a .38-caliber gun is soon discovered missing from her father’s closet. The crime scene investigators, out of Atlanta, have to turn around and head back to Demorest to reprocess the scene, pull up the carpet and retrieve the slugs from the hardwood floor.

A murder weapon would be helpful, but the cops can’t find one. They are back the next day to search the creek and woods for a gun and/or knife. The Garrish family, meantime, makes funeral arrangements. At the visitation, there are hundreds of people—classmates, teachers, neighbors, coworkers, friends, relatives—and Mike believes every last one of them is staring at him. Actually, some are. Everyone knows the police consider him a suspect and want him to take a polygraph (which he will pass). Many wonder at his dry eyes and composure, even consider it a sign of cold-blooded guilt and will someday testify to that. Mike sits alone on a staircase and wishes they all would just go away.

Before they close the casket he takes all he has on him—a dollar bill—and tears it in half. He puts one half in his sister’s coffin and the other in his wallet, where it will remain for the rest of his life.

He cannot bear to return to school. His mother and stepfather have decided to move to Michigan to be near his older sister, so Mike decides he’ll go with them. On the day he turns in his textbooks and withdraws from school, there appear to be a million kids in the hall, staring, whispering. The crowd seems to part as Mike walks through. It is all he can do to keep his head up and finish what he started.

Mike and the rest of the Garrish family do not know it, but Hallman has stopped suspecting him because his time card at the factory gives him a solid alibi. Whoever did it left no fingerprints, no murder weapon, no witnesses, nothing. Technology is lacking—no DNA or Luminol to pick up trace blood, none of the sophisticated techniques crime scene specialists would be able to use in the decades to come.

But soon Hallman would develop a theory: Lisa was watching television in the den when the killer arrived, probably with the intention of molesting her. That there was no sign of a break-in or struggle suggested she knew the attacker. He pulled a knife. She tried to grab it away and it sliced her right hand to the bone. She went to the kitchen to clean up, unaware of the danger she was in. At some point, Lisa must have gone up to her father’s bedroom for one of the guns she knew he kept in the closet. The killer either beat her to the gun or wrestled it away from her. He shot her once in the back of the head, three times in the chest, left her for dead on the carpet and fled with the weapons.

This happened right at 4:00 P.M.—just as Mike Garrish was punching the clock at work—because at that moment, R.L. Hansard, who lived across the road, heard chilling screams from the direction of the Garrish house. Not sure what he’d heard, he stepped out onto his porch to listen more closely, but then a motorcycle roared to life somewhere and the screams disappeared.

•••

What could Mike Garrish do but go on?

In Michigan it was cold, too damn cold. He stayed for about a month and then came home to Georgia. His father still lived in the house on Hancock Road. His friends were still around. He tried to fit in. He asked a few girls out but they turned him down. One, whose father had known Mike as far back as Cub Scouts said, “You ain’t going nowhere with that boy.” As District Attorney Mike Crawford would one day put it: “Can you think of anything worse that could happen to you as a young person than to be accused, wrongfully accused, of killing your own sister?”

Mike’s life would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if Hallman told him he was no longer a suspect—better yet if he’d come out with it publicly, like the cops sometimes do. Problem was, Hallman was sure but the sheriff wasn’t. Despite the time card, despite witnesses who put Mike at work at the time of the murder, Sheriff Bill Pitts made it clear to agents that he believed Mike killed his sister to keep her quiet about his drug use. The Garrishes would not learn this for many years—and would have their theories about why the sheriff clung so strongly to his—but bottom line, the contradiction in speculation left Mike “twisting in the wind for twenty-two years,” as he puts it. You might in fact call him a two-time victim. First, he lost his sister. Then he was wrongfully considered her killer. “I was so mad and hurt and angry with Jim Hallman,” Mike says now. “He was archenemy number one.”

Mike believed it would be impossible to return to school or to work in Demorest, so he commuted to Gainesville to work for Pepsi, loading trucks. His friends graduated from high school, but Mike’s formal education ended that Wednesday in November.

He joined the Army, got his high school diploma through Savannah Tech, and began driving trucks. Driving trucks was what he had always wanted to do. Four or five years passed. When he got out of the Army he didn’t want to go back to Demorest, so he took off again, to drive semis for a living. He hauled carpet west, produce east, whatever kept him moving.

Still, he couldn’t escape. Once, at a local fall festival, Mike heard one woman say to another as he passed: Don’t you recognize him? He’s the one who killed his sister. And in Savannah, for St. Patrick’s Day festivities, he turned around in a crowd of 10,000 and found himself face-to-face with none other than Jim Hallman. It was a coincidence, nothing more; but to Mike it felt like the haunting never would end. In his worst nightmare he was being led in handcuffs down a prison hallway and saying, “Why won’t you just stop and listen to me? Why won’t you believe me?”

He felt frustrated but also hurt that anyone could think him capable of violence, much less murder; guilt that he wasn’t there for Lisa at the moment she needed him most; self-loathing that his actions—smoking pot, making that sarcastic and ill-timed crack at Hallman—stole precious time from finding the real killer. He spoke to no one of these feelings, not even his family or friends.

During one visit home he attended the cookout at the home of his old friend Todd Kennedy. Todd’s little sister, Johnna, had been Lisa’s best friend. Now Johnna was a woman. She had never believed any of the things people said about Mike. She accepted a date with him, and then another, and eventually they married. They had two daughters, Micah and Autumn, whom they tried to protect from the darkest family truth, that a long time ago everyone thought Daddy killed his little sister.

The family rarely talked about Lisa. On the first day of each November, they would call each other for comfort. Pat was the obsessive one. She grieved doubly – for her slain daughter and her suspected son. Both were victims; neither had been vindicated. She hired psychics, kept notes, went over the facts of the case until her head swam. She talked to Lisa at night before bedtime, and sometimes in dreams Lisa talked to her. Pat continually called investigators and the district attorney and said check this and that. She would not—could not—let go.

Meanwhile, the GBI transferred Jim Hallman to his native Atlanta to work on the investigation of the infamous missing and murdered children case. He still kept in touch with his old friend, boss, and conscience, Douglas County Sheriff Earl Lee, who above all could not abide crimes against children. “What are you doing about Lisa Garrish,” Lee asked Hallman every time they met. “Are you going to let that child’s death go unpunished?” In 1993, when Hallman made it back to the Gainesville office, one of his first acts as special agent in charge was to rekindle the case.

Hallman’s agents began to reinterview people and chase twenty-year-old leads. In 1998, Hallman summoned Mike Garrish and his parents to the GBI office in Gainesville. It was a strange scene. Everyone was twenty years older and had lived with Lisa’s murder in his own way. The last time Mike sat down with Hallman was as a terrified teenager with pot in his bloodstream, and as far as he knew, the electric chair in his future. But Hallman—the law, and Mike’s nearly lifelong archenemy—did not chastise him, accuse him, shout at him, or antagonize him in any way. He did something extraordinary, something long overdue. He apologized.

What Hallman’s agents had just discovered was this: In the hours after Lisa’s killing, bloodhounds from the state prison at nearby Alto tracked a scent from the back door of the Garrish house to the back fence of the Pruitt house next door. The dogs’ handlers did not let them enter the Pruitts’ property. They dismissed the trail—did not even enter it into the investigative file—perhaps because Tony Pruitt’s father was a prison guard and the handlers assumed the dogs had latched onto a familiar scent. To Hallman, though, this was significant, because in the days after the killing he and another agent interviewed the Pruitt family and found reason to suspect the teenage son, Tony.

Tony Pruitt rode the bus with Lisa. He was known among his neighbors and peers to be “weird.” He was absorbed by space stories and comic books and was an only child. His mother once asked Mike to tutor Tony in algebra and Mike did, for one afternoon, but then told his mother he would never go back because Tony giggled inappropriately and refused to concentrate, was immature beyond words. Neighbors told agents he liked to set bugs and frogs on fire and engaged in the torture of small animals.

Strange things certainly had happened around the Garrish house. A cow had its eye gouged out, and the pet cat was hanged by a rope from a tree. The Garrishes would come to believe Tony not only watched their comings and goings but also went into their house when they weren’t home. Nobody in Demorest locked doors. An intruder could walk in, get the layout, and even learn that John Garrish kept a couple of handguns and a shotgun in his bedroom closet.

Hallman’s agents also discovered that on the day of the killing, Tony Pruitt had called a friend, Chuck Whitmore, to tell him Lisa had “been shot” to death—even investigators did not know this because until late that night they thought she had been stabbed. Whitmore also told police that Pruitt many years later confessed to the murder while drunk at a party.

Pruitt had other troubles, too. In 1996, he was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to fifty years in prison. In the process of that investigation, Pruitt’s wife, Mary Sanders, told the GBI that in the mid-1980s Pruitt confessed Lisa Garrish’s murder to her, too, but she had been too afraid to say so until now.
At the GBI office that day, Hallman told Mike they were making a case not against him but against the boy next door.

He didn’t apologize for suspecting Mike back in 1978 but for having had to do his job that way. (“I always kind of felt bad about getting on him so heavy at the time, when we first started,” Hallman says now. “But I was trying to solve a homicide.”) It was merely a tactic, he told Mike, and nothing personal, but he couldn’t reveal this in 1978 or as the years past, he said, because the case was still open and investigators disagreed about the chief suspect.

Hallman: “We can’t give him that twenty years back, but at least it’s over.”

Mike: “I don’t hold any grudges because I think he was doing the best he could at the time, the best he knew how. But at the same time I don’t think he really knew how hard it was. He has turned out to be one of my biggest heroes because he helped us see it through to the end.”

On November 1, 1998—twenty years to the day of Lisa’s murder—a grand jury indicted Tony Pruitt in her killing. In November 2000, he stood trial. Surely a conviction would clear Mike Garrish in the eyes of the community. Or would it?

•••

All through those days in court the Garrishes swore they heard Mike’s name more than the defendant’s, that Mike was the one on trial. The defense was playing its only hand: If the jury suspects one man, it can’t very well convict another. Yet on the strength of the Whitmore and Sanders testimonies, and on the new fact about the bloodhounds, a jury on November 29, 2000, convicted Pruitt of Lisa Garrish’s murder. He is serving a life sentence in addition to the child molestation sentence.

Does Mike Garrish, now 40, finally feel relief and vindication? Of course. Did the conviction close the door on suspicion? “If it had happened within a year of the murder I think it would have,” he says. “Because this drug on for twenty-two years and twenty-eight days there’s people out there thinking, ‘They pinned that on him just to close the case.’”

It’s like the reverse of trust, which, once lost, is hard to regain. Once doubt is introduced, it can be impossible to dislodge. Before meeting Mike Garrish, for instance, I read the Pruitt trial transcript and background materials on the case and found that Garrish’s guilt seemed, on paper, to be very possible. A few days later, on my way to interview him in Demorest, I was uncomfortable enough to let family know where I would be and with whom. Spending time with Mike Garrish immediately erased the doubt, but I began to understand how others inevitably might have felt in his presence back then, and how those doubts must have affected him for most of his life. “It’s one of those Richard Jewel syndromes,” he says. “He’ll be branded for the rest of his life. No matter what, he is branded. And so am I. Best you can do is not worry about it. Forget about it, pull yourself up, and go on.”

•••

New people now live in the old family house on Hancock Road, but the Hansards still live across the street, and the Pruitts are still next door. Except for the new highway nearby and trailer park in the woods, the place might as well been frozen in time.

When Mike Garrish goes there now, he can’t get over how small the house looks. He does not wish to go inside. “I feel more sad than anything because this was such a great little town to grow up in,” he says. “This was the kind of town you’d want to raise a family in, and I feel like I can never be a part of it anymore.”
His life is in Athens now, with Johnna and their daughters and his sales job at a manufacturing plant. They live in a nice, large home on the edge of town. The air there feels lighter now. Mike can wake up in the morning without a sense of fear and dread. He can finally think of the happy times with Lisa, and the family can speak of her. He no longer hates Jim Hallman. In fact, Mike called him at Christmas to tell him happy holidays.

He got the answering machine.

Reprinted by permission of the author.