UPDATED: Suspect in 2017 homicide now accused of killing co-defendant

(Left to right) Carlos Hightower, James Nicholson and Magan Carroll face felony murder charges in connection with the death of a motorcyclist. (Credit: Paulding County Sheriff's Office)
(Left to right) Carlos Hightower, James Nicholson and Magan Carroll face felony murder charges in connection with the death of a motorcyclist. (Credit: Paulding County Sheriff's Office)

A man accused in a 2017 homicide in Paulding County is now accused of killing a second man: one of his co-defendants.

Carlos Fredrico Hightower, 28, has been charged with murder in the death of Austin James Nicholson, the Paulding Sheriff’s Office said Friday. Nicholson, 24, was found dead Aug. 26 inside a burning car, according to Sgt. Ashley Henson.

Hightower’s new charges are the latest twist in a murder case dating back more than two years. Before the case could go to trial, Hightower allegedly tried to silence his two co-defendants, according to police.

On Aug. 25, Paulding deputies investigated a drive-by shooting on Winding Valley Drive, near Rockmart. Investigators believe Hightower and Nicholson fired shots at the former home of Magan Darleen Carroll, one of the co-defendants in the 2017 killing, according to police. Detectives and GBI agents believe it was an effort to keep Carroll quiet about the upcoming trial for the 2017 crime, Henson said Friday.

Then on Aug. 26, investigators responded to a report of a car fire on Vinson Mountain Crossing near Rockmart, Henson said. But inside the car, deputies found a body that had been shot and burned so badly, the identity couldn’t be determined. Through an autopsy and forensic investigation, the GBI identified the body as Nicholson, Henson said. The case became a homicide investigation.


» RELATED: Man found dead in burned car in Paulding was suspect in 2017 murder


On Monday, the Sheriff’s Office announced an arrest in the case. Akeyla Xemaja “KeKe” Philpot, 23, was arrested last week and charged with murder, arson, influencing witnesses and possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, the Sheriff’s Office said. Philpot is Hightower’s girlfriend, Henson said.

But deputies said Philpot wasn’t the lone suspect. Hightower is now charged with malice murder, murder, arson, influencing witnesses, aggravated assault, criminal damage to property and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, according to police. He was arrested on Aug. 26, the same day Nicholson was found dead, on a probation violation. On Thursday, his charges were upgraded.

It’s the second time Hightower has been accused of killing someone, according to police.

Akeyla Xemaja “KeKe” Philpot (left) has been arrested as a suspect in the murder of Austin James Nicholson (right), who was found dead inside a burning car in Paulding County.
Akeyla Xemaja “KeKe” Philpot (left) has been arrested as a suspect in the murder of Austin James Nicholson (right), who was found dead inside a burning car in Paulding County.

Credit: Paulding County Sheriff’s Office

Credit: Paulding County Sheriff’s Office

In January 2017, Hightower was one of three suspects accused of shooting a motorcyclist because of an ongoing property dispute, AJC.com previously reported. Chadwick Morgan was riding a motorcycle when he was shot and left in a ditch near 1680 Holly Springs Road near Rockmart.

Morgan, who lived in Dallas, was the father of two sons, according to his online obituary. His body was found about 4 miles from where the car fire occurred.

All three suspects in Morgan’s death — Hightower, Nicholson and Carroll — were granted a $27,700 bond each, Henson said. According to the Paulding Superior Court clerk’s office, Chief Judge Tonny Beavers granted the three defendants bond.  Nicholson and Carroll both posted bond on Feb. 11, 2017, three weeks after their arrests.

Hightower also posted bond. But he was already a felon, and his arrest violated terms of his parole, so he was returned to prison, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Hightower was sent to prison for statutory rape in Paulding in July 2012 and released in December 2012, records show. He was linked to the motorcyclist’s killing in January 2017 and returned to prison in May 2017. Hightower was released again in April of this year, then re-arrested for the probation violation in August.

On Friday, he remained in the Paulding jail, where he was being held without bond.

— Please return to AJC.com for updates. 

The burned-out car was found at the entrance of a vacant property along Vinson Mountain Road in Rockmart.

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