Originally created 06/29/02

Neighbors agree with sentence



NORTH AUGUSTA - A small electric candle sits on the sill of the octagonal window in the office manager's office in Georgetown Villas, sending a message that never goes dark.

The candle is on its second bulb and will need many more, Connie Sawyer said, because she doesn't plan to unplug it.

Ms. Sawyer, who has managed the 50-year-old apartments for more than 17 years, bought the candle from the Candle of Hope - an organization started in the wake of the brutal rape and strangulation of 6-year-old Keenan O'Mailia.

Keenan and his mother, Nina, lived in Georgetown Villas.

"That child could have lived anywhere," Ms. Sawyer said.

The light - a reminder of the need to protect children - was even more important Friday, the day after Keenan's killer was sentenced to death.

On Thursday, Circuit Judge Casey Manning sentenced William "Junior" Downs, 34, to death for the kidnapping, rape and murder of Keenan on April 17, 1999. Mr. Downs pleaded guilty two weeks earlier, just days before his trial was scheduled to begin.

Mr. Downs grabbed Keenan as the boy was riding his bicycle near Riverview Park. The next day Keenan's body was found about 30 minutes after hundreds of volunteers and police began searching the thick woods around the park and the 5-mile-long walking path known as the Greeneway.

The community effort to find the boy has grown into a community remembrance.

"Every time I drive through (Georgetown Villas) it makes me think about it," North Augusta resident Vicki Houston said.

Ms. Sawyer said she thinks about the crime when she sees stories about other missing children, such as Elizabeth Smart in Utah or Danielle Van Dam in California.

"All of this makes you wonder," she said. "How could someone do that to an innocent child?"

Ms. Houston and Ms. Sawyer agreed that Mr. Downs' punishment was right and that the killer's apologies were sincere. And they agreed that Keenan's mother did the godly thing when she forgave him.

But they added that such an act requires power from heaven.

"I don't think that was something everybody would have been able to do," Ms. Houston said.

Ms. Sawyer added: "If the Lord had led me to do that kind of thing, I may have."

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or matthew.boedy@augustachronicle.com.

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