Bond denied for suspect in Marietta couple's deaths

Elrey “Bud” Runion wasn’t the 69-year-old you’d pick out as a likely victim. Ronnie “Jay” Towns wasn’t the 28-year-old you’d pick out as a likely killer.

But as of Tuesday afternoon, Towns, a husband and father with no criminal record, stood charged with deliberately firing a bullet into Runion’s head and another into the head of his wife, June. Authorities say he lured the couple from Marietta to rural Telfair County with the promise of selling them a nonexistent 1966 Mustang and the intent to rob them.

In a five-minute court appearance Tuesday afternoon, Towns, wearing a striped black and white prison jumpsuit, said he understood the charges against him and has a lawyer. He was denied bond by Telfair County Chief Magistrate Judge Bryan Selph and returned to a jail cell, leaving his family and neighbors to grapple with the monstrousness of his alleged crime.

Meanwhile, in Marietta, the family and friends of Bud and June Runion struggled to comprehend how they fell into what proved to be a deadly trap.

Runion, an Army veteran who served in Vietnam, was robust for his years, friends and neighbors said. One neighbor recalled him shimmying up a partially felled tree with a chainsaw, which he used to cut it free from a neighboring tree.

Bud and June, 66, weren’t sheltered from the world’s evils, but they did things with sense of optimism, said neighbors and friends. They didn’t focus on how difficult a task was, only on the good that would result from performing it.

Two examples stand out; Bud’s bicycle ministry and the couple’s annual aid trip to Appalachia.

Bud’s Bikes started years ago when he started repairing old bicycles and donating them to children living in several housing projects near the church he and his wife attended for nearly 30 years, Mt. Paran North Church of God in Marietta.

The need was great enough that Runion’s driveway often resembled a bike repair shop, said Marcy Mixon, a longtime neighbor of the Runions.

Not all of the bicycles went to needy families in Marietta. Each year, the Runions would pack up bikes, toys, clothing and food and drive through Appalachia giving the items to the desperately poor. The trip took days, but the Runions always seemed refreshed when it was over.

“Where there were people in need, Bud and June wanted to help them,” said Pastor Mark Walker of Mt. Paran North. “They met the needs of untold thousands of people.”

Compared to those trips, a foray into middle Georgia would have seemed like nothing, the pastor said.

“They’ve gone into some rural, difficult places, so I’d imagine a trip like this, they wouldn’t give a second thought to,” Walker said.

Investigators say Towns contacted the Runions after Bud Runion placed an ad on Craigslist seeking a red ‘66 Mustang convertible. They say Towns even supplied a photo of a car he ostensibly had to sell, although in reality there was no car.

It is not clear whether the Runions took cash with them or how exactly the alleged scam was to have worked.

At Tuesday’s hearing, huddled in the back of the courtroom, Towns’ family remained in shock.

“My son didn’t do this,” said his mother, Gwen, who is recovering from brain surgery and had to be held up by family members. “He didn’t do it. He didn’t do it.”

Towns’ father, Ronnie, was equally distraught and said the whole situation was “a set up deal.”

“I don’t know who, but he ain’t the only one involved in this,” Ronnie Towns said. “Someone else was involved.”

An aunt, Anne Horton, said she had not seen Jay Towns in about six months, but that he always had a smile and didn’t seem to be a “loner or an outsider.”

“I have never seen him do one thing that was disrespectful,” Horton said. “He was always loving and good-natured. Somebody is going to have to give me some proof and evidence that he did this.”

Telfair County Sheriff Chris Steverson said the crime has shaken the entire community. “This has had a huge impact on our community. This is very rare,” he said.

Toni Cravey, owner of Toni’s House of Style, bristled as she surveyed the ranks news trucks from Atlanta, Macon and Albany parked nearby. She said she never saw them when her husband was electrocuted and the community held a major blood drive in his honor. She also bristled at a national news outlets recent suggestion that Telfair County was a nothing area surrounded by swamps.

“We take pride in our community and we are very offended by the bad stuff that makes the news,” she said. “This is bringing a lot of negativity to this community and to his family. I know the (Towns) family and he (Jay) was not raised that way. They are very good, humble people.”

Investigators first linked Towns to the Runions’ disappearance through cell phone records: The last call on Bud Runion’s phone was to a pre-paid phone purchased by Towns. According to court documents, Towns denied knowing anything about the pre-paid phone when officers first interviewed him.

Some time later, officers returned to arrest Towns on charges of making false statements and intent to defraud the Runions. According to Towns’ father, at that point his son was holed up in the woods.

Ronnie Towns told Channel 2 Action News he persuaded the officers not to pursue his son into the woods but to give him some time to talk him into surrendering. Towns did give himself up Monday morning and was already in custody when the Runions' bodies were recovered from a wooded area not far from the Towns' property.

The GMC Envoy they had been driving was found submerged in a nearby pond.

Tuesday, autopsies performed by the GBI provided positive identifications and revealed that each of them had died of a gunshot to the head from a small caliber weapon. Investigators did not indicate whether they have recovered a possible murder weapon.