More than a month after an entire family was found slain in their burnt-down house in Hoschton, things have gotten strangely quiet in this tiny town.
Residents are speculative about who did it, and why, but there have been no answers from police about the deaths of 29-year-old Marvalette J'Laine Strickland, her mother, Evelyn Strickland, or her two children, 4-year-old J. Manjuan Tyshein Stringer and 2-year-old J. Lasia Asiyne Stringer.
An initial sense of outrage and tragedy has been replaced with a sense of restless anticipation. It's like the whole town has drawn in a breath and is waiting to exhale.
"It's been eerily quiet," said the owner of Luna Coffee House, Leslie Tomlinson. "We all discuss the back and forth that it's been quiet. And we all know it's under investigation between our esteemed officers and the GBI. They are doing a great job."
But just what the GBI and Hoschton Police are doing is difficult to tell. No new information has been released for weeks. Special Agent in Charge Fred Stephens of the GBI office in Athens said the agency's policy is not to discuss leads, motives or suspects.
"We continue to quietly go about our business, sometimes that sends a bad message," Stephens acknowledged. "We are continuing to talk to folks that may have information in this case. We are still wanting to hear from anyone who may have information on this case."
The one-story yellow house where the slain family lived at 8063 Pendergrass Road, half a mile from the city's main street, is still standing. One side is charred under the eaves and the vinyl siding is melted in places. Police tape crisscrosses the front yard and entryway. The windows are boarded up and several silk flower arrangements have been left on the concrete stoop by persons unknown.
Investigators believe a blaze was intentionally set May 30 at the Strickland house to cover up the killings. An autopsy revealed all four victims died before the fire started, but authorities will not say how.
Vicki Ledford, who lives three houses down from the Strickland home, is still scratching her head.
"I didn't know anything and I still don't know anything," Ledford said.
Ledford said she is not shaken by the violence so close by. With a total area of 2.5 miles and 1,070 residents according to the 2000 census, the city of Hoschton is located about 45 miles northeast of Atlanta and less than two miles off Interstate 85. It sprung up in the late 1800s as a railroad stop between Gainesville and Athens.
Residents remain close-knit - like Ledford, who lives next-door to her daughter and two houses down from her son. Ledford's children were born and raised in the city, just as she was.
"I think we have a sense of security that nobody understands," Ledford said. "But
I think it was an isolated
from train accident
Despite remaining tight-lipped about the case, authorities have disclosed one promising lead. Eyewitnesses saw a slender black man of medium height wearing dark clothing running away from the general area of the fire at the time it broke out, Stephens said. The same individual was seen in Winder within the hour.
As the investigation plods on, one man that police would doubtless like to talk to is recuperating from life-threatening injuries in a hospital bed. The father of the two slain children, 33-year-old Henry Lee Stringer, was struck by a train while walking on the tracks in Buford a day after their funeral.
Gwinnett Police have not concluded whether it was a suicide attempt or an accident, but Stringer apparently made no attempt to move out of the train's path, according to a police report. Miraculously, Stringer survived and was listed in fair condition at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta earlier this week. He is not physically able to be interviewed, according to the hospital spokeswoman Denise Simpson.
"He is stable. He is improved, but he's not great yet," Simpson said.
GBI officials have declined to say whether Stringer was a suspect, but they confirmed Stringer spoke with police a few days before the train
Tomlinson was in her coffee shop a day after the fire when she saw Stringer and his mother in the city square conversing with police. Other relatives of the Stricklands had converged on the square, too. During those first few days, it was a gathering place for the police, family, media and the rest of the community, Tomlinson said.
"I saw he and his mother were here on the square and they were talking with the police," Tomlinson said. "I saw him cry for quite a while."
Frankie Hulme, owner of Frankie's Hair Salon, questioned Stringer's behavior.
"I would've thought that daddy would be a prospect, but apparently not," Hulme said. "Why would he walk on that railroad track anyway? It doesn't make any sense."
But with so many questions unanswered, talk among the townsfolk has begun tapering off.
"Police won't talk about it," Hulme said, retreating back into her salon with a shrug of the shoulders. "We'd all like to know, but the best thing to do is to stay out of it."