Mysterious death of St. Simons official perplexes island

ST. SIMONS ISLAND — In any small, close-knit community, the shooting of a well-liked public official would be disquieting. But residents of this picturesque coastal Georgia enclave can’t stop talking about the death of County Commissioner Tom Sublett. The reason is simple: It doesn’t make any sense.

Did Sublett, a successful businessman and father of four grown children, go to elaborate lengths to fake his own murder on the marshy shore? Or was the Rotary Club regular actually the victim of a murderer with a penchant for peculiar twists?

And in either case, why?

Police released little information following the discovery of Sublett’s body, which was found Dec. 11, floating at a marina within walking distance of his home. His wife, Carol, had reported him missing the previous night, when he didn’t return home after a routine poker game with pals. His car was found 150 yards from the body, parked on the shore beneath massive oak trees and swaying Spanish moss.

Sublett’s hands were bound in front of him, and he had suffered a gunshot wound to the head. But he had died, an autopsy revealed, by drowning.

Everyone on this Southeast Georgia island, a popular getaway among well-heeled Atlantans, has heard of his death. It left some who knew him deeply shaken.

“I was shocked and left dizzy and had to sit down,” said Bryan Thompson, mayor of nearby Brunswick, recalling how the news hit him. “It was just not computing.”

Those who knew Sublett describe the 52-year-old, fair-haired commissioner as even-tempered, a jokester and eager to listen — which makes his death all the more puzzling.

“It’s a mystery because, at the surface, he’s the last person you’d suspect,” said Jeff Martin, taking a pause from stocking shelves at Ace Hardware.

Most islanders profess a reluctance to speculate about the death, but just about everyone has a theory.

“I think it was a murder, but my brother says it was a suicide,” said Martin’s co-worker Stephen Hart.

That debate ramped up this week after authorities released a list of evidence found at the death scene. It included an empty holster and unfired bullets, zip-ties, empty prescription bottles belonging to Sublett and his wife, and possible blood stains on the trunk of a car and a nearby pier. Police also recovered Sublett’s wallet, containing his driver’s license and credit cards.

Notably missing from the list? A gun. Authorities won’t say whether the weapon has been recovered, adding fuel to the frenzied chatter.

“You name it … there are all sorts of theories,” said Elden Carmichael, owner of the island’s Huddle House franchise, which Sublett was known to visit.

Though Glynn County Police Chief Matt Doering describes the case as a homicide investigation, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, now leading the probe, calls it a death investigation. Neither agency has publicly ruled out suicide.

Friends say that if Sublett suffered from depression, he never showed it. And if he had enemies, he didn’t reveal that, either.

Sublett, a commercial Realtor who moved to St. Simons from Virginia in the late 1990s, announced last year that he would not seek re-election to the Glynn County Commission. Friends dismiss suggestions that his resignation signaled depression, saying that he simply wanted to spend more time with his family and on his career.

When he died, he was serving the final month of his four-year tenure.

The early part his of term coincided with a heated battle over a jail expansion, in which one group of prominent officials advocated for a new jail in downtown Brunswick. Sublett and a handful of other commissioners opposed that initiative, arguing that the jail should be built elsewhere in the county.

Sublett’s side ultimately won. Construction began last fall and is expected to be completed around the end of this year. Though some commissioners say relationships were severed in the fray, few people believe Sublett earned true enemies.

“Why would it be Tom?” asked Duane Harris, a friend who knew Sublett through Rotary. “If you are seeking retribution, you’d think that they would do it to other people.”

But fellow commissioner Mary Hunt, recently elected chairwoman of the commission, isn’t so sure. “I don’t know,” she said. “At this day and time, you never know what anyone will do. You can’t discount anything.”

Harris and Hunt are among those who believe their friend was murdered. Though Harris can’t conjure a reason, it simply makes more sense to him than the alternative — that Sublett’s wounds were self-inflicted.

“I haven’t heard anybody who knew him say that,” he said.

Except Cap Fendig, a longtime friend of Sublett’s who said he encouraged him to run for the commission back in 2008.

Fendig, a former county commissioner himself, works with people suffering from depression and other mental health issues, and knows that deep personal pain isn’t always visible on the outside.

“Depression is a private thing,” he said. “(Suicide) is an act that anybody could be a victim of in a moment of despair.”

Still, Fendig said he isn’t ruling out foul play. In fact, he wrote a letter to the county commissioners requesting they increase the reward for information about Sublett’s death to $200,000. (It now stands at $50,000.)

“If it was not self-inflicted, then it was a professional hit,” he said. “Only that amount of money would root out that level of a hit.”

Fendig said he hopes authorities soon answer a few key questions: Where is the gun, and what was the angle of the shot? Upward, as one who binds his hands in front of him might be able to manage? Or downward, as an assailant might shoot? And will a toxicology report indicate whether Sublett ingested the medications found in his car?

“I think that would tell us a lot,” Fendig said. “There are too many bizarre, unanswered questions.”

Until the mystery is solved, Bob Coleman, who served on the commission with Sublett, said he’s taking extra precautions.

“All the commissioners have had a second thought about this thing,” he said. “I try not to get myself backed up in a corner somewhere. I avoid dark parking lots. When I walk outside my business, I look both ways.

“I just pray to the good Lord that we get an answer. Right now this community has a dark cloud over it. We’re starving for answers.”

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Staff writer Craig Schneider contributed to this report.