DAWSONVILLE — It was 23 years ago in April that the community was rocked by one of the most brutal murders in Dawson County’s history.
Keith Lloyd Evans was driving home from his job as night manager of a small grocery story in nearby Cumming when he was run off the road and forced out of his truck. A short time later, Evans was shot, beaten to death and buried in a shallow grave.
Tommy Lee Waldrip, one of three men convicted in the slaying, is set to be put to death at 7 p.m. Thursday. A clemency hearing is scheduled for later today.
Law enforcement personnel involved in the 1991 investigation remain haunted by the case, which began two years earlier when Evans witnessed an armed robbery at Food Center on Hwy. 9 in Forsyth County.
Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle was working as a patrol deputy, about three years into what has become a more than 26-year law enforcement career.
“It was one of the most high profile cases Dawson County had back then and the first time I’d ever seen anything like this happen,” Carlisle said.
Evans was set to testify against Waldrip’s son, John Mark Waldrip, and his brother-in-law, Howard Kelly Livingston, in the trial for the 1989 armed robbery. The trial was scheduled to start Monday, two days after he was reported missing.
Evans had called his mother moments before leaving work the night of April 13, 1991, saying he was on his way home. Just after midnight, a friend spotted his truck on fire.
After putting out the blaze, authorities found an insurance card at the scene for a car belonging to the Waldrip family.
State Rep. Kevin Tanner, who was a relatively new sheriff’s deputy at the time, picks up the investigation from there.
“At that point, knowing that Keith Evans was supposed to testify on Monday in a case involving John Waldrip, son of Tommy Waldrip, it became pretty clear that it looked like foul play,” Tanner said.
The next morning, Tanner and Carlisle watched from across the street as the Waldrips attended Sunday services at Harvest Baptist Church on Hwy. 9. Waldrip reportedly led a prayer and the children’s choir that morning.
“That’s what always floored me,” Carlisle said. “How can you kill a boy on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday morning like nothing ever happened? I never could understand how he could have done that.”
After church, Carlisle and Tanner followed Waldrip to a prison in Floyd County, where he was visiting an incarcerated son.
“We were waiting for him to come back out, but we were also waiting on the [Georgia Bureau of Investigation] to get a search warrant for the vehicle he drove up there in,” Carlisle said. “As soon as he came out, we confronted him and with the warrant.”
On the return trip to Dawsonville, Carlisle said Tommy Lee Waldrip made a comment from the back seat that caught his attention and possibly set the stage for what authorities would find as the investigation progressed.
“He said something like, ‘I didn’t mean for it to go this far,’ or, ‘We didn’t mean for it to happen this way.’ I remember writing that in my report when I got back to Dawson County,” Carlisle recalled.
Meanwhile in Dawsonville, authorities received a report about what appeared to be a crime scene on Hugh Stowers Road. In addition to evidence indicating a struggle, blood and part of a watch also turned up.
“At one point during the investigation, Tommy Waldrip confessed to being involved in the killing of Keith with his son John and his brother-in-law Howard Livingston,” Tanner said.
The suspect then led authorities to a shallow grave in neighboring Gilmer County where the trio had buried Evans and to a second spot containing the gun.
“It was a very intense period of time between the time we discovered his vehicle and the time the confession came and we found his body,” Tanner said.
“Dawson County, Forsyth County and the GBI worked jointly with a taskforce along with hundreds of volunteers from the community, canines, helicopters from the state, searching for Keith, searching everywhere from the Food Center to the woods around where the truck was burned.”
The three suspects were each charged in the murder and faced separate trials three years later. The proceedings were held in different counties to avoid a tainted jury from Dawson’s population, which was only about 10,000 at the time.
In October 1994, a jury found Tommy Lee Waldrip guilty of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, kidnapping with bodily injury and aggravated battery.
He also was convicted of five counts of aggravated assault, theft by taking motor vehicle, arson in the second degree, intimidating a witness and concealing a death.
In addition, he was found guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and two counts of possession of a firearm in the commission of a felony. He was sentenced to death.
In separate trials, John Mark Waldrip and Livingston were sentenced to life in prison for their part in the slaying.
Tanner said he could only speculate as to why the jury in the elder Waldrip’s case would choose the death penalty, while two other panels went with life sentences for the same act.
“This is my opinion, but it could be that the jury was looking at a person who is older, who is a father of adult children, and they may hold that person at a higher level of accountability because they’re the father figure,” he said.
“They’re supposed to be responsible, and they were involved in a very brutal and cruel murder of a very innocent person who has done absolutely nothing wrong.”
More than two decades later, Carlisle said the community has seen its share of violent crime.
Meredith Emerson, who was murdered in Dawson Forest by serial killer Gary Hilton, and 12-year-old Levi Frady, whose 1997 slaying remains unsolved, are among the local agency’s most notorious cases.
“Then there was also the woman who was found on Thanksgiving Day floating in Lake Lanier, bound and tied with blue skiers rope tied to a concrete block,” Carlisle said. “We found the killer. I know we did, but they brought in a jury from Hall County and found him not guilty.
“He’s now sitting in a Missouri state prison for trying to kill another woman the same way.”
For those reasons, Carlisle said it’s time for justice to be served in Tommy Lee Waldrip’s death penalty case.
“He’s had his appeals. He went to trial,” the sheriff said. “He’s been found guilty. He’s exhausted all of his appeals and it’s time for the state of Georgia to uphold the sentence of the court.”
Tommy Lee Waldrip’s last attempt to overturn the death sentence, argued before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in February 2013, was denied in August. His request to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied May 27, according to court records.
A clemency hearing is set for later today, during which he will be able to present any additional evidence in an attempt to avoid the execution and live out the remainder of his sentence in prison.
Evans’ family will also have the opportunity to present evidence as to why clemency should be rejected.
Evans’ sister, Angela DeCoursey, said the family plans to attend the execution.
"We will be there. This gives the family at least some closure," she said.
Tanner, who carried the legislation that allows the state to obtain he drugs needed to perform lethal injection, as well as protects the privacy of those involved in the process, said he also plans to attend the execution.
“The legislation passed and it’s been appealed all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court,” he said. “They upheld it. And the last execution, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case, so it was upheld all the way to that level.
“Hopefully, we’ll continue to see that happen. We need to protect their safety if we’re going to ask them to help carry out this process.”