It's been more than a half century since the conclusion of one of the most sensational murder cases in the state's history.
It started with the murder of well-known Jackson County merchant Charles Drake on June 19, 1956. An intruder who believed Drake kept thousands of dollars in his home broke into the house, shot Drake and bludgeoned his wife. Drake operated a store next to his home on U.S. 129 just north of Jefferson.
James Foster, a house painter, was accused of the crime and convicted primarily on the basis of testimony by Mrs. Drake, who identified him as the killer. Foster had three witnesses testify as to his whereabouts on the night of the murder, but jurors relied on Mrs. Drake's account, and Foster was sentenced to die in the electric chair.
Foster's attorneys fought his conviction for another two years before Charles P. "Rocky" Rothschild confessed that he had killed Drake, thus freeing Foster from the murder charges.
Foster came to the attention of law enforcement because he mentioned to a fellow prisoner in the White County Jail that he had been in Jefferson the night of the murder. He feared that his criminal record might lead authorities to suspect him.
Foster was in jail after being arrested in connection to a fire that damaged Westmoreland's Motel in Robertstown the night after Drake's murder in Jackson County.
His appeals of the death sentence were just about exhausted when Rothschild made his confession. Authorities first began looking at Rothschild after a prisoner in DeKalb County said he heard him bragging about the Drake murder. When they confronted Rothschild, a former Cairo, Ill., policeman being held in South Carolina on burglary charges, he admitted to the crime.
In his confession, Rothschild said A.D. Allen of Jackson County told him that Drake was known to carry as much as $5,000 cash in a money belt. He said Allen led him to the Drake home, where Rothschild broke in. He said he wore a stocking over his head. Drake had been watching television and ran to the back of the house to get a pistol when he heard Rothschild breaking through a door.
Rothschild said Drake shot at him once before he shot and killed Drake. He also beat the merchant's wife after she ran to the telephone. He tore the telephone from the wall.
As Drake lay dying, Rothschild said he searched his body for the money belt, but there was none. Worried that neighbors heard the gunshots, he fled the house and was picked up by Allen. He said he threw his pistol into a stream.
Allen and Rothschild later were stopped by a roadblock set up by law enforcement, but were allowed through. Rothschild had changed clothes. Allen drove him to Atlanta, and he didn't see him again until the two were in Jackson County Court in August 1958 when jurors convicted them in the Drake case and were sentenced to life in prison. Allen later was released because Rothschild didn't testify against him.
In court, Rothschild said in a shaky voice, "For the benefit of any doubt in anyone's mind, I had only one intention all along, and that was to live up to the confession I made on July 4." That was the date he officially signed a lengthy statement admitting the killing.
When Foster took the stand that day, he carried a worn Bible and read part of Psalms 23. Then he said, "I have been living under the shadow of death since August 1957. ... I don't hold any bitterness toward Mrs. Drake or her lawyers ... she only made an honest mistake. I know the murder has been solved ... my mind's at rest."
Besides thanking God for his newfound freedom, Foster said it happened because the truth came out, and he had many friends who stood by him throughout the ordeal.
Horace Wood was Foster's lead attorney. He was assisted by Floyd Hoard, who later became district attorney for Jackson County. While he was serving as district attorney, Hoard was killed by a bomb placed in his car in the yard of his home.
That was a dark era for Jackson Countians who pride themselves on their history and progressive attitude. Indeed, the biggest news coming out of the county today usually concerns its advancements in education and industrial development.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.