For 20 years, Christmas just hasn't been the same for Bobby and Rutha Reese. And it likely never will be again.
The reason: Their eldest son, 17-year-old Marcus Reese was killed just seven days into his senior year at Thomson High School. The date was Sept. 3, 1988.
Had he lived, Marcus would have celebrated his 37th birthday last Saturday.
To mark the somber occasion, Mr. and Mrs. Reese gathered at their son's grave site - Stoney Grove CME Church in Warren County - to clean off the site and to place flowers there like they have done the past 20 years.
"Every year since his death, me and my wife have placed flowers on his grave," said Mr. Reese. "We've come here every year and done this on his birthday."
Accompanying them there was their youngest son, Kittaswandi Reese, 30, of Thomson, whose birthday was a week ago.
"We wonder what he would have been like as a man; if he'd had found a good job, gotten married, had children, etc.," added Mr. Reese. "So many questions we've thought of over the years about our son."
Two other questions have lingered in their minds through the years, too - who killed their son and why.
"We have so many questions about why anybody would have wanted to hurt our son," said Mr. Reese, a self-employed businessman and former bus driver with the McDuffie County School System for a number of years. "We've been searching for answers for a long, long time and we're going to keep searching until we get some answers. We'll never give up on seeking justice for our son."
A night's tragedy
The last time that anyone reportedly saw Marcus was while he walking from what was known back then as Hardee's, now Popeye's, on the 600 block of Main Street in Thomson.
"I've talked with two people who saw him walking away from Hardee's," recalled Kittaswandi, who works as an assistant manager at Wendy's in Thomson. "One of those people told me that he still regrets not having offered Marcus a ride that morning."
Just a few minutes later, Marcus was found lying face down in the middle of Wrightsboro Road - barely clinging to life. He was rushed by ambulance to the Medical College of Georgia Hospital in Augusta, where he died several hours later.
His parents were with him when he died. They had been informed of what was described to them as an accident by McDuffie County Sheriff's Investigator Gene Wells, now retired as a lawman and probate judge.
"He told us we needed to go down to the hospital in Augusta, that our son had been involved in an accident," said Mrs. Reese, who along with her husband had to wipe away tears on several occasions as they recalled the tragic events. "We never got to talk to Marcus again. He never regained consciousness."
The couple says they can't remember where their son was the night before.
"The last time I saw him, he was walking up the road the day before to catch the school bus," said Mr. Reese.
Authorities first thought he had been hit by a big truck with extended mirrors and that one of those mirrors may have struck him in the back of the head as he was walking along the road.
Medical records reveal that Marcus had a large scalp laceration and a depressed skull fracture.
Marcus was found lying in the roadway sometime after 5 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1988. He later underwent emergency surgery, but died while attempting to recover.
It wasn't for several days before other information came their way to lead them to suspect that Marcus had been intentionally slain rather than accidentally hit by a vehicle.
When he was found lying in the roadway, he still was alive. The man who found him was Bob Boswell, a former well-known Thomson businessman, now living in Athens, according to the elder Mr. Reese.
Lost in the shuffle
Complicating matters at the time was the extensive manhunt for Clifford Bouttry, or Clifford Mathis as he also was known - a man accused in the fatal shooting of GBI Special Agent Bob Kirk. Mr. Bouttry had escaped from the old McDuffie County Jail following his arrest.
The escapee later was caught - only to flee from the same jail again, prompting an even larger manhunt. Lawmen later spotted him and shot him to death in a parking lot in downtown Thomson.
"There were hundreds of lawmen searching for the GBI agent's killer, but not one helping our family with the murder of my son," said Mr. Reese. "I didn't like that then and I still don't like it. ... If it sounds like I'm a little bitter, it's because I am."
Still looking for answers
Several days after Marcus' death, Mr. Reese said he and Logan Marshall, who was an investigator with the sheriff's department back then and is now sheriff of McDuffie County, revisited where Marcus' body was found. Along with other information which was learned at the time, it was determined that Marcus had met his death by homicide and not by accident as first thought.
Former Sheriff William Swan said he believes that Marcus was killed by someone using a stick.
"We done a thorough investigation on that case," said Mr. Swan. "We solved a lot of murder cases; I just wish we could have solved that one, too."
A law enforcement source told The McDuffie Mirror that at least three men were questioned about the murder case. Those same three men, whose identities the source refused to reveal, even underwent polygraph examinations at the GBI office in Thomson. No charges were ever filed against those men.
Gary Nicholson, special agent in-charge of the local GBI office, said he could not make any comment about the case since it's an unsolved homicide. Agent Nicholson did provide dates showing where the case has been reviewed numerous times over the years.
Unsolved murder cases handled by the GBI are reviewed every so often by the supervisory agents for new leads or to be reassigned to another case agent. This particular case is now assigned to GBI Special Agent Jimmy Talkington.
"We'd like to solve this case, just like other cases that we work that haven't yet been solved," Agent Nicholson said.
Mr. and Mrs. Reese said their son spoke frequently on the telephone with a teenage girl, who was white.
Sheriff Marshall confirmed that the girl's name had been brought up during the course of the probe and that the relationship between her and Marcus may have led up to his having been killed.
"We've never been able to determine an exact motive, but that was one of the things we looked at during that time," Sheriff Marshall said, saying he couldn't answer any other questions without looking at the case file.
Mr. Reese contacted state leaders, including a former governor, seeking his help in solving the case and attempting to establish a reward for information that might lead to his son's killer.
Sheriff Marshall said to his knowledge, there has never been a reward established for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the murder of Marcus Reese.
"This is definitely a case that needs solving," Sheriff Marshall said.
Anyone with information regarding this case should contact the McDuffie County Sheriff's Department at 706-595-2141 or the GBI office in Thomson at 706-595-2575.