Neighbors awoke to find an entire Georgia family slaughtered overnight at home in bed. A relative who came crying for help at daybreak was soon charged with murder and would face the death penalty.
Despite some eerie similarities, the defendant in this case wasn’t Guy Heinze Jr., who is on trial in Brunswick for the slayings of his father and seven extended family members clubbed to death in their mobile home on Aug. 29, 2009. This particular crime took place more than a century ago, in August 1887. And prosecutors trying Heinze for murder made sure last week the jury got a brief lesson about this dark page in Georgia history.
Why flash back during a trial to a 126-year-old murder case? A key question facing jurors is whether Heinze, the lone suspect, could reasonably have beaten eight people to death by himself. He sounded distraught as he sobbed to a 911 operator: “My whole family is dead.”
During his opening statement to jurors Tuesday, Heinze’s lead defense attorney, Newell Hamilton Jr., questioned whether 180-pound Heinze was physically capable of inflicting such carnage. He also said an expert will testify that history casts a huge shadow of doubt. “It’s never been done before,” Hamilton said. “There’s no record of a crime like this being committed.”
Prosecutors managed to slip in a rebuttal Wednesday during the testimony of Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Edmund Donoghue, who performed autopsies on the mobile home victims. Prosecutor John B. Johnson asked him: “Are you aware personally of a situation where a person killed eight or nine people?”
The medical examiner said he knew of two crimes. One was the infamous case of Richard Speck, who stabbed and strangled eight student nurses after holding them captive for hours at a Chicago townhouse in July 1966. The second was a lesser-known case from middle Georgia: the 19th century ax murders attributed to Thomas G. Woolfolk (pronounced WUHL-fork).
Woolfolk was the 27-year-old son of a businessman and landowner. He lived with his father, stepmother and several half-siblings in Bibb County at a rural farmhouse outside Macon. On the morning of Aug. 6, 1887, Woolfolk came running to neighbors for help. He said an attacker had broken into the house in the middle of the night and killed the rest of his family. Woolfolk said he escaped by jumping from a window.
Nine people in all were found dead, each of them killed with an ax. The victims were Woolfolk’s father and stepmother, Richard and Mattie Woolfolk, as well as their six children, ages 20, 17, 10, 7, 5 and 18 months. Also killed was the 84-year-old aunt of Woolfolk’s stepmother.
Investigators discovered specks of blood on Woolfolk’s ears and a bloody handprint on his leg. His blood-stained clothes were found at the bottom of a well. It didn’t help that he wasn’t well liked. Georgia Bird, an ex-wife who left Woolfolk after just three weeks of marriage, told reporters covering the killings: “He is the meanest man I ever saw, and there is nothing too mean for him to do.”
And there was an obvious motive for Woolfolk to want his entire family killed.
“Tom Woolfolk would have inherited his father’s estate and property, so he stood to gain financially,” said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a law professor emeritus at the University of Georgia who has researched and written about the case. “I personally don’t have any doubt that he was guilty.”
One macabre detail, Wilkes said, was investigators’ conclusion that Woolfork bludgeoned his victims with the blunt end of the ax head instead of chopping them with the blade.
Woolfolk ended up standing trial twice. The Georgia Supreme Court threw out his first conviction, noting that the trial judge had allowed spectators during attorneys’ closing arguments to shout, “Hang him! Hang him!” A second trial also ended in a conviction, and thousands watched as Woolfolk was hanged Oct. 29, 1890, not far from the courthouse in Perry. He went to the gallows insisting he was innocent.
The 1887 slayings may prove to be a mere footnote in the trial of 26-year-old Heinze, which enters its second week Monday. The medical examiner made just a brief mention of the Woolfolk case after testifying for several hours.
And while the cases have several parallels, there are also distinct differences. Woolfolk stood to inherit his father’s wealth. Heinze, his father and the other seven victims lived in poverty, sharing a cramped single-wide mobile home that was strewn with trash and had no air conditioning.
The bloody, short-handled ax used to kill Woolfolk’s family was found by investigators, and witnesses said they had seen Woolfolk with it the day before the slayings. No murder weapon was recovered in Heinze’s case. Prosecutors said they suspect the mobile home victims were beaten with a shotgun barrel.
And while the jury weighing Heinze’s case will have to decide if he killed eight people, Woolfolk only stood trial for killing his father. It was part of a legal strategy that wouldn’t be allowed today, Wilkes said.
“There were nine murders, but Woolfolk was only tried for one,” Wilkes said. “In those days it would have been permissible if he had somehow been acquitted to try him nine times until you got a conviction.”