SAVANNAH, Ga. — Police found the eight victims inside the cramped mobile home they shared, each beaten bloody with some type of blunt weapon. Now prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for a 25-year-old man charged with single-handedly killing them all.
“My whole family is dead!” a frantic Guy Heinze Jr. cried in the 911 call that alerted police to the crime in the port city of Brunswick. Six days later, investigators charged him with murder.
Heinze is scheduled to stand trial more than four years after the Aug. 29, 2009.
Attorneys plan to seat a jury Tuesday after spending three weeks questioning potential jurors in the highly publicized case. Opening statements from lawyers on both sides will follow. The trial is expected to last at least two weeks.
Testimony in the case should answer questions police and prosecutors have refused to discuss for years. How could one person kill so many people with no one managing to escape? And why would Heinze so violently slay some of the people considered closest to him?
One victim was the suspect’s father, 45-year-old Guy Heinze Sr. The father and son were among 10 people living in a single-wide trailer Rusty Toler rented, paying $405 a month at the New Hope Plantation Mobile Home Park.
Toler, 44, was killed along with his four children: Chrissy Toler, 22; Russell D. Toler Jr., 20; Michael Toler, 19; and Michelle Toler, 15. Also slain was the elder Toler’s sister, Brenda Gail Falagan, 49, and Joseph L. West, the 30-year-old boyfriend of Chrissy Toler. Her 3-year-old son, Byron Jimerson Jr., was seriously injured in the attack but ended up the sole survivor.
Heinze has pleaded not guilty. Both his grandfather and younger brother have questioned how Heinze alone could have clubbed eight people to death.
Authorities have never given a motive for the killings. But Heinze’s defense lawyers said in a June court filing they suspect prosecutors may argue that a dispute over drugs triggered the carnage.
Heinze is charged with eight counts of murder, once count of aggravated assault related to the toddler who survived the attack, plus two counts of drug possession. If he’s convicted of murder, prosecutors will ask the jury to sentence Heinze to death.
The trial judge and attorneys plan to select a final dozen jurors plus alternates Tuesday from a pool of more than 70 who were qualified after being questioned about the death penalty and prior knowledge of the case.
“There are witnesses who may testify that there was extensive drug use among members of the household and that Joe West was involved in the sale of illegal drugs,” Heinze’s lawyers wrote. “Evidence will likely be offered that on the night of the murders, Guy Heinze bought drugs from Joe West.”
The court filing by Heinze’s defense team goes on to say prosecutors might argue “that Mr. Heinze was in a drug-fueled rage and once started on the killings of his family could not be stopped until all were violently beaten to death.”
Heinze’s lead defense attorney, Newell Hamilton Jr., did not immediately respond to a phone call and email message Friday. He has previously declined to comment on specifics of the case.
Superior Court Judge Steven Scarlett plans to sequester jurors until the trial ends. Heinze’s attorneys asked the judge not to do that and argued that allowing jurors to go home at night would make them less inclined to rush to a verdict. But the judge agreed with prosecutors that jurors should be sequestered to keep them from exposure to news coverage and chatter about the trial outside the courthouse.
A neighbor called 911 the morning after the slayings and handed the phone to Heinze, who sounds distraught as he says he found the battered bodies after returning home from a night out.
“It looks like they’ve been beaten to death. I don’t know what to do, man,” Heinze says on the recording. His voice becomes frantic when he discovers Michael Toler, who has Down syndrome, badly injured but clinging to life.
“Michael’s alive, tell them to hurry!” Heinze can be heard yelling on the 911 recording. “He’s beat up! His face is smashed in!”
Michael Toler died from his injuries at a hospital the next day.