Now investigators believe they’ve found the man responsible – just before he may have managed to elude them a second time.
“That same individual escaped capture that night within two miles of the crime scene, less than eight hours after the time John Ray was last seen alive,” Atlanta police homicide Detective David Quinn told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Tuesday, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office won an indictment charging Torico Montavius Jackson with killing then robbing Ray.
Jackson, 30, was due to be released early last month from Valdosta State Prison on a 2008 armed robbery conviction, before Quinn and Marshall English, an investigator for the Fulton County District Attorney's Office, requested that Jackson be held a while longer.
“It’s just a coincidence that we were working this case, and we find out where he is,” Quinn said. “We felt we had to make moves. They decided to hold him up based off us making contact and indicating that we plan to charge him with murder.”
This was Jackson's fifth time in prison dating back to 2001, with a criminal history that included armed robbery, credit card theft, shoplifting, drug possession and child abandonment.
"He was meant to be caught," Ray's best friend, Merkisha Kirkpatrick, told the AJC upon hearing of the indictment. "I'm glad that they got him. He has to pay for what he's done."
Jackson's seemingly unassuming presence had a frighteningly intimidating edge, said Annie Barnes, a victim in a robbery and carjacking for which he was charged.
Barnes identified Jackson in a police lineup in January 2003, nearly a year after her car and purse were taken at gunpoint outside Merkerson's Fish Market on Whitehall Road.
"I had so much fear," she told the AJC, retelling the Nov. 22, 2002 stick-up. "He put the gun to my stomach, and he told me if I moved, he would kill me right in front of the place. It was the most painful thing I'd ever gone through."
Barnes said she'd hoped the arrest would keep Jackson off the street, and only learned Monday that he'd been back out of jail and was accused of murder.
"I really hope he's put away for the rest of his life," she said.
Investigators believe Ray met Jackson at some point, invited the convict into his home on May 16, 2004, and was attacked and robbed.
Ray’s body was found three days later, bloodied and lying face-down on the floor, his hands bound behind his back and the broken-off blade of a knife in his chest, police said.
Gone were Ray’s TV, some stereo equipment and his car, Quinn said.
The original investigators found a crime scene that had been cleaned of much of the evidence.
“Whoever killed John Ray took a shower,” Quinn said. “That person also policed up the crime scene they created. Investigators who worked the case back then said the house reeked of Clorox.”
This case was one of the first handed to the Atlanta complex and cold case unit when the group was formed in January. With the case, English and Quinn were given a litany of seemingly disparate pieces of evidence collected seven years ago – some that began to bear fruit only after the original detective had been reassigned.
One of the first was Ray’s car, a Pontiac Grand Prix found not far from his house on Browns Mill Road in the Lakewood Heights community.
The thief wrecked the car in an aborted police chase and left the car filled with the take from the robbery, investigators say.
“The car was found upside down with the airbag deployed and blood on the ceiling and on the dashboard,” said Quinn, who pointed out that a GBI blood sample analysis wasn’t completed until August 2006. “It was revealed that Torico Jackson’s blood was on that deployed airbag.”
They took a recent swab of DNA from Jackson from prison to confirm that they had a match.
English said they were able to connect more information from Ray’s car and home to Jackson.
Comparing photos of Jackson from two arrests that bookend the date of the murder -- the first on a probation violation and the second for cocaine possession and other charges -- investigators found not-so-subtle changes consistent with someone being in a car wreck in which the airbag burst open.
“You can notice that there are no scars or any kind of injuries on his face on the arrest photo of March 25, 2004,” English said. “Then, when he is arrested on June 20, 2004, he has a large scar on his nose, black eyes and several other injuries on his face.”
Another key piece of evidence came from a routine review of phone records: Investigators discovered that Jackson contacted a girlfriend from Ray’s home.
“A lot of phone calls made from the victim’s house were from Torico Jackson,” English said.
By themselves, Quinn said, these individual pieces of evidence weren’t enough to finger a suspect. Even as recently as last June, searching records from Ray’s work computer, investigators considered the possibility that his killer may have targeted him from a gay dating website.
After all, police say, evidence showed that whoever visited Ray the night he was killed was there drinking alcohol with him beforehand.
But two important links, overlooked before, singled out Jackson.
“John Ray left us a nugget inside his briefcase” found in his car, Quinn said. “And the date on it is May 12, four days before his murder.”
English and Quinn found a one-page printout of a Georgia Department of Corrections inmate profile with Jackson’s picture on it, printed on May 12.
Jackson’s was one of four inmate profiles found on Ray’s work computer during the original investigation that Fulton officials said was not part of his workload, Quinn said.
Ray’s friends told police that he would often do criminal background checks on individuals he intended to date, and he had told them this week that he’d met a new guy.
Although investigators don’t know the full extent of the relationship between Jackson and Ray, Quinn said the theory is that “they were getting to know each other, based off interviews we’ve conducted.”
Another clue was a red Roca-Wear sweatshirt Jackson wore in a state ID photo that detectives tied to the crime-scene clean-up the suspect attempted.
"Clearly, someone took a shower after John Ray was killed," Quinn said. "A load of clothes was washed on that crime scene as Mr. Ray lay dead.
That shirt was found in Ray's washing machine with bleach stains consistent with the material used to clean up behind the crime scene the night of the murder.
"This lends more credence to our theory that he was inside the home," Quinn said.
Both English and Quinn said this new level of detective work is gratifying.
“It’s just due diligence,” English said. “Just leaving no stone unturned.”
Quinn, a veteran cop and longtime Atlanta homicide detective, said solving a cold murder case shares the same rewards as one cleared in shorter time.
“It is refreshing to go knock on a family member’s door or make that call and say, ‘guess what? We’ve developed a suspect in your loved one’s death and we plan to take charges on this individual,’” he said. “That’s a good feeling for me.”
For Ray's family and loved ones, the indictment is the beginning of the end of a long, painful saga.
"That fact that we now have some closurer and actually know who may have done this to him is very exciting," Ray's sister, Jonique Brown said Monday.
With an indictment in hand, the Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, Jr., can look to set a trial date.
"We are fortunate in our County that the Cold Case Squad has solved this matter," Howard said Tuesday in a statement.
Kirkpatric, Ray's friend, said he is eager to Jackson convicted.
"It can't come fast enough," she said of a conviction for Jackson. "I don't like to see an animal in a cage, much less a man. But he needs to be taken off the streets."