Part Three: A Tragic Death, The Sheriff's Failure, And Jackie Johnson's Protection Of Her Own
Introduction and Summary
By now, most residents of Appling County have heard of the horrific death of Kelsey Rayner. For those who haven’t, please read Part One and Two of this series and watch the attached video. Part One can be viewed by clicking here. Part Two can be viewed by clicking here.
Kelsey Rayner’s passing was preventable, yet he was left on a cold, jail floor to die slowly and painfully. The investigation that followed was poorly executed. Jackie Johnson, the district attorney assigned to the case, should have recused herself the moment she discovered the investigation involved Sheriff Mark Melton, her former employee.
We’ve heard repeatedly that there’s more to the story. You spoke; we listened.
Part Three of this series focuses on beginnings and endings. We wanted the full picture. We wanted to know what events led to Kelsey Rayner’s arrest and details of how his investigation was handled after his death. What we found was a town biased toward those in power.
This is how a tragic death story became a tale of neglect, unfortunate misunderstandings, and abuse of power.
Everything about this stunk from start to finish.
Part 3a: Back To The Beginning
Kelsey Rayner’s troubles started the moment he tried to better himself.
On April 5, 2017, Kelsey signed a commercial rental agreement for 988 City Circle Rd, a building in Baxley, Georgia. Kelsey had hoped to turn the place into a permanent location for his car washing business, with hopes of eventually buying it from the owner, William ‘Billy’ Eason.
On April 16, officers responded to a call by William Eason, claiming that Kelsey Rayner had stolen from him. His accusations came from the wording of the rental agreement between the two men.
According to the police incident report, William Eason claimed Kelsey removed equipment from his building and sold it for scrap metal to Barber Recycling in Alma. When questioned, Kelsey Rayner readily admitted to removing and selling the equipment, stating he’d made a verbal agreement with William Eason to do so.
Kelsey Rayner was immediately arrested, taken to the Appling County Detention Center, and charged with Felony Theft by Taking.
Georgia Code 16-8-2
A person commits the offense of theft by taking when he unlawfully takes or, being in lawful possession thereof, unlawfully appropriates any property of another with the intention of depriving him of the property, regardless of the manner in which the property is taken or appropriated.
According to the incident report, Kelsey Rayner didn’t take the property with the intent to steal from William Eason. Kelsey believed he had a verbal agreement with William Eason allowing him to dispose of the equipment.
Kelsey had just signed a rental agreement with William Eason. It makes no sense that he’d come to a legally binding contract with someone then immediately break it by intentionally stealing from him. According to people who knew Kelsey at the time, Kelsey was told he could clean up the property, and the equipment he’d been accused of stealing appeared to be non-functional junk, so he went about cleaning up the place to make it presentable for his business.
Suppose the equipment was as valuable as William Eason stated. In that case, it’s easy to see how William would have had a difference of opinion with Kelsey. In his mind, Kelsey Rayner had sold off valuable property for scraps and cost him thousands of dollars.
Misunderstandings like these are what wars are waged from. But who suffered the most from this misunderstanding?
Kelsey was charged with a felony, which had a minimum of one-year imprisonment. Kelsey Rayner and William Eason had a legally binding contract between them as landlord and tenant. Kelsey faced prison time over what amounted to a misunderstanding that should’ve been a civil lawsuit instead of a criminal one.
This misunderstanding set up the circumstances that eventually led to Kelsey’s death and started a heated debate between these two men.
On April 19, William Eason filed a complaint with the Baxley Police Department against Kelsey Rayner for Harassment.
The next morning, April 20, sources state that officers came to Kelsey’s home address, told him another complaint had been filed, and Kelsey couldn’t sell fruit from his home because his business license didn’t allow it. With Kelsey’s hopes of having a permanent place of business destroyed, he’d resorted to selling fruit wherever he could. This was quite a blow to an already hurting man.
Four days later, an interesting report was filed with the Appling County Sheriff’s department. Case Number 17-06-0621 was opened, but almost all of the identifying information was excluded. The incident type was labeled ‘Civil Matter’ and ‘Other’ without any details of what occurred. The report shows that Billy Eason had a complaint filed against him and that officers were dispatched to “21 Roger’s Street” about a civil matter. The document states that the victim’s name was withheld. Still, it is unclear whether that was the victim’s choice or if the Appling County Sheriff’s department took it upon themselves to leave the victim’s name out. However, in the “Narrative” section of the complaint, it is the home address of Kelsey Rayner that the officers responded to, strongly implying that the victim was either Kelsey Rayner or someone in his household. Because the report was so poorly documented, it’s difficult to determine what occurred on that date and why a complaint was filed against Billy Eason.
Two months later, on June 25, 2017, Kelsey Rayner attended the Baxley Church of God. People close to Kelsey claim that he’d initially went to the church that morning to apologize to William Eason and hopefully clear up their misunderstanding. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
According to a typed statement submitted to the Baxley Police Department by William Eason, Kelsey approached him inside the church and “said some things I couldn’t understand,” and he was “making a large commotion.” William claimed he tried to take the conversation outside. However, when Kelsey didn’t follow him out, William returned to find Kelsey talking to other church members and embarrassing him. Another argument ensued, resulting in William and Kelsey speaking in the Pastor’s office and the Pastor allegedly asking Kelsey Rayner to leave. Keep in mind that this is William Eason’s account of what happened. As with their previous misunderstanding, it’s likely the two would disagree on these circumstances.
But that wasn’t the end of it.
Shortly after Kelsey left the Pastor’s office, another argument occurred while crossing the Baxley Church of God parking lot.
A ‘Terroristic Threats’ incident report was filed by the Baxley Police Department against Joey Hires for threatening Kelsey Rayner. According to the report, Joey Hires threatened to “knock his head off his shoulders” in the Baxley Church of God parking lot. Because the threat of violence was corroborated by witnesses, the statute for ‘Terroristic Threats’ was met.
When looking at this police report, we noticed what appeared to be a typo. The Joey Hires we’ve heard of, the deacon at the Baxley Church of God and close friend of Sheriff Mark Melton, it seemed that his name was misspelled. The police incident report had the name “Joey Hires” with an address of “Hatch Pkwy South.” Yet the Joey that the city of Baxley is well acquainted with is Joseph G. Hiers.
Were these two different people?
We did a little digging and discovered that according to the tax assessors office, there is indeed a Joseph G. Hires who owns one property and a Joseph G. Hiers owning multiple properties throughout the county. Interestingly, the tax assessors website showed that both ‘Joeys’ had the same “Owner Address” of 1978 Hatch Pkwy S Baxley, Ga.
It appears that the Joey referenced in the police report for ‘Terroristic Threats’ was the same Joey Hiers that everyone knows as a deacon at the Baxley Church of God, a close friend of Sheriff Mark Melton, and ardent supporter of District Attorney Jackie Johnson.
Why were the last names spelled differently?
The police report error perfectly matched the error at the tax assessors office. These errors work out well for Joey. If anyone were to file an open records request for criminal activity on Joseph G. Hiers, they wouldn’t find anything. Only by misspelling his last name would any report come to light. However, this could easily have been a typo or misspelling by the officer or clerk. Hiers isn’t a common name. Yet, this mistake almost led us to believe it was a different Joey who’d been accused of the crime. This seemed oddly coincidental, similar to how Kelsey Rayner filed a ‘Terroristic Threats’ report against the sheriff’s friend, then a month later, Kelsey died in Sheriff Melton’s jail. It doesn’t mean anything. Coincidences happen. The events aren’t necessarily connected, but like the police report and tax assessors website, the connections between them don’t paint a pretty picture.
Two days after the church incident, on June 27, William Eason filed two additional complaints against Kelsey Rayner, claiming he feared for his life. Both men were upset and angry. Given the circumstances, it is understandable that William Eason would be concerned. The complaints William Eason filed: ‘Disorderly Conduct’ for the events at the church and ‘Harassing Phone Calls’ due to disturbing communications he’d had with Kelsey Rayner over the past several weeks.
The next day, on June 28, Kelsey Rayner was washing cars in Fred’s parking lot. According to sources, Kelsey had obtained permission from Fred’s to use their space and permission from one of the stores in the strip mall adjacent to Fred’s to use their water.
A complaint was filed. According to the police report, Kelsey Rayner washed cars in Fred’s parking lot and stole water from Nellie’s Hair Fashions, one of the strip mall stores adjacent to Fred’s. The mall’s backside has few water outlets. It’s not easy to determine which outlet goes to which store, making it possible Kelsey accidentally hooked up to the wrong outlet. While being questioned by police, Kelsey was asked to produce his business license. Kelsey told the officers he had a license but that he didn’t have it on him. Kelsey Rayner was arrested for ‘Theft of Services’ for stealing from Roger Branch, the mall owner, and for ‘No Business License.’
Not only did it appear that Kelsey Rayner was being charged over a misunderstanding again, but it also seemed to have been done improperly. The warrant application for Kelsey Rayner’s arrest stated that Kelsey, “willingly and knowingly by deception and with the intent to avoid payment…which was available only for compensation from the person of Roger Branch, to which the said Roger Branch was entitled to receive payment.”
This statement was signed by Appling County State Solicitor Terry Turner. The words “willingly and knowingly” caught our attention, but more importantly, “available only for compensation from the person of Roger Branch.”
We’ve been told that the tenants of the mall were responsible for their own water bill. If this is true, it means that Roger Branch had no legal standing to bring charges against Kelsey Rayner for theft of services. Roger Branch was probably unaware of this and felt he was protecting his tenants. However, the same cannot be said of law enforcement or the court. You would think this information would have been verified, but it appears it wasn’t, and Kelsey Rayner found himself in jail once again.
On June 30, 2017, Kelsey Rayner was bonded out of jail.
A preliminary hearing for the ‘Disorderly Conduct’ and ‘Harassing Phone Calls’ allegations was scheduled for July 11th. Unfortunately, Kelsey didn’t realize he was required to attend, and warrants were issued for his arrest.
According to court records, Kelsey’s bond company filed paperwork to come off their bond for his ‘Theft of Services’ and ‘No Business License’ charges on July 14. This paperwork stated that Kelsey was “in custody of the Appling County Sheriff’s Office,” however, Kelsey Rayner had not yet been arrested. The civil lawsuit that names Sheriff Mark Melton as a defendant claims the sheriff’s department requested the bond company to come off their misdemeanor bond. If true, it was a highly unusual move for a sheriff.
The next day, July 15, 2017, Kelsey Rayner was arrested and placed in jail for the events that took place at the Baxley Church of God, and because the bond for his misdemeanor Theft of Services was removed.
Multiple open records requests have been submitted to local government agencies. We were only able to find paperwork for the removal of Kelsey Rayner’s misdemeanor bond. Documentation for the lifting of his felony bond have not been produced. This brings credibility to the civil lawsuit accusations of false imprisonment by Sheriff Mark Melton. The civil lawsuit claims that after Kelsey’s day in court on July 24, his felony bond remained in place, and Sheriff Melton should have released him from jail. If true, this would have freed Kelsey Rayner to go to a hospital and possibly saved his life.
Kelsey Rayner seemed to have the world against him. While it’s evident that William Eason, Kelsey Rayner, and Roger Branch all had good reason to be upset, it appears as though it was only Kelsey’s claims that went unheeded.
Complaints against Kelsey Rayner were acted upon swiftly. Kelsey found himself in jail on multiple occasions with little evidence to support his crimes.
What about Kelsey Rayner’s complaints? His complaint against Joey Hiers for ‘Terroristic Threats’ met the statute for the crime, and yet, has Joey faced any consequences for his actions? Was a warrant issued or a court date set? Such a high profile case would be big news in a small town, yet the public seems unaware of it.
The Baxley Informer intends to find the answers and conduct open records requests in the coming weeks. Maybe the political favoritism we’ve discovered in D.A. Jackie Johnson’s camp won’t be as prevalent in that of Sheriff Mark Melton’s, but then, perhaps we’ll find that it’s worse.
Part 3b: Botched Investigations and Missed Recusals
Sheriff Mark Melton admitted to the GBI that Kelsey Rayner appeared to be in pain on July 24, 2017. Why didn’t the sheriff pry further or insist that Kelsey see the doctor? If the civil lawsuit is to be believed, this was also the day that Kelsey Rayner should’ve been freed after Judge Preston Johnson stated his misdemeanor charges would be taken care of with fines and probation. But Kelsey Rayner wasn’t released by the sheriff’s department and never received medical attention, resulting in his horrific and painful death.
Years passed before the extent of Kelsey Rayner’s suffering was uncovered.
It seems that District Attorney Jackie Johnson never considered the possibility of criminal negligence. She failed to see what so many others saw instantly. Or maybe she just didn’t want to see. After all, it was her former employee, Mark Melton, who’s office was under investigation. In this case, as we’ve previously stated, Jackie Johnson should have recused herself immediately upon Kelsey Rayner’s death.
Yet, Jackie wasn’t the only player with a possible conflict of interest. We’ve recently learned that it was the Region 4 office of the GBI that conducted the investigation, creating another potential conflict.
In retrospect, it makes sense. We had professionals look at the GBI investigative files for the Kelsey Rayner case. They universally stated it was one of the worst GBI investigations they’d seen.
One of the main issues with the investigation was the number of witnesses who were never interviewed. Three of the nightshift officers who had contact with Kelsey Rayner the night of his death were never questioned. Officer Hamilton, Officer Watts, and Officer Dowdney. Additionally, the inmate who entered Kelsey Rayner's cell to bring him food the day of his death was never interviewed.
According to the audio-recorded interview of Inmate Brewer, Officers Merced and Griffis entered Kelsey’s cell shortly before his passing. They attempted to convince Kelsey to get up because he had a phone call. Most inmates would jump at the chance for a call, and Kelsey Rayner was a family man. This was another sign that something was terribly wrong with Kelsey, and yet it wasn’t mentioned. Why didn’t Officer Merced or Officer Griffis tell the GBI this in their interview? After the officers left Kelsey’s cell, Inmate Brewer claimed there was a horrible smell, and the inmates were worried that Kelsey was going to die. Throughout the day, inmates had called to Kelsey Rayner to get a response. It was unusual for him to be so quiet. Inmate Brewer claimed the hall would get loud from all the inmates talking, implying that many were incarcerated. Yet, the GBI interviewed only two, neither of which was Natasha Denise Smith, who, according to the civil lawsuit, made multiple attempts to get officers to take Kelsey to the hospital. At one point, she was allegedly told to shut up and go back to bed.
Why wasn’t Natasha Denise Smith interviewed by the GBI?
The GBI investigation showed that Officer Dowdney, who’d checked on Kelsey Rayner earlier in the shift, left the jail to take a female inmate to the hospital sometime between 8:00 pm and 8:20 pm. Kelsey Rayner passed away at approximately 9:45 pm.
Were Inmate Natasha Smith and Officer Dowdney not interviewed because they weren’t available when the GBI arrived at the jail at 11:20 pm? What about Officers Hamilton and Watts? These seemed like key witnesses to Kelsey Rayner’s death, and yet there’s no record that they were interviewed. It appears that a full investigation was never performed.
There are reasons to suspect a conflict of interest with the GBI Region 4 office. Sheriff Mark Melton’s Chief Investigator, Jeff Evans, was previously the Special Agent in Charge over the Region 4 office of the GBI. Although Jeff Evans left the GBI under less-than-honorable circumstances, it still raises the question of whether he held any influence over the case and whether another regional office should’ve been called for the investigation.
Kelsey Rayner never stood a chance.
From the high-profile citizens that Kelsey had inadvertently crossed, to their buddy and fellow church member Sheriff Mark Melton, all the way to District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who effectively shut down the GBI’s investigation and who’s conflict of interests were so apparent she should’ve recused herself the moment the case landed on her desk. Everything about this case, from start to finish, was corrupted.
This is a classic example of what happens when there’s no separation of power—politicians look out for each other, and there’s no equal justice under the law.