February 18, 2018

Lita McClinton: A Deadly Flower Delivery




Friday, January 16, 1987 was a foggy, rainy day in Atlanta, Georgia.  Inside Lita McClinton's townhome, she and her best friend, Poppy Marable, who had stayed the night at Lita's, were discussing the day ahead.  For Lita, it was going to be a momentous one - - that day, a judge was scheduled to decide her divorce settlement.  After eleven years of being legally wed, she was ready to begin the new chapter of her life.

The doorbell rang shortly after 8 a.m. and to Lita's delight, it was  flower delivery man with a box of pink roses.  Still wearing her nightgown and bathrobe, she went downstairs to accept the flowers.

The foyer, bloodstained
The delivery man had a 9 mm gun hidden within the roses. He fired several shots at her, with one striking her in the head.

Upstairs, Poppy Marable heard the gunfire. Terrified, she grabbed her 3 year old daughter and hid in a closet. She wouldn't come out until the police arrived. A neighbor heard the gunfire and found Lita on the entryway floor, still alive but mortally wounded.  Lita was quickly taken to the hospital but died of her wounds. When news of her death got out, her friends and family were convinced that her soon to be ex-husband, James Sullivan, was behind her murder, even though he was residing  a state away, in Palm Beach, Florida.

The McClintock-Sullivan wedding
Lita, the beautiful daughter of a U.S. Department of Transportation official and a Georgia state representative, had met Sullivan in 1975, after she had graduated from Spelman College and was working in a boutique. He had been a customer, was 34 years old to her 23, divorced with four children and white.  She found him charismatic and was beguiled by how the older man courted her.  Lita's parents, however, found him arrogant, maybe even a pathological liar, and worried about how an interracial couple would fare socially, especially in the south. Lita was in love and, ultimately, her parents did not interfere.  She and Sullivan married in December of 1976.

The newlyweds settled into married life in Macon, where Sullivan ran Crown Beverage, Inc., a company he inherited from his uncle in 1975, while Lita worked in a department store.  In 1983, he sold the business and the two moved to the ritzy Palm Beach area and into a prestigious oceanfront mansion. If the Sullivans hoped that an exclusive community like Palm Beach would be more tolerant and accepting of their relationship, they would be disappointed. Sullivan was desperate to climb the social ladder, becoming a regular on the town's social circuit, but he simply wasn't accepted to his liking. While on the surface it appeared they were living the glamorous dream, Lita's friends would later say she was miserable.  Sullivan blamed her and her race for his lack of social status.

Lita discovered that he had begun having affairs. She discovered blonde hairs and women's undergarments in her own bed.  She was a traditional woman at heart and these betrayals stung her deeply.  She wanted her marriage to work and fought desperately to keep it afloat.

Sullivan was also stingy. Despite his immense wealth, he was a terrible skinflint with his wife, often leaving her financially strapped.

Lita went to counseling. She even signed a post-nuptial agreement, giving her $2,500 per month in alimony should the marriage fail. She was willing to do anything in order to make her marriage a success but when she found out that Sullivan was picking up prostitutes, she finally decided to call it quits. After over 8 years of marriage, Lita packed her bags and returned to Atlanta, moving into a townhome they owned in the upscale Buckhead area. She filed for divorce and requested half of his $5 million estate. She threw herself into charity work and even began dating again.

Sullivan became suspect number one when the police began their investigation. It was clear that Lita was the target, she was so obviously assassinated. Who else would want her dead but James Sullivan, who she was in the midst of a fierce financial battle with?  Unfortunately, as far as the police were concerned, not only could Sullivan prove he was in Palm Beach but witness descriptions mentioned three men running away from Lita's townhome that morning and none of them matched Sullivan's description.

Still, the police believed Sullivan had to be involved. They determined that he had received a phone call from a rest stop outside of Atlanta on the morning of Lita's murder, one they believed was a signal to him to let him know his wife had been killed.  Sullivan denied any such thing and told the cops he believed that Lita's death was due to botched drug deal.

In February,  a telephone conversation between Sullivan and a friend was picked up and recorded via a police wiretap. Sullivan spoke about Lita's murder and the ongoing investigation, mentioning that she had been killed with a 9mm gun - - a bit of information that had not been released to the public.  However, with no gun or gunman, the district attorney felt it wasn't enough to indict Sullivan.

Sullivan with Suki
Eight months after Lita's death, Sullivan married Hyo-Sook Choi Rogers, a socialite who was 13 years his junior. He also continued his life of socializing and playing tennis.

There would finally be a break in 1990.  It started with Sullivan being pulled over for a traffic violation. Wanting to avoid any attention and the continuing investigation into Lita's murder, Sullivan did not appear in court and instead Suki showed up and claimed that she was driving and the ticketing officer had made a mistake.  Yeah, because a police officer could surely misidentify the younger and female Suki for the older asshole Sullivan. The judge was clearly no dummy and Sullivan was given house arrest for perjury and weapon possession (for the four guns found in his residence.).  Ha.

Things got worse though. Suki decided that maybe she might not want to continue hitching her wagon to a lying piece of shit like Sullivan and a divorce might be a better alternative. Keeping true to character, he was none too pleased with the little woman packing her bags. Suki, however, got the last word. She told cops that he had confessed to her that he had Lita murdered. Why hadn't she spoken up sooner?  Because she had feared for her own life.

Sullivan, naturally, denied the claim. Investigators felt that since the claim was made during a nasty divorce battle, it may not have enough legs to warrant an indictment.

A year later, a federal grand jury did indict Sullivan for conspiracy to commit murder based on the phone calls to and from his Palm Beach home at the time of Lita's killing. The case would be dismissed by the judge for lack of evidence.  Once again, James Sullivan skated by.

For Lita's parents, who never liked Sullivan, and who had waited patiently for seven years for justice to be served for their daughter, the dismissal was too much. In 1994, they filed a wrongful death claim against Sullivan in civil court, attesting that he had hired the hit man who shot and killed Lita. Sullivan, ever the genius, acted as his own attorney. He may have been delighted to torment the McClintons by cross-examining them but the jury found him liable and awarded them $4 million. He would not pay, claiming he was broke.

Harwood
The McClintons would not give up, vowing to continue to fight for Lita. Their persistence paid off. In 1998, a tip led the Atlanta police to a man in North Carolina who confessed that Sullivan paid him $25,000 to murder his wife. The man, Tony Harwood, would agree to testify against Sullivan in exchange for a 20 year prison sentence.

It seemed that finally there was enough evidence to charge James Sullivan with Lita McClinton's murder.  But James Sullivan had vanished.

He had been living in Costa Rica but went on the run once he heard that Harwood was talking. The FBI put him on their Ten Most Wanted list. Authorities were told that Sullivan had traveled through Venezuela and Panama but no leads panned out.

It would take four years and the television show "America's Most Wanted" before James Sullivan was found. A tip led authorities to Thailand, where Sullivan was living in a beachfront condo with a girlfriend. In 2004, he was extradited back to the U.S.

On February 27, 2006, nearly twenty years after Lita's brutal death, the case of the State of Georgia versus James Sullivan began. Prosecutors would call Lita's divorce attorney to testify as to Sullivan's excessive desire to limit the amount of money Lita' might win in court. They explained that the date of her murder - - January 16, 1987  - - was highly significant. The divorce hearing scheduled for that day would decide whether Lita would be awarded $250,000 or $1 million.  No Lita meant no divorce hearing and that would mean that rather than paying her a minimum of a quarter of a million dollars, Sullivan wouldn't have to give out a cent.  That was the motive in a nutshell - - greed.

Lita's grieving parents
Lita's neighbor, Bob Christiansen, testified as to seeing the man approach Lita's front door. He got a good look at him and identified Tony Harwood from a photo lineup.

Tony Harwood testified to meeting Sullivan in November of 1986, two months before Lita's murder. Harwood worked for a moving company and had delivered a piano to Sullivan's Palm Beach mansion. Despite only being the mansion for two hours, in that brief period of time, Sullivan and Harwood birthed the plan to murder Lita. Hardwood stated he believed that Sullivan was kidding about needing someone to "take care of" his wife, until he received $12,500 in the mail.  He testified that Sullivan had wanted Lita done away with by Christmas but the murder scheme would have to wait until Hardwood and two friends could drive up to Georgia. Because obviously you need friends to support you when you knock off someone for some coin.

The trio's first attempt to destroy Lita McClinton did not work when they realized that a woman likely wouldn't answer the door to three strangers, especially at 5:30 in the morning.  They suspected she would, however, to a flower delivery man at a more decent hour.  That plan, sadly, succeeded. Harwood stopped at a rest stop on the way back to Florida to call Sullivan and deliver a disgustingly simple and chilling message: "Merry Christmas."

The unopened flower box, with Lita's blood
Amazingly, Harwood's former girlfriend Belinda Trahan was the informant who tipped the police off as to his involvement in Lita's homicide. She testified that Harwood had told her about meeting Sullivan after moving a piano and that he had wanted his wife taken out because he didn't want her to get anything in their divorce. She hadn't believed his tale at first, even when he took a trip to Georgia in January of 1987 and told her that the plan had failed because the woman wouldn't answer the door. It was Trahan who had told him the way to get a woman to answer the door was to show up with flowers.  Sigh.  Unfortunately Trahan could not be charged with being a dumbass. Honestly.

Trahan testified that even after Harwood told her the hit had been a success, she still hadn't believed him.  It was James Sullivan delivering an envelope full of cash to Harwood, in Trahan's presence, that convinced her.  Well, duh.

Still, from a legal standpoint, the case wasn't a slam dunk. There was no murder weapon. There was no proof in banking records or any other paper trail that supported the case that Sullivan had paid Harwood (or anyone else) for killing Lita. And Tony Harwood was a problem witness.

For parts of his testimony, he seemed to flounder. When asked if he agreed to participate in the murder of Lita McClinton, he answered no. Contradicting Belinda Trahan's tale of Sullivan paying him at a restaurant table, Harwood stated that he and Sullivan had exchanged the money in the men's restroom. He admitted that he had a history of lying to the authorities and that he had given his girlfriend a different account of who had ordered him to kill - - not Sullivan but the Mafia. So shaky was his testimony, the defense elected not to cross examine him.

Lita
The defense did cross Belinda Trahan, who was not without her own problems. She could not recall what restaurant Sullivan met her and Harwood in, nor how far it was from their home.  While she easily identified Sullivan in the courtroom, she could not and did not do so eight years earlier in a photo lineup. The defense put forth that Trahan now identified Sullivan in order to claim the hefty reward that Lita's parents had put up for information on their daughter's murder.

After nearly two weeks, the case went to the jury of nine women and three men. An informal vote was taken at the start and it was nearly evenly divided.  Later some jurors would say that while they had difficulties with Harwood and Trahan, they took no such issues with Bob Christiansen.  Christiansen was Lita's neighbor and an eyewitness to the man who rang Lita's doorbell and an ear witness to the gunshots that killed her. They could not dismiss the phone calls between an Atlanta area motel and Sullivan's home and the call Sullivan received from a rest stop payphone, despite the defense's efforts to invalidate them.   They did wish there was more direct evidence, as the case was highly circumstantial, but it was enough for them to render a unanimous verdict.

Guilty! 
On March 13, 2006, James Sullivan was found guilty of malice murder.

The prosecution argued for Sullivan to pay for his crime with the ultimate punishment - - death. The defense, without any family or close friends to speak on behalf of Sullivan, begged for mercy. Ultimately the jury showed far more compassion and consideration to James Sullivan than he ever did to Lita.  They spared his life and he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

An interesting side note . . . while James Sullivan was awaiting trial in early 2005, Bibb County District Attorney Howard Simms ordered the body of Frank Bienert exhumed. As you may recall, Bienert was Sullivan's uncle, the uncle whose business Sullivan inherited and sold at a great profit. Simms, among others, believed Bienert might have been murdered by Sullivan. Tests conducted on tissue samples would indicate no presence of poison.

As late as 2015, Lita's parents were still attempting to locate Sullivan's fortune, money they believed he had hidden in Switzerland and Liechtenstein (Sullivan's criminal defense attorney had been paid from a Swiss bank account.). A Palm Beach County judge lifted the twenty year limitation, allowing them to continue to seek to collect on their judgment, which had ballooned from $4 million to more than $13.5 million with interest.

Also in 2015, Tony Harwood made the news again when he was one of four notorious Georgia criminals found with illegal cellphones within prison walls. (The other three inmates were Wayne Williams, Eddie Lawrence and Curtis Rower.)  Harwood, true to form, denied having a cellphone or knowing anything about anything.

He is due to be released from prison in May of 2018.




3 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it and post, Zack.

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