GUNTERSVILLE, Ala. — A homeless Alabama man who spent the majority of his adult life in prison has been charged with killing three people, including a 7-year-old boy, in two separate attacks at homes across the street from one another.
Jimmy O'Neal Spencer, 52, is charged with four counts of capital murder in Guntersville, a small lakeside city about 40 miles southeast of Huntsville. Guntersville Police Chief Jim Peterson announced the arrest Tuesday in a news conference streamed live on Facebook.
Peterson said he is confident that his detectives found the man responsible for the slayings.
"We've got the right guy. I'll tell you that professionally and personally," Peterson said. "Through the grace of God, we've got the right guy."
Spencer is charged with killing Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and her great-grandson, Colton Ryan Lee, at Martin’s home at 2404 Mulberry St. The boy was visiting Martin from Huntsville.
He is also accused of killing Martha Dell Reliford, 65, who was found dead in her home at 2321 Mulberry St. that same day. The houses are across the street from one another.
Spencer faces two counts of capital murder during a first-degree robbery, capital murder of a victim under the age of 14 and capital murder of two or more people, jail records show. He is being held without bail in the Marshall County Jail.
A fourth death discovered as police canvassed the area on Friday is not believed to be related to the homicides, Peterson said. The body of James Michael Baker, 68, was found in a ditch a couple of blocks from the Martin-Lee and Reliford crime scenes.
Baker, who had been reported missing from nearby Albertville Friday morning, is believed to have died of natural causes, Peterson said. Investigators are awaiting confirmation from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.
Colton's obituary describes him as having loved to help plant a vegetable garden, as well as sweeping, monster trucks, John Deere and tractor pulls.
"He especially loved his puppies, Harley and Max," the obituary read.
Colton is survived by his mother, Tiffany Lee, and a brother; he was preceded in death by his father, Chris Lee. A GoFundMe page set up by the Albertville High School Class of 2004 for Lee, a member of that year's class, said that Chris Lee died in September 2010, just two months before Colton was born.
Colton and his great-grandmother are scheduled to be buried Thursday following a joint funeral. Reliford’s funeral information was not available online.
Reliford is the third sibling in her family to become the victim of a homicide. The Arab Tribune in 2012 reported that Reliford, who was blind in one eye and fighting cancer, attended a parole hearing for Victor Wray, the man who shot and killed her brother, Pat Reliford Jr., during a fight in 1995.
“He’s scum of the Earth, a lower-than-dirt coward,” Martha Reliford said of her brother’s killer in 2012.
Reliford spoke her mind again at Wray’s most recent parole hearing, which took place last summer.
"I'm eat up with cancer, but I will be at that hearing if I have to crawl," she said at the time.
Reliford's sister, Ruby Harbin, was shot to death in 2007 at the American Legion in Huntsville. The gunman, William Koller, killed Harbin after she refused to dance with him, AL.com reported.
Koller had become obsessed with Harbin, who he had known for some time, the news site reported. He was sentenced to life in prison in her killing.
‘Not indicative of our city’
Peterson did not detail what led investigators to suspect Spencer in the homicides, but he called his investigators’ work on the case the “most impressive police work (he has) ever personally witnessed.” He said the time from the moment they developed a suspect to the moment Spencer was taken into custody was 42 hours and 16 minutes.
"Work has been nonstop since Friday, this past Friday at 4:36 p.m., when we received the first call that there was a problem," Peterson said.
Detectives were at Martin’s home, investigating that crime scene, Friday afternoon when a neighbor approached and told them that Reliford had not been seen or heard from in about 10 days. Officers who went across the street to check on her welfare found her body.
John Young, chief investigator for the Marshall County District Attorney’s Office, said at Tuesday’s news conference that the attack on Martin and Lee and the attack on Reliford did not happen at the same time.
Spencer is originally from Franklin County in west Alabama, Young said.
"He's spent a number of years in the state prison system," Young said. "He's not been out of prison that long. How he got here, we're not totally sure. (He's) been here for a short period of time, sleeping on park benches, occasionally in hotel rooms around."
Spencer spent more than 20 years in prison on burglary charges, Peterson said. He has been in the Guntersville area since about January.
Young said there was no known relationship between Spencer and the victims, but the Advertiser-Gleam reported that Spencer had stayed with Raliford on and off in her home.
"He wasn't living there, but he stayed there some and was an acquaintance," Marshall County District Attorney Everett Johnson told the newspaper. "As for Mrs. Martin and Spencer, the details are unclear."
Young and Peterson declined Tuesday to discuss the motive for the slayings, but Johnson confirmed for the Advertiser-Gleam what the charges against Spencer indicated -- that the two women were robbed.
The object of those robberies was cash, Johnson told the newspaper.
Peterson also declined to say how the victims were killed, but family members of Martin and her great-grandson told the Advertiser-Gleam that both suffered blunt force trauma and that Martin was also strangled.
Reliford’s cause of death remains private, pending official word from state forensic pathologists. Detectives initially thought that her death could be due to natural causes due to her health problems, but her autopsy showed that she had been slain, Peterson said.
The slayings shocked the community of Guntersville, where even investigators struggled to remember exactly when they had seen the city’s last homicide.
"This is not indicative of our city in any manner," Peterson said.
Peterson said he hopes that the arrest can give the community, particularly the families of the victims, relief.
“I pray that, although we cannot give the families their loved ones back, we can at least deliver some degree of justice,” the chief said.
Cox Media Group