JEFFERSON — Henry Lee Stringer wasn’t charged with murder until a year after four bodies were found in a burning Hoschton home, but his words aroused suspicions within hours of showing up to the scene on the day of the killings.
A Jackson County judge heard testimony from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and a state fire investigator Wednesday during pretrial proceedings for Stringer’s death penalty case.
Stringer, 35, is charged in the May 30, 2006 deaths of his former girlfriend, 29-year-old Marvelette Strickland, her mother, Evelyn Strickland, 68, and the two children Stringer had with his ex-girlfriend, J’Majuan, 4, and J’Lasia, 2.
Authorities say the women were stabbed to death and the children died after a fire was set in the home. The house on Pendergrass Road was still burning when firefighters responded around 6 a.m.
GBI agent Trent Hillsman testified he was interviewing people outside the burned home later that morning when Stringer showed up around 10:40 a.m., having been brought there by a relative.
"I was told it was Henry Lee Stringer," Hillsman said. "It came as a shock to me, because I thought he was one of the individuals (killed) in the fire."
At the time, a badly burned body in a back bedroom had yet to be identified. Witnesses told first responders that Stringer lived at the home.
Hillsman said Stringer agreed to talk to him in what was then a death investigation, not a murder case.
Stringer rode with relatives to the Hoschton Police Department and spent about two hours in an office with the GBI agent and another officer.
Hillsman described Stringer’s demeanor as "calm, coherent, respectful," but also noted that "he wasn’t very emotional."
The agent began by asking Stringer about his relationship with the people in the house and whether there were any electrical problems or anyone who smoked who could have accidentally started the fire.
A little more than an hour into the interview, Stringer gave the agent permission to photograph his body and hands, which showed no obvious signs of injury.
At that point, Stringer "seemed to become a little more uncomfortable, so I (read him) his Miranda (rights) at that time," Hillsman said.
Toward the end of the interview, "I started asking him some pretty pointed questions," Hillsman recalled. "I said, ‘I don’t believe you’re telling me everything you know.’"
Hillsman said when he asked Stringer if he would be willing to take a polygraph test, "He said he thought we were trying to say he had something to do with it, and asked to have an attorney at that time."
Attorneys for Stringer sought to keep his statements to authorities out of his upcoming trial, but Jackson County Superior Court Judge Joseph Booth ruled Wednesday that they were given freely and voluntarily. Stringer was not under arrest at the time and so a Miranda advisory of his rights was not necessary, the judge found.
"Mr. Stringer was not in custody by any standard that this court can glean from the facts," Booth said.
The judge also will allow a former investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office to testify to a jury about a brief exchange he had with Stringer outside the burned home before the police interview.
Mickey Hunt testified that he wanted to talk to Stringer about the layout of the house after being told Stringer lived there.
"He told me he was not that familiar ... that he had not been there in a while and that he was living with his mother," Hunt said.
In the later interview with the GBI agent, Stringer placed himself at the home the day before, Hillsman testified.
Under cross-examination, Hillsman declined to say that Stringer was a suspect on the first day, but said he was a "person of interest in the death investigation."
The case was deemed a murder the following day, when autopsy results showed the women had been stabbed.
Stringer was not arrested until June 1, 2007, almost a year to the day after the deaths. Authorities have not said what evidence led them to finally take out murder warrants.
Wednesday’s hearing was the first of three days of pretrial proceedings in the case.
District Attorney Brad Smith said outside court that he hopes the case will go to trial in the spring.