Ben Howard gets
for Chula robbery
By Angie Thompson
TIFTON -- It has been almost six years since Earl Parker was murdered and Tonya Jewell was assaulted at Chula General Store -- over $5,000 and some checks and food stamps.
The resulting capital murder trial of Micah Ivey in June of 1999 proved to be one of the most complicated in Tift County's history.
With the last co-defendant pleading guilty and being sentenced Friday after spending more than five years in the Tift County Jail, the long-lived case seems to be closed.
Benjiman Lamour Howard, now 25, was charged in the same indictment with Micah Jason Ivey, Charmaine Tavaris Burr and Shawn Dewitt Gamble on 11 felony counts -- one for murder, one for armed robbery, two for aggravated assault, two for kidnapping with bodily injury and five for felony murder.
Howard pleaded guilty Friday to one count of armed robbery and one of kidnapping in a plea bargain agreement.
Burr and Gamble turned state's evidence and testified against Ivey at his trial. They were each sentenced to serve 16 years in prison.
Mary Ann Pippin, Parker's re-married widow, and Gussie Howard, Howard's mother, along with other family members, met in the parking lot of the Law Enforcement Center before the judge, bailiff's or attorneys arrived. They seemed to be consoling each other. Howard and his family are from the Chula area. Members of each family knew each other well before Parker's death.
"When Gussie drove up, she put her arms around me and said she was sorry," Pippin said. "The Howard family has been devastated by the fact that someone in their family was involved in Earl's death. They are victims too."
Mrs. Howard was not able or willing to answer questions Friday. Jewell could not be reached for comment.
Before sentencing, and with members of Parker's and Howard's family present, Tift Superior Court Judge John D. Crosby asked Howard if he understood the charge. Howard said he did, but questioned the "with bodily injury" attachment to the kidnapping charge on the document he signed.
"The only thing is on the kidnapping," Howard said. "I did not commit bodily injury."
Howard said he was satisfied with representation provided by attorneys David Bryan and Clark Landrum and the plea agreement was made freely and voluntarily. This was not the first time Howard had indicated he wanted to plead guilty and then changed his mind. Another time the case was set to go to a jury trial.
Apparently a ruling after Wednesday's hearing determining a handwritten statement Howard made to Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Curtis Wade on Nov. 14, 1995 was admissible changed the defendant's mind for the last time.
Crosby sentenced Howard to serve 20 years concurrently on each count with credit for time served. Howard won't be eligible for parole for 15 years.
"We did 20 instead of life because he could have gotten out in 14 years under the current law," District Attorney Paul Bowden said. "I doubt he would have gotten out early, but it was possible."
Ivey's 18-day trial was possibly the longest held in Tift Superior Court in the last few decades. Crosby moved the trial to Ware County at the request of defense attorneys David Perry of Albany and Vinson Walters of Ocilla.
After over eight days of testimony, the jury returned with guilty verdicts on five counts of armed robbery.
He was sentenced to serve life plus 80 years.
The jury deadlocked on the more severe charges of murder, two counts of aggravated assault, two counts of kidnapping with bodily injury and five counts of felony murder.
Ivey was already serving two life sentences for a string of armed robberies he committed while an escapee from the Tift County jail in 1996 when he was tried in Waycross.
Howard's letter and the testimony of Burr and Gamble at Ivey's trial painted basically the same picture of what happened the evening of Nov. 1, 1995.
Howard said in his letter to Wade that he had gotten off from work at 6 p.m. and gone straight home to take a bath. He then walked
to an Amoco Store where he met a man looking for "kin folks" of another man. He rode with the man to show him where his relatives lived and returned to the store.
Howard said he then got in the late model BMW Gamble was driving. Howard rode shotgun with Burr and Ivey in the back seat. They then traveled to the Chula General Store. They parked across U.S. Highway 41.
Howard, in his letter, said he and Ivey got out of their car and approached the store.
Parker and Jewell had closed the country store for the evening and were both in their cars when Howard and Ivey approached.
"Ivey and I went to the car and got a man out. The I told the lady to go behind the building and lay down ... I began to go back toward the car where I
saw the man laying beside the truck bleeding," Howard wrote.
Howard testified Friday he and Ivey were wearing masks and he was carrying a 9 mm handgun.
Howard wrote that as he started across the highway, he heard a gunshot. Ivey came to the car shortly after and the four rode back toward Tifton.
"We went 75 and got off a dark exit and continued to ride and Fu (Burr) and Michael (Ivey) threw things out of the window After that we splited the money 3 ways and gave Shawn (Gamble) out of the split," continued Howard.
Witnesses would testify that Parker told Ivey he did not have any money and Ivey hit Parker over the head with the Tec-9 weapon he would later use to shoot Parker in the head.
Pippin, who had expressed disappointment in the Ivey verdict, said it pains her and other family members no one was convicted of Parker's murder.
"As far as our family, we wish there had been a different resolution," Pippin said. "The thing is, nobody has really been held accountable for killing Earl."
Pippin said Howard was the only one of the four defendants who had expressed remorse for the killing and assault, recounting how Howard's sister testified in Ivey's trial that her brother cried and told her about the night's events before one of the Howards notified the Tift County Sheriff's Department.
"I certainly don't believe Howard intended for Mr. Parker to be killed. He has expressed remorse," Bowden said. "I am not trying to excuse what he did, but as far as intent, it was purely Micah Ivey's."
To contact reporter Angie Thompson, call 382-4321, ext. 208.
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