She grew up on an Iowa farm. So how did she get drawn into a Georgia prisoner’s criminal enterprise? She followed a path taken by hundreds of other Georgia correctional officers.
Two years ago, Jon Gerling’s phone lit up with a text message from his sister, Jessica.
“I bought a car today.”
The siblings were hundreds of miles apart. She was in Georgia. He was in Texas. They were far away, too, from the tiny Iowa farming community where they’d grown up.
But they’d never lost touch, and Jon wanted to share in Jessica’s excitement about her new ride. He had been worried about her lately. Since she had taken a job as a correctional officer at a state prison in Georgia, his sister’s life had become a mystery to him and the rest of the family.
“Nice what kind you get?” he texted back.
Jessica responded with a video showing a shiny, candy-apple red Mercedes Benz convertible with the top down. She said just one word, joyfully, as she filmed the car from front to back.
Days later, her new Mercedes was parked near the back of a South Georgia trailer park in the middle of the night, surrounded by vehicles from the local sheriff’s office.
A 911 caller had summoned them after hearing shots and seeing a car’s taillights as it sped away from the Country Manor Mobile Home Park in Allenhurst.
“That’s why I came down here,” Jeffery Hewitt told 911, “because it looked suspicious, shots rang off like that and the car driving away really fast.”
Lying next to the car, he said, he saw a body.
“I think it’s a woman; she’s not breathing, I don’t think,” Hewitt told the operator. “I don’t want to touch her. She looks really bad.”
From equestrian to correctional officer
As a child, Jessica Gerling lived the life of a farm kid. Her parents adopted her at the age of 2, after she was removed from an abusive home. She gained two brothers, both of whom were also adopted. Their parents, Patti and Larry Gerling, gave them a classic Midwestern upbringing. On their family farm, they grew corn and soybeans and raised cattle and hogs. When the kids were little, they had a miniature donkey that became part of a Shrek costume for Jessica.
“That’s all we had, just our family,” Jon Gerling said. “My dad and my mom and us kids. We lived out in the middle of nowhere, miles away from any big city.”
Jessica got into horses — first a pony, then riding lessons, where she learned to jump and started competing on a horse named Shady. She won awards showing in 4-H and was named Miss Congeniality one year in the county fair’s queen contest. The title made sense. Jessica was “just a very social girl, outgoing all the time,” her brother said.
The Iowa high school she attended is tiny, with just a few dozen students in each grade. When Jessica graduated, she decided to explore something new. She enlisted in the Army. Her parents didn’t think it was a good fit and worried it wouldn’t go well. But Jessica had an independent streak. She made her own decision and signed up.
A lot happened, quickly, as she settled into military life. She got married to another soldier and had a baby. She and Savannah Barker became close friends during those early years. They were young military wives when they met. Their husbands, both in the Army, hit it off, and the couples went out together a lot during those days.
Barker recalls Gerling’s “big, vivacious, fun-loving personality.” With a high-pitched, distinctive voice, she threw off a “Valley Girl” vibe, Barker said. “Very giggly” is how Barker remembers her friend during that time in their lives.
The military took Gerling to Georgia, then to Germany, then back to Georgia. Her marriage ended in divorce, and she quickly married again. But that marriage also ended. Larry and Patti Gerling worried about their daughter and encouraged her to come home to Iowa. But she decided she and her daughter would stay in Georgia.
On her own with a child, Jessica, then 26, needed a stable job, and in January 2020 she called her parents to let them know she’d found something.
She had been hired by the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Gerling took a job as an officer at Smith State Prison, which is categorized as a “close security facility” because most inmates are considered risks for escape, violence or violating rules. Adding to the danger, the prison was then — as it is now — severely short-staffed.
Initially, Gerling frequently called her parents, sharing her concerns about the understaffing. “Oh, my God, it’s terrible in there. They don’t have enough help,” her mother remembers her daughter saying.
But after a while, Patti said, Jessica’s tone changed.
“There’s really some nice people in there,” Patti recalls her saying.
Patti didn’t like the idea of Jessica taking a prison job in the first place, and she saw the change in attitude as a red flag. She knew her daughter could be easily manipulated. Patti said she remembers warning Jessica: “Sis, stop. No! They’re working you.”
Those instincts turned out to be spot-on.
Every prison has trouble with inmates trying to compromise employees. But at Smith State Prison, something much bigger was in the works, and Gerling was caught up in it.
An inmate, Nathan Weekes, was running what a series of criminal indictments now contend was a massive contraband scheme that involved the warden, Brian Adams.
Weekes, who was serving a 17-year sentence for a series of armed robberies in DeKalb County in 2010, had been transferred to Smith almost a year before Gerling got hired. Known as “Kash,” he built an extensive criminal enterprise that the indictments allege brought drugs, cellphones, designer clothing and other prohibited items into Georgia prisons.
Investigators say Weekes would “cajole, bribe, coerce and intimidate” prison employees to do the bidding of his Saint Laurent Squad.
Gerling, too, was drawn into Weekes’ enterprise, becoming known as “The Queen,” “Star” and “First Lady” of the group, the indictments allege.
In late June 2020, she showed up for a night shift at the prison and was caught with marijuana, an incident that led to her dismissal.
As Gerling went through the scanners, something caught the screener’s attention. She was strip-searched, but nothing unusual was found. When officers searched her car, however, they found a condom stuffed with tobacco.
Confronted with that evidence, she admitted she had another condom within her body. It was found to contain a vacuum-sealed bag with 63 grams of pot.
On the outside
Gerling may have lost her job with the GDC, but Weekes kept her on his payroll, according to indictments, police records and incident reports.
It’s unclear exactly why she took the risk to stay involved. But, according to those she eventually confided in, it was a mix of fear and needing money.
Gerling told Savannah Barker that she struggled to make ends meet working as a correctional officer. Gerling said Weekes offered to help. At first, he was very friendly — flirty and complimentary, she told Barker. “He was like, ‘Hey, I’ll flip you this and that if you can get these things into the prison for me,’” Barker remembers Gerling telling her.
But later, Barker said, Gerling confided that Weekes had threatened both her life and that of her daughter if she didn’t continue smuggling in what he ordered.
Barker said the admissions left her deeply concerned about Gerling. “What have you gotten yourself into?” she worried. And how would her fun-loving friend find a way out?
Gerling eventually told her family that she had quit her prison job and was working on projects for people in real estate. She also said she had a photography business. But they wondered what was really going on.
When she went to visit her brother Jon over the Thanksgiving holiday that year, he started to worry. She told him she had a boyfriend, and that the boyfriend was in prison.
“I remember her calling him on his cellphone,” Jon said. “I’m like, `How the hell are you able to do that? He’s in prison.’ She’s like, `Oh, you can’t say anything.’ She said (speaking to the boyfriend), `Say hi to my brother.’”
Shown a photo of Weekes by an AJC reporter, Jon said he was the man his sister identified as her boyfriend.
Jon said he could see other men, too, on the video call — inmates clearly in a prison setting.
“I told Jess, `How the hell is that legal in prison?’ and she was like, `Oh, there’s ways.’ And I’m like, `Ok.’ And that was it. I didn’t question it anymore,” he said.
By early 2021, though, Jon got a sense that Jessica was worried about her own safety. She used rental cars a lot, though she had her own vehicle, he said, and he remembered getting a call from her saying someone was following her.
“She was pretty scared. I told her, ‘Get the hell out of there. Floor it. Call the police. Whatever you have to do,’” Jon recalled.
He could never figure out exactly what she had gotten herself into, but he had a feeling it wasn’t good.
“I remember calling her on the phone and telling her, `Hey, be careful. I don’t want to see you on the news.’”
Investigators haven’t revealed all they know about what Gerling might have been up to in the months after she lost her prison job. But incident reports and court records suggest Weekes was growing bold and had assembled a team of other inmates, civilians and prison employees to help in a violent effort to maintain his lucrative contraband operation. Gerling, the indictments suggest, went along.
In late August 2020, investigators allege, Gerling helped Weekes solicit a man named Deldrick Jones to fly a drone over Smith State Prison to bring in meth that could be sold to inmates.
Then, in January 2021, a man named Jerry Lee Davis, who had a job that involved delivering supplies to the prison, was murdered at his home in Wayne County.
About two weeks later, 88-year-old Bobby Kicklighter was murdered in his home in Glennville, not far from the prison. Investigators later discovered that the intended target was a correctional officer who was aggressively going after contraband.
Both murders were ordered by Weekes from inside Smith State Prison and carried out by accomplices, indictments now say. The triggerman in the Kicklighter murder, the indictments say, was a former Smith State Prison inmate, Christopher Reginal Sumlin Jr.
Gerling has been accused along with Sumlin of having a role in Davis’ killing, although the indictments don’t specify what either may have done.
In May 2021, Gerling and some friends headed to Florida to celebrate her birthday. Barker was part of the group. Gerling told her friends not to worry about money because she had a “sugar daddy,” Barker said.
On the trip, Barker said, Gerling opened up a bit about doing jobs for Weekes. Fear seemed to be driving her decisions.
“She was concerned,” Barker said. “She wanted to quit. She wanted to be done with this pretty early on, but (Weekes) threatened her that he would take her daughter’s life, he would take her life. Sometimes he would get into graphic detail about how that would be handled.”
Even so, Gerling acted as though she had an exit plan, Barker said.
“She recognized she was juggling swords here, but she saw herself as a master juggler,” Barker said. “Like `I got it, I’m going to be OK.’”
The trailer park
Just before midnight on June 28, 2021, three days after Gerling texted her brother to tell him about her new car, she drove it to the Country Manor Mobile Home Park. Her story ended there.
According to a search warrant affidavit, a call was placed from Gerling’s iPhone at 10:49 that night to a 470 number with no known subscriber. The call lasted roughly 36 minutes. Five minutes later, at 11:30, the 470 number was used to call Keisha Jones, a former Smith State Prison officer who also had a relationship with Weekes, the affidavit says. That call lasted approximately two minutes.
Hewitt‘s 911 call came in at 11:30 p.m., records show, and he told the dispatcher he believed the shooting had occurred five minutes earlier.
The 27-year-old electrician told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he was on his porch, scrolling through his phone, when he noticed what appeared to be the taillights from two vehicles parked side by side down the road, at a trailer he believed to be vacant. When he heard shots and saw one of the cars pull away, he ran to the vacant trailer, a distance of about 100 yards. When he got there, he called 911.
“After I calmed down just a little bit,” he said. “It was really shocking.”
Hewitt said he saw a woman on the ground. She was, to his mind, clearly dead. He remembers the body was next to a red Mercedes convertible parked on the grass, its lights still on.
Weekes and two others, Jones and Dennis Kraft, have been charged with Jessica Gerling’s murder. Kraft has been charged as the shooter. Jones is alleged to have recruited him. His contact information was stored in Weekes’ phone as “John Wick,” the name of the fictional assassin, according to evidence cited by investigators.
Investigators contend that Gerling’s phone was taken that night to conceal evidence that would have exposed Weekes’ crimes.
“Gerling’s murder,” the indictment states, ”was an overt act in furtherance of this conspiracy.”