A DeKalb County man is facing a murder charge after police said he fatally stabbed a beloved Atlanta pastor and set fire to her body, which he allegedly abandoned in a vehicle several miles from his home.
Rev. Marita Harrell, a senior pastor at Connections at Metropolitan United Methodist Church, was discovered Wednesday along a secluded road near an industrial area outside Lithonia, DeKalb County police spokesman Lt. Shane Smith said Friday.
Investigators said she was stabbed by 27-year-old Christopher Devonta Griggs while ministering to him at his Panola Road home.
“He then transported her in a vehicle to the 1600 block of Coffee Road, where she was later discovered,” Smith said in an email.
The burned-out vehicle was located about about five miles from his house.
Church leaders and police said Harrell, a 57-year-old wife and mother of two, was simply trying to help her alleged killer when her life was taken.
“She was passionate about what she did, which was helping those who are lost and left out,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael T. McQueen, UMC’s district superintendent over its Fulton and Clayton County churches. “She was doing what she loved to do. That’s what makes this so tragic.”
DeKalb police took out warrants charging Griggs with murder and arson in Harrell’s slaying. He was arrested Thursday evening and is being held without bond at the DeKalb jail, online records show. Griggs’ first appearance hearing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday.
Credit: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office
Credit: DeKalb County Sheriff's Office
Jail records show this is at least the fourth time Griggs has been arrested in DeKalb County since 2016. In October 2020, he was accused of impersonating a police officer and sexually assaulting a woman. At the time, DeKalb police said Griggs approached the victim wearing tactical gear and a badge. He also was carrying a gun, authorities said. He was released from jail several months later in March of 2021, according to online records.
“As you can imagine, this is a very sad day for us,” said Sybil Davidson, spokeswoman for the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Conference leaders held a call Friday morning and discussed ways to console congregants, friends and family members devastated by the pastor’s death. Grief counselors will be made available in the coming days and weeks, they said.
Meanwhile, tributes poured in on social media as news of Harrell’s killing was shared online. Friends and former colleagues remembered her as a wonderful person and a “ray of sunshine” who brightened the lives of everyone she encountered.
Harrell, a Chicago native, moved to Atlanta more than 30 years ago, according to the biography on her church’s website. She spent more than two decades at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, working in the newspaper’s advertising department and as a diversity training facilitator.
“She was such a beautiful person inside and out,” said Pastor Cyndi Madison, who worked with Harrell at the newspaper decades ago.
Harrell graduated from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and earned her Master of Divinity Degree in May 2014. She received her preaching certification the following year and was commissioned as a provisional elder in the church in June 2019.
She served as the pastor of Rivertown UMC from 2016 to 2018, and at The United Methodist Children’s Home from 2018 until she was appointed as the assistant pastor at Newnan Chapel UMC the following December.
The East Point resident had been at Connections at Metropolitan, located in Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community, since July 2020, her supervisor said.
“She was strong, smart and just tremendously loved by all of her peers,” said McQueen, who plans to be with Harrell’s family and the members of her congregation during Sunday’s service.
Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson called Harrell “a friend and a shining light among us.”
“It is a blow to our clergy family, especially since it appears she died at the hand of one she was helping,” Haupert-Johnson said in a statement. “I pray for her family, her church, and all who loved her. I am grateful that the Lord she represented so well was with her in all things and accompanied her to her eternal home.”
In a Facebook post to his congregation, Rivertown UMC’s senior pastor called the news of Harrell’s death heartbreaking.
“I know the love Rivertown has for her, and the love she has for Rivertown,” Rev. Fleming Thompson Jr. wrote. “We are asked to be in prayer, especially for her husband and daughters.”
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Credit: Henry County Sheriff's Office