A man whose addiction to drugs led him from a life of privilege to the murder of a West Hall homeowner during a burglary tearfully apologized after pleading guilty in Hall County Superior Court on Friday.
Family members of the victim, Max Eugene “Gene” Baggett, described the loss they continue to feel on the day his killer, Donnie Poland, admitted to the crime and received the mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Baggett, 69, worked in insurance for more than 40 years in Columbus and Atlanta before building his Monroe Circle retirement home on Lake Lanier near Duckett Mill Park. During the daylight hours of May 1, 2008, Poland, 41, broke into Baggett’s house while the owner was home. Baggett was shot twice in the head after an apparent struggle with the burglar.
Baggett had only begun to settle into retirement and enjoy being a grandfather and gardener when his life was taken in the random crime, his family members said.
“All my hopes and dreams for the future were tainted by this senseless act of violence,” Baggett’s widow, Sandy Baggett, told Judge C. Andrew Fuller.
After hearing from seven of Baggett’s family members, who described a loving and generous father and grandfather, Poland addressed the court.
“If I could turn things around, I would,” Poland said. “Who I am right now is not who I was then, and it was because of drugs. I have a wonderful family as well, and they’re devastated as well.”
Poland, the son of a successful builder, was represented during the plea hearing by Ed Garland, one of the top criminal defense attorneys in Georgia. Poland at one time owned an upscale home and construction business and blamed his decent into crime on addictions to crack cocaine and alcohol.
Poland was arrested three days after the murder after going on a spending spree with Baggett’s credit cards. He bought tires, televisions, power tools and other items that could be traded for drugs.
Baggett’s brother, Frank, said his brother was “executed for his credit cards, and within hours of that execution, the defendant was eating fried chicken purchased with that credit card.”
Poland is eligible for parole in 30 years, though parole in murder cases is uncommon. Under terms of a negotiated plea agreement, prosecutors dropped a number of lesser charges that included burglary and financial transaction card fraud.
Two other people charged in connection with the use of Baggett’s credit cards are not suspected in the murder or burglary, Assistant District Attorney Wanda Vance said.
Nearly 30 family members and friends of Gene Baggett were in court for Friday’s guilty plea. Family members who addressed the court praised the work of the Hall County Sheriff’s Office in making an arrest and thanked the Hall County District Attorney’s Office for bringing resolution to the case. They also expressed the hope that Poland would never be granted parole.
“It is human nature to judge other people,” Baggett’s son Chris Baggett said. “As a Christian, I cannot do that. That’s up to God.”
“I do not believe in closure, only milestones,” Baggett’s widow said. “Today is one of those milestones.”
She then told Poland, “May God have mercy on your soul.”