Family, city of Lynchburg cope with elderly man’s murder


 

By Tany Jeter and Megan Shaw

Leslie Gahagan jumped into a car after her wedding reception in Lynchburg in September, thinking she was starting her honeymoon. Instead, her new husband, Joe, told her they were headed to the hospital: Her 81-year-old grandfather had been assaulted on a nearby city street.

“When Joe and I got in the car to leave for our honeymoon he started to talk to me about the importance of family, which I thought was a little strange,” she said. But when her husband told her that her grandfather had been hurt, she said, “I completely lost it and cried for the next hour.”

Police said Baker was attacked that evening by a Lynchburg teenager who had vowed to “hit the next person he saw” on the street to impress girls.  Witnesses said they saw 16-year-old Kenneth Jerome Davis Jr. “run up” on Baker, hitting him with such force that the elderly man’s body flew in the air and bounced on the ground. Another 16-year-old, Vernon Alan Jackson, struck Baker as he lay injured on the street, according to court records.

The randomness of Baker’s murder raised emotional questions about how teenagers could carry out such a brutal attack on an elderly man who had gone out for an evening walk after his granddaughter’s wedding reception.

Davis and Jackson face trial as adults in January in Lynchburg Circuit Court, a move that also focused attention on juvenile crime and punishment. If convicted of first-degree murder, the teenagers face life in prison, not the death penalty, because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision that banned capital punishment’s use against defendants who committed crimes before they turned 18.

A 13-year-old boy, whose name has not been released, also was charged and faces trial in juvenile court, where information is not public.

Showing Off 

The night of the attack, witnesses said Davis was hanging out with several teenagers in downtown Lynchburg and was showing off for girls in the group, according to court records. Baker, who was visiting from Arizona, was staying in a downtown hotel.

Bernadette Irr, owner of the Hash House at Main and 12th streets, said she was sitting on the restaurant’s patio with three people when she witnessed the attack as it occurred on a nearby sidewalk.

Within hours of dancing with his granddaughter at her wedding, George Baker was murdered. (Photo courtesy of Leslie Gahagan)

“We heard the noise and looked over,” she said. “He was hit so hard that it looked like a dummy bouncing up.  His body was stiff.”

Irr said she saw three boys dressed in baggy jeans and hoodies standing over Baker’s body. She said she paid close attention as the attackers split up and fled in three directions.

“I just kept my eyes on the people that did it,” she said. “I wanted them caught.”

The witnesses rushed to help Baker, Irr said. “He was completely unconscious but still breathing,” she said.

One of the witnesses called 911 from his cell phone, Irr said, while another placed his hand on Baker’s, assuring the elderly man that he was “safe now.”

Irr said she did her best to comfort Baker. “I laid down on the street, stretched out my body next to his, got close to his ear and began quoting Psalms 23 to him.”

A Man of Routine

To family and friends, George Baker was a man of deep faith, although he swore like a sailor, which earned him the nickname, “Crazy Georgie,” Gahagan said.

A widower since 2004, the retired salesman also was a man of routine. Gahagan recalled how her grandfather began each day: He read the Bible and went to Bogey’s, a restaurant at a nearby golf course in Tempe, where he ordered “the exact same thing every morning.”

Baker was such a regular at Bogey’s that he had his own chair that included a plaque with his name on it. Nearly every morning he chatted up the cooks, waiters and other customers, his son Gregg Baker said.

“He was very well-read and could befriend just about anybody he ran into, from an athletic standpoint, from a business standpoint, from a political standpoint,” Gregg Baker said. “People would come up to my brother and sister … after they had met our father and they would say, ‘Gosh, what a great guy, what a nice guy he is.’ ”

George Baker seemed to have a great time at the wedding reception, his son said, despite telling his grandson, the DJ, to turn the music down a bit. But that didn’t stop him from dancing with “Grammy,” Joe Gahagan’s grandmother.

On her way to the hospital, Gahagan said she remembered that her grandfather had one request of her. He wanted a picture taken of the two of them at her wedding. He had traveled all the way from Tempe, Ariz., with this one wish that she had failed to grant.

“I had a million people talking to me at once and completely forgot,” she said. “All I thought about was the fact that I didn’t get a picture with him.”

She didn’t realize until after her grandfather had died in the hospital that her wedding photographer had captured a moment between the two of them, snapping a picture of them talking and holding hands on the dance floor at the reception.

“Leslie was coming up to my dad to say, ‘Hey Grandpa, are you having a good time?’  And that’s when he told her how beautiful she looked, how much he loved her … how happy he was for her and Joe,” Gregg Baker said.

At some point during the evening, Gahagan said, her grandfather spoke to the pastor who had conducted the wedding ceremony. “He told the pastor … if he were to die that night, he would die a happy man.”

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Witnesses said police and paramedics arrived quickly on the scene, finding Baker unconscious but breathing. He was transported to Lynchburg General Hospital, where he later died.

Within 48 hours of the attack, detectives had taken the three suspects into custody after witnesses had picked pictures of the teenagers from photographic line-ups, said Lynchburg Detective Todd A. Rodes.

Two of the defendants, both 16, accused of killing George Baker. (Photo courtesy of The News & Advance of Lynchburg)

He described a fast-moving investigation in which police identified one of the suspects that night.  Over the next several hours, Rodes said, “information continued to flow, and we were developing more leads” in the case.

The randomness of Baker’s death sticks with Rodes, who said a police officer had been in the vicinity of the attack’s location only minutes before. “You do have instances,” he said, “where people just happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Rodes said he is relieved that police made arrests so quickly in the case. “If anything positive comes out of this,” he said, “[it] is that the family knows what happened and [they won’t] … guess it for the rest of their lives.”

The ‘In Crowd’

Jackson’s pastor and family friend, Annita Hogue, said she believes he is a misguided teenager.

“He wanted to be a part of the ‘in-crowd,’ OK?  When you choose to be a part of the in-crowd, when they don’t want to go in God’s way of righteousness, then you’re going to find these things happen,” she said.

Hogue said she has known Jackson since his family moved to Lynchburg when he was 4 or 5. “This young man could stand up and just answer and break down the Word and Scripture verses,” she said.

Jackson often organized Friday night youth prayers at Hogue’s church, the Temple of Deliverance, she said, but he began to drift away from his religion in the last four years.

She said Jackson felt the “stress and strain” of the pressure to hang out with his friends, who told him “church is boring.”

Hogue said Jackson’s mother and siblings were consumed with “great sadness” over the teenager’s arrest for murder. But the minister said she told Jackson’s mother that she did her best to raise her son the right way. Efforts to reach the families of the defendants were unsuccessful.

“Each one of us chooses,” Hogue said. “You choose which way you want to go.”

Teenagers and Crime

Although most juvenile crime in Lynchburg decreased from 2008 to 2009, the number of young people arrested for assault increased from 37 to 60, a 62 percent jump, according to police statistics.

After their arrests, Davis and Jackson were denied bail and are housed at Lynchburg’s Blue Ridge Regional Jail, an adult facility.

Elton Blackstock, the jail’s superintendent, said Virginia law permits juveniles to be housed with adult inmates, but he said young defendants can be isolated if older inmates pose a danger to them or they pose a danger to themselves.

“You look at it on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Davis’ attorney, Eric Gordon Peters, said his client is coping with the situation as well as any 16-year-old can.

George Baker died on the sidewalk outside the Hash House. (Photo by Patrick D’Ignazio)

“He’s in general population.  I mean he’s doing OK over there,” Peters said. “I think he’s on the ward for the light offenders.  He’s not in there with some of the more hardcore criminals.”

In the 1990s when juvenile crime exploded nationally with an increase in drive-by shootings, drug-dealing and gang activity, many state legislatures passed laws that made it easier for prosecutors to transfer teenagers from juvenile to adult courts. If teenagers are tried in juvenile courts, they typically remain in custody until they turn 21. If they are convicted in adult courts, they face longer sentences of up to life in prison.

Robert Schwartz, executive director of Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, said juveniles should rarely be tried as adults.

“Most who end up in the adult system come back more dangerous when they come out of the adult system rather than the juvenile one,” he said. “The challenge is: will they be dangerous when they get out?”

Business Undeterred

Since 2001, Lynchburg’s City Council has spent $1 million a year implementing plans to revitalize the downtown and riverfront areas, said City Manager Kimball Payne.

“I can tell you when I came here almost exactly 10 years ago for an interview and walked downtown at 5 o’clock at night, it was totally dead,” he said.

He said the city is different now.  “You can be downtown this Friday night, this Saturday night, and you’ll see activity on the streets, you’ll see people out, you’ll see restaurants with a lot of patrons in them,” Payne said.

Baker’s murder has not deterred people from planning to open businesses in downtown Lynchburg, he said. Nor has it stopped people from frequenting downtown.

The Friday after Baker’s murder, Lynchburg hosted a festival that had been months in the works that was designed to encourage people to visit the downtown area. Payne said 10,000 people showed up.

City officials asked the festival’s patrons to hold a moment silence in memory of Baker, Payne said.

“We do really truly think it was random, and I think we’re all trying to learn from it,” Payne said. “It’s something nobody wants to go through, but we did, and hopefully we can be better for it.”

Accepting Tragedy

Police and city officials have complimented the Baker family on how they’ve responded to the murder.

“His family is wonderful,” Detective Rodes said. “It impresses me and I feel bad … that they’re going through that right now.”

A deeply religious family, the Bakers are relying on their faith to cope with their loss, which they sometimes have trouble accepting, Gregg Baker said.

“It still confounds me that they would do something like this to a guy my dad’s age, or to anybody,” he said, “and just treat life so carelessly.”

Gahagan said she misses her grandfather, who got her hooked on jazz and politics.

“I have had a hard time realizing I can’t pick up the phone and talk to him,” she said. “I still have a hard time accepting what these kids did, but I truly have found a place of acceptance and find joy in the fact that my grandfather is in heaven with my grandmother.”

Courtney Ridenhour and Patrick D’Ignazio contributed to this story, which was originally published Dec. 9, 2010, on the Rockbridge Report website. The video package aired the same day on the Rockbridge Report newscast.