30 years later, vigil held for victims of Cobb spree killings

A photo of Chet Planchard, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago during a robbery and shooting spree, is displayed during a vigil Thursday night in Marietta. (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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A photo of Chet Planchard, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago during a robbery and shooting spree, is displayed during a vigil Thursday night in Marietta. (Branden Camp for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Shooter remains in prison but is eligible for parole

It’s been 30 years since Ronald Freeman began his 2½-month robbery and shooting spree that left four people dead across Cobb County.

His victims included Charles “Chet” Planchard III, a 16-year-old Wheeler High School sophomore, and Terri Waddell, a young gas station manager who was gunned down in front of her 4-year-old daughter. The crime spree began days before Waddell’s death, when Freeman killed 25-year-old Rakesh Patel during a Jan. 20, 1992, robbery at his convenience store along Franklin Road in Marietta.

He went on to shoot three others at a nearby apartment complex March 31, fatally wounding 22-year-old Al-Tariq Shaheed and injuring two women, one of whom was pregnant. Shaheed remained in a coma for about five years before dying of his injuries.

Freeman, 21 at the time of the killing spree, was arrested after being shot in the leg by Fulton County police. At the time, authorities said he pointed a gun at officers while trying to escape his girlfriend’s Atlanta-area apartment.

Three decades after the shootings, a vigil was held at the Marietta Square to commemorate the victims. Carrying candles and bundled in winter jackets, more than three dozen people stood in the cold Thursday night as the victims’ family members talked about how the killings impacted their lives.

Amanda Planchard, who organized the vigil, was 18 when her little brother was shot behind the counter of a Burger King.

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Chet Planchard, a Wheeler High School sophomore, was shot and killed in 1992 during a robbery at a Burger King. He was one of four people fatally shot across Cobb County during a robbery and killing spree that lasted more than two months.

Credit: Contributed

Chet Planchard, a Wheeler High School sophomore, was shot and killed in 1992 during a robbery at a Burger King. He was one of four people fatally shot across Cobb County during a robbery and killing spree that lasted more than two months.

Credit: Contributed

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Chet Planchard, a Wheeler High School sophomore, was shot and killed in 1992 during a robbery at a Burger King. He was one of four people fatally shot across Cobb County during a robbery and killing spree that lasted more than two months.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Her family had recently moved to Cobb County from Alabama so she could attend Emory University. She had just started her second semester of college and was visiting friends in the boys’ dormitory when her mother called and told her Chet was dead.

“I just remember collapsing on the floor,” Amanda Planchard said. “He was a really friendly kid. He was just the kind of kid that people really gravitated to.”

A three-sport athlete at Wheeler, Chet Planchard was working a part-time job at the fast-food restaurant to save up for a car when he was gunned down with no warning, his sister said.

“He used the same MO, which was essentially to go in and order something,” Amanda said. “When the cashier — in this case my brother — opened the register to make change, that’s when he was shot without any kind of demand for money.”

Chet died clutching the $2 he’d just been handed. Investigators also found a children’s toy in his pocket.

“Never did we imagine that Burger King would be a dangerous place to work for a high school kid,” Amanda said.

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Amanda Planchard speaks Thursday night during a vigil for her brother, Chet Planchard, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago.

Credit: Branden Camp

Amanda Planchard speaks Thursday night during a vigil for her brother, Chet Planchard, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago.

Credit: Branden Camp

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Amanda Planchard speaks Thursday night during a vigil for her brother, Chet Planchard, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Freeman was ultimately sentenced to life in prison for each of the murders. He narrowly escaped the death penalty in the 1995 trial over Chet’s shooting after one of the 12 jurors held out.

The state’s evidence was strong and the jury had no trouble convicting Freeman, but when it came time for sentencing, “this one juror refused to budge,” said former Cobb District Attorney Tom Charron, who tried all of Freeman’s cases.

One of the jurors was so upset about the deadlock he refused to accept his pay, The Atlanta Constitution reported at the time.

Amanda Planchard testified during the sentencing phase of her brother’s trial, as did 7-year-old Christina Waddell, who looked on as her mother was fatally shot while ringing up a soda for Freeman in January 1992. The girl was called as a witness in Freeman’s trials over the next three years.

The brazen killings rattled the community.

“It was a real tragic case,” said Charron, who served as DA from 1977 until 1998. “We had some real strange cases, but we never had what you could almost classify as a serial killer. This was the closest.”

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Former District Attorney Tom Charron (center) was one of dozens who attended a vigil to commemorate the deaths of four people killed 30 years ago in Cobb County.

Credit: Branden Camp

Former District Attorney Tom Charron (center) was one of dozens who attended a vigil to commemorate the deaths of four people killed 30 years ago in Cobb County.

Credit: Branden Camp

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Former District Attorney Tom Charron (center) was one of dozens who attended a vigil to commemorate the deaths of four people killed 30 years ago in Cobb County.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

He called the shootings “senseless.” In Waddell’s case, Freeman stole just $14.07 from the Circle K cash register.

“All of it was senseless. He was just someone who enjoyed killing people,” said Charron, who attended Thursday’s vigil along with current Cobb DA Flynn Broady Jr.

A juror in the trial over Patel’s murder, who didn’t want to be identified for safety reasons, also attended Thursday’s vigil. The juror carried notes taken during Freeman’s two-week trial nearly three decades earlier. The jury was initially split 6-6 over whether to convict him, they said, but after days of deliberations reached a unanimous verdict.

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Ronald Freeman has been in prison for nearly 30 years in the fatal shootings of four people.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Ronald Freeman has been in prison for nearly 30 years in the fatal shootings of four people.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

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Ronald Freeman has been in prison for nearly 30 years in the fatal shootings of four people.

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections

It wasn’t until sentencing that jurors found out about the other shootings. “I was totally shocked at what all he had done,” said the juror who attended the vigil.

Jeanie Waddell was 21 when her older sister was killed. She said Terri, 25, wasn’t scheduled to work that night but covered a shift for a sick colleague and took her daughter with her.

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A photo of Terri Waddell, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago.

Credit: Branden Camp

A photo of Terri Waddell, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago.

Credit: Branden Camp

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A photo of Terri Waddell, who was one of four people killed by Ronald Freeman 30 years ago.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

“I will never forget how my innocent little niece had to witness her own mother gunned down,” Jeanie Waddell said. When Freeman left the store, the girl walked to a nearby apartment complex and knocked on doors “in a desperate attempt to help her mother,” she said.

Days later, Jeanie Waddell spent her 22nd birthday at her sister’s funeral. It was the first time she saw her father cry.

“She had so many interests in life and goals for the future,” she said. “But most of all, Terri was proud of being a mother.”

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Jeanie Waddell speaks about her sister, Terri Waddell, during a vigil Thursday night in Marietta.

Credit: Branden Camp

Jeanie Waddell speaks about her sister, Terri Waddell, during a vigil Thursday night in Marietta.

Credit: Branden Camp

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Jeanie Waddell speaks about her sister, Terri Waddell, during a vigil Thursday night in Marietta.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Chet Planchard’s slaying devastated his tight-knit family and changed the trajectory of his sister’s life. Amanda Planchard fell into a severe depression and had to drop out of college for a semester.

But she ended up graduating and getting her master’s degree in social work, and has spent her career as an advocate for crime victims. She worked seven years as a victim advocate for the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office and 12 years at the Fulton County Solicitor General’s Office. Planchard now works as a student victim advocate at Georgia Tech, where she helps students cope with the trauma of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“I feel like it’s a calling,” she said.

Freeman was eligible for parole for the first time in 2015 and has another parole hearing set for next year, said Planchard, who is fighting to keep him behind bars.

“I’d like to keep him in prison,” she said. “I don’t understand how you could kill four people and be paroled.”

At the time of Freeman’s convictions, Georgia had no sentencing option for life in prison without the possibility of parole, Charron said. And a sentence of life in prison in the early 1990s typically meant someone was eligible for parole after seven years.

Planchard said she organized Thursday’s vigil to keep her brother’s memory alive and remember Freeman’s other victims.

“For the families of these victims, this doesn’t go away,” she said. “It’s a hole in your heart that stays.”

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Dozens attended the vigil Thursday night at the Marietta Square.

Credit: Branden Camp

Dozens attended the vigil Thursday night at the Marietta Square.

Credit: Branden Camp

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Dozens attended the vigil Thursday night at the Marietta Square.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp