Originally created 06/20/03

Tip spurs arrests in fire death

Charlie Johnson's family kept telling Richmond County investigators that he didn't just die in an accidental house fire. It was foul play, they insisted.

Sheriff's officials were having a hard time proving anything, though. The elderly man's body had been badly burned in the March 29 fire at his Emory Street home, and an autopsy showed he died from smoke inhalation.

Investigators didn't have much to go on - until last month. Someone overheard two men talking about the fire and their involvement.

That person called the sheriff's office and ignited an investigation that led to Wednesday's arrest of Clifford E. Cooper and John E. McCoy in the robbery and slaying of Mr. Johnson. Police say the men started the fire to cover up a robbery and an assault that left the 70-year-old homeowner unconscious, sheriff's Sgt. Scott Peebles said.

The sergeant gave this account:

A woman told the suspects about an "easy lick," saying Mr. Johnson kept thousands of dollars in cash at his home. Mr. McCoy had maxed out his wife's credit card and needed the money. Plus, both men were known to use drugs.

The men kicked in Mr. Johnson's door in the middle of the night, but encountered the homeowner, who struggled with them. Mr. Cooper grabbed the man's wallet and ran out.

"McCoy stays inside, where he chokes the victim to the point he is no longer fighting and he is no longer responsive," Sgt. Peebles said. "It's alleged that McCoy poured an accelerant in the room and set it on fire. He either believed the victim to be dead or used the fire to further that cause."

The suspects were able to get only about $50 during the robbery, the sergeant said.

Shortly after the fire, police and fire officials said publicly that foul play was not suspected because the victim was not known to have enemies. Neighbors described him as a nice man who would do anything to help someone.

The fire erupted just before 4 a.m. on the last Saturday in March. Neighbors noticed it and tried to rescue Mr. Johnson, but the flames were too intense. Firefighters poured water on the small wooden structure and found Mr. Johnson inside. He was pronounced dead at 4:20 a.m.

Authorities have not been able to identify the woman who tipped off the suspects, but she is wanted for questioning, Sgt. Peebles said.

The suspects were arrested at their homes Wednesday. Mr. McCoy, 39, of Davis Mill Road, Hephzibah, was charged with malice murder, arson, burglary and robbery by force. Mr. Cooper, 33, of First Avenue, Augusta, was charged with burglary, robbery by force and felony murder.

Malice murder is defined as the intentional killing of a person. Felony murder is a killing that occurs during another felony.

Both men were being held without bond Thursday at the Richmond County jail.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.


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