Amy Best listens to Terry Barnard, chairman of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, during Victims Visitor’s Day on Tuesday, April 19, 2016. Best’s sister, Abby Vandiver, was killed in 1987 by 15-year-old Richard E. Gellner. Victims of crime were able to meet face-to-face with members of the Parole Board to discuss the status of the case against the people in prison for harming them or their family. Gellner is currently up for parole. (BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM)
Photo: Brant Sanderlin
Photo: Brant Sanderlin

 Crime victims get their day before Parole Board

The two women sat less than 2 feet away from each other, but they were far from close in what they wanted from their meeting Tuesday with a member of the State Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Fae Smith and Amy Best have a murder in common — that of their sister, Abby Vandiver, who in July 1987 was stabbed 57 times by Richard Gellner, a then-15-year-old boy.

Smith wants to know why Gellner killed Vandiver, who was 20 when slain. She wants a face-to-face meeting with him to ask that question. And if he is ever paroled, Smith wants to be sure he has received the mental health treatment he needed to address whatever drove him to attack her half-sister in her Dunwoody home.

Smith suspects Gellner’s home life may be partly to blame. “What he did was terrible, but I kind of understand why he did it,” Smith told Parole Board Chairman Terry Barnard.

Best, on the other hand, doesn’t care why Gellner decided to take a break from cutting a neighbor’s grass to attack Vandiver. She just doesn’t want him ever to be free.

“She (Smith) might want to (meet Gellner), but I don’t,” Best said. “I don’t think he should ever get out.”

On Tuesday, the five men who decide which criminals get paroled, along with several Parole Board hearing examiners, sat across tables from the family members of crime victims, and in some cases the crime victims themselves, who came to speak about the worst days of their lives.

A total of 245 people came for answers and to find out the chances of those who caused their pain being released from prison.

The 25th “Victims Visitor’s Day” at the S. Truett Cathy Professional Learning Center in Jonesboro was marked by a range of emotions — anger, fear, resignation. Overheard conversations reflected the frustration of families who continue to get letters from inmates who want to remain a part of the lives of the people they victimized.

Some found joy in recounting their memories of the people they had lost.

Smith recalled Vandiver’s ice-skating talents and her Dorothy Hamill haircut. “She was very attractive, but she didn’t want to have anything to do with him (Gellner) because he was only 15.”

Some came to see parole officials, even if there was no chance for parole.

Tyasia Jones wanted to be reassured that the man who killed her 17-month-old son in 2009 was never getting out of prison.

Jamall Decarlos Mathis was convicted in Clayton County of beating to death his son, Ja’Mari Myckahi Jones. Mathis was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole plus 41 years.

“You’ve got a life sentence without parole, which is what it says,” said board member James Mills.

Jones, who was 19 when her son was murdered, still worries an appeal could change that.

“Just so he don’t get out. That’s my biggest concern,” Jones told Mills.

Because Mathis is never going to be paroled, the board has not investigated his case. So his file can be measured by how many pages it contains — fewer than 10.

In contrast, the Parole Board’s file on Gellner is at least 6 inches thick.

Gellner has accomplished a lot since he entered prison 29 years ago after being found guilty but mentally ill, Barnard said. According to his file, Gellner is no longer receiving treatment for mental illness and his prison security level has been dropped to medium.

“He’s progressed a long way,” Barnard said.

Gellner has been turned down for parole several times. But now, Barnard said, the board is looking “at opportunities for him,” including one in a faith-based halfway house that requires regular church attendance.

“But at least he got to live and he got a great education (while in prison),” Best said.

She complained that while he was getting better in prison, she had spent most of the years since her sister’s death getting psychiatric treatment.

And she worries he could be freed and then show up around Vandiver’s family.

“Though there is no right to parole, he has a right to meaningful consideration,” Barnard said. “As difficult as it is, he went to prison at 15 years old.”

Best responded that her sister was only 20 when she was murdered. “It’s not right.”

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