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Child murders too common in Jackson County
7 have been killed in various incidents since 2000
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Jackson County child murders
  • May 8, 2000, Nicholson: Calvin Griffin fatally stabs his sons, 4-year-old Tyler and 6-year-old Ryley, stabs to death his estranged wife, Laury, 25, then turns a gun on himself.
  • May 30, 2006, Hoschton: Henry Lee Stringer stabs to death his former girlfriend, Marvalette Strickland, 29, and her mother, Evelyn Strickland, 68, then sets fire to the home. The fire kills Stringer’s two children, 4-year-old J’Majuan and 2-year-old J’Lasia. In February 2010, Stringer pleads guilty to the murders in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
  • June 6, 2009, Commerce: Robert Clark shoots his 6-year-old grandson, Michael Levigne, to death in a rage over a watermelon. Clark also shoots his wife, Linda Clark, who dies from her injuries in October. In September 2009, Clark pleaded guilty to his grandson’s murder and is sentenced to life in prison.
  • May 3, 2010, Commerce: Keith Jermaine Gresham shoots to death his sons, Keion, 7, and Keionte, 4, before shooting himself. Authorities say Gresham was despondent over the children’s mother refusal to reconcile and also was facing a return to jail for a probation violation.
Stephen Gurr

Keith Whitfield is tired of seeing the bodies of children slain at the hands of their fathers.

In his 22 years as coroner of Jackson County, Whitfield has seen all manner of deaths. None stir his emotions like child murders.

“I’m not the only one — it makes everybody who has to deal with it mad,” Whitfield said. “It’s just senseless. You have grown adults fighting and they take it out on innocent kids.”

Last week, when Keith Gresham shot his 4-year-old and 7-year-old sons to death before killing himself in a wooded area near Commerce, it marked the fourth time in the past 10 years that children were killed in Jackson County as the result of domestic turmoil.

For a county its size — the population was estimated in 2009 at 63,000 — Jackson County has seen a disproportionate percentage of children murdered over the past decade.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 9 percent of all homicide victims in the U.S. are under the age of 18. In Jackson County since 2000, seven of the county’s 28 homicide victims were children under the age of 8, making up 25 percent of all murders during that span.

“For a rural county, we do seem to have a lot more (child murders) than usual,” Whitfield said.

Soon local officials will meet to discuss the deaths of Keion and Keionte Gresham, as they do with every child death under mandate of state law. Local child fatality review panels were established to try to determine whether a child’s cause of death was preventable, or if a child may have “slipped through the cracks,” Jackson County District Attorney Brad Smith said.

Smith is uncertain yet whether anything could have been done to prevent the most recent child murders. The mother of the children let Gresham take custody of the children over the weekend before he was due in court for what was expected to be a jail sentence.

A temporary protective order had been taken out by the children’s mother, but there was no history of violence against the children. Gresham was reportedly upset that the mother would not reconcile with him.

“Can you stop that particular individual from killing that particular child? Maybe not,” Smith said. “But is there something as a society we can do better to help foresee these kinds of things before they happen? Maybe. That’s what we look at with these reviews.”

David Cochran, chief deputy of the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, said the Gresham case was the second time his investigators have dealt with the murder of two children followed by a suicide. The first was in 2000, when Calvin Griffin of Nicholson stabbed to death his 4-year-old and 6-year-old sons and his wife before shooting himself.

“It’s a disturbing case for everyone involved,” Cochran said. “Our staff has a hard time dealing with it. It effects everyone.”

Rachelle Carnesale, director of the Child Fatality Investigation Program for the Office of the Georgia Child Advocate, said murders like those that occurred a week ago in Jackson County are uncommon.

“Domestic violence homicides are not the most common type of child homicides,” she said. “That’s not the typical scenario. (But) they’re horrific cases.”

Between 2000 and 2008, the last year for which data was available, 337 children in Georgia age 8 or younger died as the result of homicide, according to the Child Fatality Investigation Program. The most common causes were being struck or shaken. Firearms, suffocation and fire were other causes of child homicides.

Melissa Carter, Georgia’s child advocate, said her office reviewed the state Division of Family and Children Resources records to see if the agency had any history with the Gresham children. There was only one minor state involvement concerning car seat safety, she said.

“We try to check for any kind of history ... but in this particular case, there was none of that,” Carter said. “There are just some things you can’t predict in a way that allows you to intervene in a preventative way.

“The good news is these kind of extreme cases, typically you can say they’re rare.”

In Jackson County, they’re not rare enough for some.

“Any murder is bad, but it’s a whole lot different when children get murdered,” Whitfield said. “They’re just defenseless. They’re doing what mama or daddy told them to do. In most cases, they don’t know when or where to expect what happened to them.”

For the coroner, child murders don’t get any easier to handle.

“I was tired of dealing with them with the first one, but I have a job to do,” Whitfield said. “I hope I never have to deal with another one.”