TIFTON -- The death penalty trial of a young man with Tift County roots was scheduled to begin today in LaFayette. Donnie Allen Hulett, 21, was charged with the murder of two brothers July 22, 2002, as they worked clearing brush near the Mountain Top Boys Home.
Jury selection began Monday for Hulett. He is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and armed robbery in the deaths of 62-year-old Larry Phelps and 69-year-old Arvine Phelps of Whitfield County. The two retired educators were shot at close range July 22, 2002, near the residence for teenagers who have been in juvenile court.
Because of the nature of the crimes, Hulett faces eight counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, two counts of armed robbery and four counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.
The Mountain Top Boys Home is located between LaFayette and Calhoun in the Chattahoochee National Forest. It has been operated by the United Methodist Church from Greater Atlanta since 1980.
Hulett's mother, Jackie Lynn Harrell, and grandparents Linda and James Harrell, are from Tifton. Hulett had lived in Telfair County near Lumber City with his father, Donnie Alan Hulett Sr., since he was a young boy.
Authorities believe Hulett stole a vehicle and two rifles from a Calhoun residence and left the vehicle at the scene of the shootings. Larry Phelps' 2000 dark red Ford F-150 was stolen from the scene and was spotted in Telfair County several days after the killings. Jimmy Williamson, Telfair County sheriff, told The Tifton Gazette that agents with a fugitive recovery squad spent two weeks there.
Hulett was arrested at a Western Union in Casa Grande, Ariz., after Georgia investigators received a tip from an acquaintance of Hulett's.
Relatives of the Phelps brothers and Hulett's relatives have said that the murders wouldn't have happened if Hulett hadn't been released from Calhoun State Prison June 17, 2002, after serving two years for two theft-by-taking charges. The Macon Telegraph reported in July 2002 that charges were pending against Hulett for an escape from a work detail in 2001, theft of a prison van and theft of a truck from a car dealership when he was released. The escape charge carried a maximum 10-year sentence.
Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden said he would have placed a hold on Hulett, but he was never notified by the state that Hulett was about to be released.
Linda Harrell told The Tifton Gazette that she was cooperating with authorities and was "horrified when she thinks about the crimes her grandson was accused of."
"D.J. should still be behind bars," she said. "None of this should have ever happened."
According to an article that ran in The Daily Citizen of Dalton on Saturday, James Harrell told a reporter in 2002 that, "In my heart, I feel the state of Georgia, the prison system, the district attorney and the probation department failed to do their jobs and therefore gave him the freedom to do what he supposedly has done. If I'm wrong for feeling this way then I'll just have to be wrong."
Hulett's attorneys have declined to comment about specifics of the case, citing a gag order imposed by Superior Court Judge Jon Bolling Wood. Hulett's attorneys tried to keep evidence recovered from Phelps' truck away from jurors, but Wood denied their motion. GBI agent James Harris said during an October 2002 hearing that an entry in a notebook found in the truck state, "I, Donnie Hulett, did the murders at the Mountain Top Boys Home" and the only way to "redeem my action" would be "by doing the same to myself, which I intend to do before anyone can catch me."
The Harrells could not be reached for comment Monday.
To contact reporter Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.
Information from an article that ran in the April 11, 2004, edition of The Daily Citizen contributed to this article.
React to this story:
This Week's Circulars
- Council weighs changes in Tifton Housing Authority after girl's death
- Rural Georgia county mirrors razor-thin divide between DNC, GOP victory
- CORRECTION: Lowndes County Schools reports 181 students quarantined
- Tara Grinstead case drags on 15 years after disappearance
- Tift County names football players of the week
- Tifton agent becomes drug office chief
- Tift reports 18 new COVID-19 cases in past two days
- UPDATE: Tifton man charged with murder in death of 9-year-old girl
- Volleyball to play Saturday at 3 p.m.
- Tift leader named Rural Georgia deputy commissioner