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Murder suspect denies shooting role

Home invasion case will go to grand jury

POSTED: June 4, 2008 5:02 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Murder defendant Donnie Poland listens to lawyers from the district attorney's office during a preliminary trial hearing in magistrate court on Friday.

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The man charged in the home invasion slaying of a West Hall retiree admitted to being at the victim’s home on the day of the killing but denied going inside or shooting anyone, according to court testimony Friday.

A judge bound the case of 41-year-old Donnie Poland over to Hall County Superior Court on charges of malice murder, felony murder and burglary after hearing evidence and arguments in a preliminary hearing held in Hall County Magistrate Court.

Poland’s defense attorney argued that authorities have no more evidence linking his client to the slaying than the evidence against two co-defendants who are charged with property crimes in the case.

Hall County Sheriff’s Investigator Dan Franklin testified that Poland gave a statement to detectives in which he said he and another man were casing homes to burglarize on the afternoon of May 1, and that he went to the side of 69-year-old Gene Baggett’s lakefront home on Monroe Circle but did not go inside the house. Poland claimed that three other men were involved and that someone fired a shot inside the house while he was outside.

Two other suspects, 28-year-old Nathan Rucker and 26-year-old Terromy Bailey, have been charged in connection with the use of Baggett’s stolen credit cards or possession of items bought with the cards, but Poland is the sole suspect charged with murder in the case.

The case against Poland is almost entirely circumstantial; Franklin acknowledged under cross-examination by defense attorney Jim Hardy that thus far authorities have no physical evidence placing Poland or any other suspect inside the house at the time of the slaying.

Poland was found in possession of nine of Baggett’s credit cards, his driver’s license and the victim’s watch after he fled from authorities who tried to pull over his truck two days after the slaying,
according to court testimony. Tire track impressions lifted from Baggett’s driveway matched the tire treads on Poland’s truck, Franklin testified. Investigators also have video of Poland using the stolen credit cards and eyewitness identifications from store employees, he testified.

The murder weapon, believed to be a .22 caliber handgun, has not been recovered. Authorities believe Baggett confronted an intruder at the top of the stairs leading from his basement and a struggle ensued that led into the bedroom, where Baggett kept a loaded handgun in the closet. The gun was never used and Baggett was shot twice in the head, including a point-blank shot to the temple that a prosecutor argued was fired "execution-style" as Baggett lay on the floor.

Franklin testified that the first major break in the case came the day after the slaying, when a credit card company contacted Baggett’s family to report unusual activity on his Visa card. Detectives had earlier told officials with Columbus Bank and Trust to alert them to any uses of the card, but the bank at that time could not find the card on record, Franklin said.

The card was used to purchase two flat-screen televisions at the Target department store on Shallowford Road and an $800 sectional sofa at Gallery Furniture, Franklin testified. Investigators obtained surveillance video of the purchaser and his vehicle, but the best identification came from a worker at the furniture store who found Poland and another man to be suspicious and wrote down their license plate numbers.

Poland later admitted in questioning that he went on a drug-fueled spending spree with the stolen credit cards, but said Bailey and Rucker "fed" the cards to him one by one, according to the investigator.

"He said he was strung out on crack cocaine," Franklin testified.

Poland’s lawyer told Chief Magistrate Margaret Gregory that the case against his client did not support murder charges.

"They don’t have any evidence at all that he was in the house," Hardy said. "They don’t have any more evidence against him than they have against the other named defendants, and they’re not charged with murder. Mr. Poland’s got a bull’s-eye on his chest and they’ve already pulled the trigger on felony murder."

Assistant District Attorney Wanda Vance said Poland’s "self-serving" statement to investigators contained claims inconsistent with the facts: He said he heard one shot fired while standing outside the home when evidence shows there were two; and said he was given the credit cards one-by-one, though he had nine when he was arrested two days after the slaying.

Vance said the co-defendants in the case had alibis and that only Poland had been placed at the Baggett home.

"The only physical evidence anyone was there are the tire tracks from Mr. Poland’s car," Vance said.

The prosecutor noted that Poland was the only suspect to admit being at the house.

"We know he was there, we know his car was there," she said. "All of the evidence points to Mr. Poland." The judge, noting that she only had to find probable cause, said that Poland’s statements to investigators and the tire track impressions were sufficient to bind the case over as charged.

The case will go forward for presentment to a grand jury.


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