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Crowders file up for parole review
Long Co. case became known as the Tomato Patch Murder
0408Billy Crowder
Billy Crowder

After serving 14 years of a life sentence, Billy Crowder has become eligible for parole and currently is under review by the Georgia Department of Pardons and Paroles Board.

Crowder gained notoriety during his murder trial in the summer of 1998 in Long County Superior Court. He, his family and his friend, Jason Jordan, stood accused of a heinous crime against Crowder’s grandfather, Thurman Martin.

The trial and subsequent series of events put the small community of Ludowici on the map as the events unfolded in the local news and later made national headlines when a documentary about the family, Martin’s death and the trial aired on A&E, Court TV and 20/20.

The story involved the alleged abuse of an entire family, a murder and a cover-up — all of which led to a verdict in the Crowder trial and a sentence that some jurors called a miscarriage of justice.

Crowder, who was 19 at the time, was convicted of voluntary manslaughter in connection with his grandfather’s death and was sentenced to five years. He also was convicted of armed robbery and received a life sentence.

It all started in the summer of 1997.

The following summary of events was taken from Coastal Courier news reports and transcripts from A&E’s "American Justice" program that recount Crowder’s case. Billy Crowder and his sister, Katie, then 18, were living in Thurman Martin’s house in Ludowici in May 1997. Crowder’s mother, Diane Stanton, and stepfather, John Stanton, lived in a trailer behind Martin’s house. On May 19, 1997, Crowder called the Long County Sheriff’s Office to report Martin missing. Having no reason to suspect foul play, the sheriff’s office, the city police department and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened a missing person’s case.

Some of Martin’s clothes were missing and since he was a former auto mechanic and truck driver, authorities suspected he left on his own accord. But subsequent visits to the family’s house and a sudden allegation by Martin’s daughter, who claimed she had been raped by her father multiple times, led authorities to believe the family knew more about his disappearance than they let on.

Authorities got a break in the case when Crowder’s friend, Jason Jordan, then 17, went on vacation in North Carolina shortly after Martin disappeared. After a night of drinking, he reportedly bragged to his friends that he had witnessed a murder in Ludowici.

That information made its way to the GBI, and all the parties involved were brought in individually for questioning. After failing a polygraph test administered June 30, 1997, Jordan reportedly confessed that he had been involved in Martin’s murder. Shortly afterward, Crowder also failed a polygraph and, when pressed by police, he voluntarily confessed to murdering his grandfather, saying that he, John Stanton and Jason Jordan had shot and killed Martin in his sleep.

On July 3, 1997, Crowder and Jordan were arrested, and police found Martin’s body wrapped in a plastic shower curtain and buried under a freshly planted strip of tomato plants in his backyard. The case of the "Tomato Patch Murder," as it came to be known, was born.

John Stanton later confessed to playing a part in Martin’s death, and Diane Stanton and Katie Crowder pleaded guilty to their alleged roles in concealing the crime.

Jordan was tried and found guilty of murder and hindering the apprehension of a criminal. Long County Judge Robert Russell sentenced Jordan to life. Katie Crowder pleaded guilty to hiding evidence and was sentenced to 100 days in a detention center and five years probation. Diane Stanton pleaded guilty but mentally ill to hindering the apprehension of a criminal. She was sentenced to 360 days in a detention center, 12 months of psychological treatment at a Florida hospital and five years probation.

John Stanton and Crowder were tried together for murder and armed robbery.

During their trial, Crowder claimed he’d suffered abuse at Martin’s hands — abuse Crowder, his mother and other relatives testified went on for several years. He said his sister, Katie, and grandmother, Lula Kate, also had been victims of Martin’s abuse. Crowder’s grandmother died in February 1997, just three months before the crime.

After his grandfather’s death, Crowder said he took $600 out of Martin’s wallet to pay the family’s rent and utilities. He gave Jordan $20. It was the taking of the money that led to the armed robbery charges.

Stanton was found guilty of murder but acquitted of armed robbery. Being frail and battling bone cancer throughout most of the trial and the latter part of his life, Stanton died while serving his sentence.

Crowder was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime and was sentenced to five years for each charge. But the jury also found him guilty of armed robbery and Judge Russell sentenced Crowder to life for the offense.

Some jurors felt the sentence was excessive and filed a letter of appeal asking the judge to reconsider the life sentence for armed robbery, but to no avail.

Current Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden served as the state’s prosecutor during the trial. He said he can’t believe it’s been 14 years since Crowder’s trial and sentencing, but added he stands by the jury’s and judge’s decisions.

"It was interesting trying the case and interesting watching press coverage of the trial," Durden said. "However, it is what it is, and the evidence stands for what it is. I can’t quarrel with what the jury did or what the judge did, nor would I. That is not my place in this system. It was a tough decision for the jurors. It was a tough decision for the judge in sentencing, and I still believe that justice was done."

Earlier this year, the Coastal Courier received a handwritten letter from Billy Crowder, who said he has spent his time in prison developing his skills. Always interested in automotive mechanics, he said he studied automotive technology, computer technology and electrical and mechanical engineering, among other things. Crowder wants to open his own automotive repair shop, according to his letter, and longs to be with his new wife and family, who live in Alabama. Crowder got married last New Year’s Eve.

"I met Billy in 2004," Tonia Crowder, Billy’s wife, said. "I had watched the show just like everybody else … the one that aired on A&E. I watched it. … My grandmother had raised me, and I just wrote Billy a letter telling him that I had seen the show and was sorry for what happened (to him)."

Tonia Crowder said her three children were younger when she and Crowder started corresponding. They wrote letters to each other and she visited him a few times, maintaining a cordial friendship. But in February 2011, with her children older, she re-connected with Crowder and their relationship intensified.

"She has always been so supportive of me," Billy Crowder wrote. "She is a fairytale come true and has always been there for me … and she has shown me true love."

"He still has a lot of compassion and has a positive outlook and just wants to make something of himself," Tonia Crowder said. "Even after all that has happened … he is looking forward to getting out and pursuing his automotive career and starting a small business. Billy is very smart, and everyone who knows him knows he is an intelligent person. I still see that in him. He has a big heart and is a caring person."

Crowder’s parole lies in the hands of the five-person parole board. According to Georgia Pardon and Paroles Public Affairs Director Steve Hayes, the entire process begins with the clemency division preparing the offender’s file for the board’s review and consideration.

The file contains the entire case transcripts; Crowder’s prison files that list his work, behavior and accomplishments during his incarceration; and submitted information from his wife about where he would live and work if released. Offender files may contain victim-impact statements, previous correspondence from victims and any other pertinent submitted information.

"And, in this case — on a life case — it would be to either grant parole or not to grant at this time," Hayes said. "They individually will review all the material and then they will make their individual decision. When it’s a majority decision — three out of five board members — once you get a majority decision to grant or not to grant, that is the final decision."

If Crowder is denied parole, his case would be reconsidered at a future date, again decided by the board, which could span a period between one and eight years.

"If they decide to grant parole and there are victims, there is a process for victims," Hayes explained. "Our office of victim services will notify registered victims and let them know that the board is considering the case."

Hayes said the victims then would have a specific period of time to submit information to the board for consideration.

"If they grant parole, they may make a condition of work release, so it would be a condition upon the completion of a Department of Corrections work-release program," Hayes said. "The Department of Corrections assigns the offender to a transitional center work-release program to acclimate that offender back into the community and a working environment. He would go to work during the day and go back to the center at night, and they could make that a pre-condition to his parole. … If he wasn’t able to complete that for some reason, it could lead to the board rescinding his parole grant. The board can rescind a parole grant at any time up until the actual release."

Tonia Crowder said she is looking forward to the day she and Billy can be a normal, loving family.

"He has been locked up for 14 years after going through all the stuff that he did," she said. "But he has turned out to be a really good man. He is good with my kids. My youngest daughter absolutely loves him. She actually wears him out during a visit. She is all over him and he loves it. He just wants to have a family and he is looking forward to being with all of us."

Tonia Crowder said if her husband is released, there is one place he does want to visit.

"The first place he did tell me he wants to go to if he gets out is to go visit his grandmother’s grave," she said.

As for reconnecting with his family, Tonia Crowder said Crowder’s sister has been somewhat estranged from Billy and he hardly talks to his mother.

"I think he got one phone call from his mom, and she was ugly about his grandmother, and he hasn’t talked to her anymore," she said. "He has no plans to look back. He doesn’t want to look back."

"I pray that this year, I get the chance to finally start my life," Billy Crowder wrote in his letter.

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