Two murder confessions, and two retractions, have left residents of this west Georgia town wondering whether the killer of 8-year-old Amy Yates ever will be known.
A juvenile court judge this week ordered the release of a 14-year-old boy who has been held for nearly two years for his suspected involvement in Yates' murder.
The boy's admission — which he later retracted — was thrown out by the same judge after an 18-year-old neighbor recently confessed. Then the 18-year-old, who is mentally disabled, recanted as well.
"It's a very sad situation," said Dorothy Pittman, owner of a downtown book store. "We may never know exactly what happened."
Now, District Attorney Pete Skandalakis will have a few days to decide which suspect to prosecute or whether to drop the case altogether.
Excuse for excuse
"It's a tough decision, but it's one I make every day," Skandalakis said. Noting the case is based largely on circumstantial evidence, he said: "The problem is, no matter who you accuse, the other now has an excuse."
The developments have engrossed the town of 20,000, a former cotton trading outpost in Georgia's once-unsettled frontier, now fighting to maintain its sense of community as Atlanta sprawls westward.
"It still has that small-town feeling," said Carol McWhorter, owner of an eclectic downtown art shop. "Everyone takes care of each other, and neighbors look after each other."
In the Yates case, though, it's the neighbors that police are investigating. Both the 14-year-old and the 18-year-old lived near the girl's Carroll County home.
Amy disappeared in April 2004 while riding her bike to a friend's home, and her body was found hours later in a gully.
Interrogated without lawyer
The 14-year-old neighbor confessed after police interrogated him for three hours without a lawyer present, said his attorney, Jerry Word. Later that night, he recanted. "He was coerced. They kept on calling him a liar," Word said.
Last year, the teen avoided trial by agreeing in court that prosecutors could convince a judge that he killed Amy.
In February, the 18-year-old neighbor confessed to the crime after apparently undergoing a religious conversion. Authorities were skeptical, however, and his parents have said he didn't have the mental capacity to understand what he admitted. A few weeks ago, the man testified at a court hearing that he didn't commit the murder.
Pittman, who was reading the local newspaper's front page story about the case as she welcomed patrons to her cozy bookstore, said the case is a signal of changing times.
"Atlanta is coming out," she said. "It's all coming out this way. With it comes the crime and the drugs."