SNELLVILLE -- Residents of Snellville's Oak Meadow subdivision relish its insularity. Finding the cluster of about 100 spacious homes means branching off a highway onto an arterial road, then branching off that. There's one entrance and no through traffic.
This sense of detachment and security was rattled three years ago by a murder that made a scourge of petty theft and vehicle break-ins all but an afterthought for Oak Meadow residents. In a squarish, two-story home with a brick facade near a bend on Oak Meadow Drive, in a ground-floor den that had been converted to a bedroom, an 88-year-old great-grandmother named Beulah Gotwalt was stabbed multiple times, a pillow pressed over her face.
The brutality of the killing reverberates three years later. Gotwalt was the oldest homicide victim in Snellville history, and the oldest across Gwinnett in modern times.
"It was just kind of shocking to everybody," a neighbor said this week. "It's definitely the cold case of Snellville."
Snellville police officials say the case has remained open and is being diligently investigated. A new detective, James McDonald, was recently added to assist a team of investigators and has spoken of bringing updated DNA technologies and other resources to the case. No charges have been made and no new suspects have developed recently, said Snellville police Capt. Harold Thomas.
"Contacts in the case have been ongoing," Thomas said.
Neighbors interviewed this week recalled the home where Gotwalt died as a gathering place in 2009 for teens and 20-somethings who would drink beer in the street and carouse until the wee hours. Scuttlebutt among neighbors held that drugs transactions were frequent. "They'd back into the driveway," a neighbor said. "There used to be at least six cars parked there at night."
The discovery of Gotwalt's body on Jan. 18 brought the brouhaha to a halt.
"The comings and goings have slowed down," said the same neighbor.
Gotwalt had moved from her native Pennsylvania about four years earlier to live in the home with her daughter, Nancy Boughan, 66, and her son-in-law, Thomas, 69, who still own and occupy the home. Gotwalt's teenage great-grandson, Zach Boughan, also lived there. All three were home the night Gotwalt was slain, Thomas said.
Messages left for the Boughan family this week were not returned.
Days after the killing, Nancy Boughan told the Daily Post her mother's murder had devastated her.
"She was a sweet woman," Nancy said then. "It's very upsetting."
Bill Osinski, a retired newspaper reporter and author, lives on a hill overlooking the Boughan residence. He said Gotwalt so rarely left the home he wasn't aware she'd been living there.
"They're very seldom outside," Osinski said.
Family members told police they'd last seen Gotwalt alive the evening of Jan. 17 when she retired to her bedroom. Nancy went to check on her before noon the following morning, a Sunday, when she found the gruesome scene and called 911. Investigators interviewed several persons of interest, including all three people who lived with Gotwalt.
Police found no signs of forced entry, and nothing was stolen.
Investigators confiscated several weapons capable of Gotwalt's wounds and submitted them for forensics testing. Thomas said this week the murder weapon was never found. Authorities will not divulge how many times Gotwalt was stabbed.
"It never made sense to me that some stranger would break in the house, find an 88-year-old woman and take off," said Osinski, the neighbor, noting the killing remains a topic of conversation. "Everybody knows that nobody's been brought to justice."
The murder marked the city's first since November 2007, when a robber donning a Halloween mask fatally shot Domingo Alfredo Espinal, 52, at his West Main Street auto business. The cases remain the department's only unresolved killings.
Gotwalt was buried in Pennsylvania, near her husband.
Osinski, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting, was critical of police this week but said he hasn't lost faith the mystery will be solved.
"Nobody likes to have a murder happen in their supposedly quiet little neighborhood," he said. "You have to give the police some leeway ... You have to have solid evidence to start charging people. Somebody knows something about this case and they just haven't given the information to the police."