Fred Dalton Brooks held a secret for 37 long years: Back in 1976, he killed a man during a botched DeKalb County robbery.
Earlier this year, Brooks, 65, was ready to trade his secret to get away from his maximum-security cell in Jackson, and from Georgia altogether. He hoped to be sent back to Mississippi’s legendary Parchman Farm, from which he had escaped decades ago. And the truth he finally revealed helped authorities close what had been, until November, one of Georgia’s oldest unsolved homicides.
They were wary of Brooks’ story at first. For good reason.
With a criminal career that spanned four decades and included armed robberies, a half-dozen jail and prison breaks, kidnappings and murder, perhaps ratting on himself was a ruse to get free one last time. He was good at getting away.
Serving one life sentence in Georgia with another awaiting him in Mississippi for killing a cop, what did he have to lose by confessing to the murder of James Earl Carter?
The cold case
Carter was the man killed in 1976. He was 39 at the time, a U.S. Navy vet struggling with a drinking problem and going through a divorce.
His older brother, who had raised him after their parents died, stepped in again.
“I brought him back … to Atlanta and moved him back in with me and my wife and kids so he could straighten himself out,” said Marvin Carter, now 91. “That’s when he took that job at Hormel.”
Brooks’ plan on the evening of March 20, 1976, was for him and Harold David Edgens to get inside the Hormel Meat plant near Tucker and steal hundreds of dollars in coins from the vending and change machines there. But they couldn’t light the acetylene torch they brought with them to cut open the coin boxes, according to police affidavits.
Decades later, the fuel tank for that torch would turn out to hold a key piece of evidence.
James Carter was just an hour into his shift as an unarmed security guard when he happened upon the two would-be thieves.
Police later found Carter face-down on the floor of the men’s locker room with his hands tied and seven bullet wounds in his back.
Retired DeKalb Police Lt. Randall Edenfield said their investigation stretched over several months but continued to run into dead ends.
“We interviewed probably hundreds of people,” Edenfield said. “Every time there was a burglary arrest, we talked to the suspects to see if we could get a match.”
Eventually, they had to leave the case cold.
“I didn’t have a daddy growing up,” said James Carter’s youngest daughter, Yvonne Gough, who was 9 when her father was killed.
While she endured a life without a father, Brooks built his life without apparent regard for the law or for others.
Crimes, escapes, killings
Jail records with Brooks’ name date from the early 1970s. By the ’80s, if he’d learned one thing from his time in jail, it was how to get out.
A series of arrests and incarceration was punctuated by escapes in Cobb County in 1980 and Gwinnett County in 1982. When he escaped from the state prison in Dooly County in 1983 he took four hostages, authorities said.
In that year, 1983, Brooks was suspected in a triple killing in Cobb County, and he played a part in murdering a state trooper in Mississippi.
Franklin County, Miss., Sheriff James Newman was just three months into the position on Feb. 4, 1983 when a motorist saw a body lying next to a state patrol car, the sheriff — still in his position after 30 years — told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The body was Trooper Danny Nash.
“Danny stopped them doing 67 in what was probably a 65 mph zone,” Newman said via phone. “All we know was he was shot in the back of the head. We had evidence that put them there.” The ‘them’ were Brooks and Harry Trent Eason, who had fled a Macon jail in September 1981 and met up with Brooks while they both were on the lam.
It’s unclear whether Nash recognized Eason and Brooks as fugitives, but it would be three months before the two were identified as suspects.
Meanwhile, on March 6 that year, back in Georgia, three bodies turned up in a Vinings apartment.
Husband and wife William and Yvonne Workman and Allen Aiken were shot to death “execution style,” Cobb County Police cold case investigator Sgt. Larry Szeniawaski told the AJC.
Brooks has “been a person of interest in that 1983 unsolved triple homicide,” Szeniawaski said.
In May that year, Eason was caught in Kentucky, Brooks was arrested in Tennessee, and both were returned to Mississippi.
After foiled escape attempts in Jackson, Tenn., and again in Mississippi, according to Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Grace Fisher, Brooks joined with Eason to negotiate plea deals.
“He was spared,” she said. “The district attorney, rather than go to trial and seek the death penalty for killing a trooper … let them both plead guilty to capital murder.”
Brooks and Eason were sentenced to life at Parchman Farm, Mississippi’s maximum-security penitentiary and oldest prison, which has been the source of blues songs and folklore for generations.
In March 1987, Brooks was at large again, Fisher said. “Brooks escaped from the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson … after he had been transferred there for (medical) treatment.”
According to media reports, he used a paper clip to unlock the handcuffs and leg irons and slip away from guards at the hospital.
Police caught him in Smyrna just over a week later under the assumed name “Mike Harris.”
After his Mississippi escape, he was returned to prison in Georgia to serve life for previous kidnapping and armed robbery charges. He made one final run from a North Georgia cell in February 2012, walking out of the Walker State Prison in Rock Springs with another inmate. They were found a day later and returned to state custody.
Brooks was subsequently moved to a high-security wing of the prison in Jackson. That was where he finally told about that fatal robbery attempt back in DeKalb County in 1976.
Cutting a deal, closing the case
“This case” of James Carter’s death “might have stayed open were it not for his request,” DeKalb assistant DA Mason said.
Upset with his situation at Jackson’s “Hi-max” unit – isolated from the general population, with reduced privileges – Brooks approached one of the wardens with an offer: clues to Carter’s unsolved murder in exchange for relocation back to Mississippi.
“He confessed to involvement in James Carter’s death,” Mason said. But his information didn’t flow freely at first. And this wasn’t his first attempt at such a ploy.
“He’s reached out to us before … in 2004,” said Szeniawaski, the Cobb detective. “He was offering the same deal,” case information in exchange for a transfer back to Parchman. Cobb investigators declined.
This time, Brooks’ situation seemed more pressing, and he gave DeKalb cold-case investigators enough details to build evidence against him.
His co-defendant Edgens had since died, and Brooks told police Edgens pulled the trigger, according to police affidavits.
The acetylene torch fuel tank discarded after the shooting was still in evidence archives after all those years. Detectives tied Brooks to the 1976 crime scene by matching fingerprints on that tank to records of one of his earliest arrests in 1972. They followed his leads to the location of .22-caliber pistol buried in the backyard of his mother’s old Smyrna home, and then they charged him with malice murder, felony murder, armed robbery and aggravated assault.
Similar evidence, Szeniawaski said, pointed to the 1983 Cobb murders. Still playing the angles even as a murder prosecution approached in DeKalb, Brooks reached out once more to Cobb detectives.
“Just last month (leading up to) the DeKalb trial, Brooks told us he was going to be in DeKalb for the trial,” Szeniawaski said. “Maybe he was going to give us something. Maybe he was looking for a way out.” Cobb police talked to him. They still consider him a “person of interest” in the Vinings triple homicide, but didn’t gain enough new evidence to file charges.
Marvin Carter said he hopes his younger brother’s killer never leaves jail again, but he skipped Brooks’ murder trial in November. “I just didn’t want to go through that pain all over,” Marvin Carter said.
To James Carter’s oldest daughter, Shelbey Farley, Brooks’ grandfatherly appearance at the trial belied his malevolent tendencies.
“He looks like a sweet old man, but that man is just evil,” Shelbey Farley said of the man who killed her father all those years ago. “They should’ve given him the death penalty.”
After a week-long trial, a jury took two days and two hours to find him guilty on all counts. He was sentenced, once again, to life in prison. To be served in Georgia.
The closure for Carter’s family was bittersweet.
“After all these years, I’m glad it’s over,” said Farley, who was 14 when her father was killed. “But, you know, it’s not going to bring him back.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.