Members of the Columbus City Council held a special meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss the three most recent murders in Columbus. Three people were shot and killed over a period of five days in mid-September and Interim Chief of Police Selvain McQueen and Assistant Chief of Police Joe Johnson were on hand to answer the city council’s question in what Councilman Kabir Karriem referred to as a “Come to Jesus meeting.”
The body of Al Lathan was discovered at the Luxapalila State Park Saturday morning, September 10. A bloody trail led investigators down the river bank to Lathan’s body where he died of an apparent gun shot wound. Later that same evening Tedd Wood was also shot and killed as he was walking down 8th Avenue North. Wood was shot a reported 13 times and pronounced dead on scene. In the most recent murder, William Lavelle Vaughn was shot and killed last Thursday night in front of his father’s home on 27th Street North. He died in route to the hospital, making him the third murder in less than a week’s time.
Mayor Smith started the meeting off by saying he wanted the community to know that he and members of the City Council “are not taking a lackadaisical approach” in response to the recent homicides and discovering who is responsible for each. When asked by Smith if the Police Department had any suspects in any of the murder, McQueen responded “We are actively investigating all three homicides.”
McQueen was also quick to add though that the while he knows the citizens of Columbus “expect things to happen quickly” that’s not often the case. “Ultimately this is not about hurriedly arresting someone. I am looking towards the future, towards prosecution. I don’t want to rush this and miss something and not et a conviction. Sometimes it takes a little longer but that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing our job.”
Councilman Karriem then spoke up and turning to members of the council, asked if the city of Columbus could offer up a reward for information leading to the “arrest and conviction” of those involved. Mayor Smith then suggested that the city offer a reward of $5,000 dollars per murder. Kabir Karriem made the motion and it was seconded by Bill Gavin. The motion passed with all five members present voting to approve the motion. (Councilman Box was unable to attend. SF)
After the motion passed Karriem asked the chiefs if they would be willingly to accept help from retired investigators to which Johnson replied “We’ll take any help we can get.”
Members of the council then rattled off names of retired investigators including Carl Kemp, Edward Williams, Louis Alexander and Tom Thompson that they felt would be suited for lending a hand to the investigations.
Councilman Bill Gavin then asked if the two chiefs believed that the slayings were related to each other. McQueen was quick to respond with a “No sir” and Johnson added “Our investigation has not lead us in that area. There isn’t a connecting point. There is some talk, there is going to be myths but the facts are out there.” He then added again, “Our investigation has not lead us in that direction.”
The chiefs also stated that “from an investigative standpoint” the murders are not seemingly related, were not gang related, did not involve drugs or burglary nor did any of the three victims know each other.
When asked about the other unsolved murders in Columbus Chief McQueen said “ I don’t want to make any promises but there may be an arrest in the not too distant future. It’s just a phone call away and I’ll leave it at that.” Chief Johnson then told the council “Murder cases are never closed. They’re always open. We just add to the information we’ve got.”
The topic then turned to the police having more of a visible presence in the community. There are four “substations” in Columbus that the police department has access to and can use as a hub if necessary. The substations are located in neighborhoods that were constantly referred to as “hot spots” throughout the meeting. A CPD officer checks into each facility every shift but the stations are not consistently manned. The council expressed their growing concern that these substations were not manned at all times with Karriem telling the chiefs “We don’t want to be snowed no more. We need an officer around or nearby” to which the Mayor quipped “That’s just going to take more manpower”
As the topic shifted to the number of certified officers actually on the street, Johnson told the members that the department now has a total of 72 certified officers. However, not all of those officers are on the street. CPD officers work on four rotating shifts with eight officers working the two days shifts and 10 officers working the two night shifts. The night shift includes members of the Drug Interdiction and Crime Enforcement, or DICE team as they are commonly referred.
The Mayor then asked the city’s Human Resource Director Pat Mitchell if the salary for police officers in Columbus is comparable with cities of a similar size “like Starkville or Tupelo.”When Mitchell responded that the starting salary for officers is $30,640 dollars. To that McQueen quipped “Your ranking officers are the ones that are nearly on welfare.”
The Mayor then posed the question “If I’m a Sergeant in Starkville am I going to want to transfer to Columbus? Or do I lose my rank?”
According to the city’s Civil Service policy, any officer that transfers to Columbus from another department loses whatever rank he had earned and has to start over, working his way through the ranks. Both Mitchell and David Armstong, Chief Operations Officer for the City of Columbus, informed the council that that was a standard policy and “most cities are like that.” Smith and members of the council grumbled about whether that was fair or not before the mayor said “Well we’ll have to look into that and see if we can get that changed.”
The meeting ended shortly thereafter with Karriem asking Johnson if the department had “everything you need”. The assistant chief replied “We will only come to you and ask for what we need. I’m not going to ask for more and I’m not going to ask for less. I’m not talking about excess, I’m talking about what it’s going to take the get the job done.”
Karriem asked the Chief if he had “adequate” officers to “get the job done” Johnson responded with “No sir.”
10 murders have occurred in Lowndes County in the past year with the last six remaining unsolved.
The body of north side personality Sharon Beard was found on Jemison Mill Road in June. Beard died from an apparent gunshot wound and her body was apparently dumped on the gravel road. Megg Bankhead was murdered in his home on ½ College Street in July. He died hours later at Baptist Memorial Hospital Golden Triangle. Edmund Mosley was also shot and killed in July. Mosely was gunned down in the doorway of his home on 13th Street North.
The city is offering a reward in the three most recent murders but did not offer a reward in the three prior. As always, anyone with any information is encouraged to call Golden Triangle Crime Stoppers at 1-800-530-7151.