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Three years after brutal farmhouse murders, trio of suspects await trial

POSTED: March 21, 2009 11:02 p.m.
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Three years have passed since David Hannah got an early-morning call from a nurse telling him his daughter had been shot.

Hannah’s mind raced as he rode a MARTA train to Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, where his 18-year-old daughter, Mariel, lay in critical condition.

"I just didn’t know what to think," Hannah said. "There was just a million things going on in my mind."

Deputies at the hospital told him that Mariel was one of seven people shot or stabbed in a Sunday night home invasion of a South Forsyth farmhouse. Three years later, that information remains difficult to process.

"It’s just inconceivable to me that
somebody could go into a house like that and just start shooting people and not even know them," Hannah said Wednesday, the day before the third anniversary of the March 19, 2006 shootings that claimed his daughter and the lives of three others. "It’s hard to imagine that somebody could just see people as objects and not as real people, and have absolutely no concept as to what the hell they’re doing."

Mariel Hannah died a week after being shot. Lynn Bartlett, 55, Kyle Jones, 17, and Billy Osment, 15, died at the scene.

There were no flowers, candles or crosses laid at the scene of one of Forsyth County’s most violent tragedies on Thursday. The ramshackle house where the murders occurred, once a popular teen hangout, was burned to the ground by unknown persons three months after the shootings.

"Everyone in the community was shocked by the events of March 19, but the shock has faded over the years," said Belinda Busse, a close friend of Billy Osment’s who maintains a Web site in his memory. "The people it has touched most will never forget."

Court cases moving slowly

The three men charged in the murders, Jason McGhee, Marcin Sosniak and Frank Ortegon, remain jailed awaiting trial. District Attorney Penny Penn is seeking the death penalty against all three men.

Penn has said previously she hoped the first trial would be held by 2009, but now, "I have my doubts," she said this week.

Pretrial hearings have been completed for Sosniak’s case, but a court ruling on whether to admit statements he made to investigators is likely to be appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court by either the defense or the prosecution, depending on Judge David Dickinson’s decision. A ruling on such an appeal could take months.

Ortegon’s case is mired in funding issues, his court-appointed attorneys asking to delay proceedings because they aren’t being paid from a state indigent defense fund.

McGhee, who was identified in a preliminary hearing as the shooter, has had no pretrial hearings because his state-funded attorney was busy representing Fulton County Courthouse shooter Brian Nichols, among other death penalty clients.

Penn said that when she got the cases she didn’t have any ideas as to how long it would take to get them to trial.

"I didn’t expect them to go quickly," she said. "It’s typical for death penalty cases to be protracted."

Still, the prosecutor acknowledged that unforeseen circumstances have created even more delays than are typical.

Those waiting for justice understand the slow grind of death penalty proceedings but remain frustrated.

"I just think it’s a shame that it’s taking this long, because everybody needs closure, and it prolongs the agony, I think," Hannah said.

Osment’s friend Busse shares in the frustration.

"I think it’s ridiculous that it is taking this long for the county’s law system to take these men to trial and give them what they deserve," she said.

‘I lost my best friend that day’

Mariel Hannah’s life was looking up when she was killed.

Just a month earlier she had enrolled at DeVry University and, as a lifetime lover of animals, had considered working as a veterinarian technician.

"She was very kind-hearted toward animals," said her father, who has established a Humane Society Award in her memory that honors teens for acts of kindness toward animals. "It could be anything, cats, dogs, a stray animal, she wanted to collect them all."

Mariel Hannah struggled with traditional school and dropped out her senior year. She later enrolled at Independence High School in Alpharetta, a nontraditional school where she earned her diploma in November 2005.

She was boarding with a friend of the family’s in Roswell at the time of her death.

"She had some problems early on dealing with things, but she was really starting to come around," David Hannah said.

On her MySpace page, Mariel listed her interests as "cars, boys and art," said she liked to listen to "punk, ska, emo, metal, rock and all that stuff," and named the animated film "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as her favorite movie.

Billy Osment was a South Forsyth High School wrestler who loved fishing and spending time on Lake Lanier, Busse said.

"Billy was the most amazing person I have ever met," she said. "He loved to be around the people he cared about, having a good time with the ones he loved."

It’s widely believed that the four victims had little if any relationship with the alleged killers, who may have held a grudge against one of the home’s other occupants over a marijuana deal from months earlier.

Busse doesn’t believe that her friend was caught in the crossfire, however.

"Those men went into that house with the intent of killing everyone," she said. "They knew who all was there because they stopped by the house before going to Wal-Mart and purchasing the bullets."

"The one guy, McGhee, I don’t think he knew anybody there at all," Hannah said.

He said while McGhee may have been identified by survivors as the shooter, "I think they’re all three equally responsible."

Thursday will mark the third anniversary of Mariel Hannah’s death, exactly one week after the shootings.

David Hannah will likely have another of his many private conversations with Mariel.

"They’re basically one-sided," he said. "I’m just telling her how things are going, and I ask her to look out after her sister."

Hannah hopes that if anything comes out of his family’s tragedy, it’s that people will become more involved in the lives of young people and not turn away if they see something "that’s not right."

"To me it’s everybody’s responsibility to watch out after our children," he said. "I think that’s something our whole society has lost."

Belinda Busse said the events of March 19, 2006 "have affected the lives of many – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, family and the community."

"I lost my best friend that day and my life has been changed forever," she said. "It has been the hardest thing to cope with. To this day, it still is difficult to deal with."



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