Three tragedies rock rural Morgan County

Date: 1999-09-04

Violence: Two child killings and rape of baby in a week leave many residents reeling.
Author: Jingle Davis; Staff

Dateline: Rutledge

Article Text:

Stephanie Collins, whose seven years were filled with tragedy, died wanting a Cheerleader Barbie doll.

Paul Anthony Morris, 35, her prospective adoptive father, beat and stomped the child to death here Saturday night after she ''acted up'' on a family shopping trip to Athens because she didn't get the doll, according to investigator Sheron Vance of the Morgan County Sheriff's Department.

Vance said Morris hit Stephanie with his fists, beat her with a belt, then threw the 50-pound girl to the floor and jumped on her chest with both feet, rupturing her liver.

The child's death, along with two unrelated criminal cases -- the torture-slaying of 17-year-old Krystal Gayle Archer of Elbert County and the sexual assault on a baby girl -- stunned residents when they came to light this week in this rural county of 17,000, about 50 miles east of downtown Atlanta.

"I've been in law enforcement here 22 years and to my knowledge, we have never had two homicides in the same week," said investigator Mike Pritchett.

In Rutledge, a tiny but picturesque town filled with antique shops and graceful old homes, the slayings were the main topic of lunchtime discussion Friday at the Yesterday Cafe downtown.

"When we picked up the weekly paper Thursday, we felt like we were reading the Atlanta paper," said Teri Bragg, the cafe's owner. "That's all anybody is talking about. We just can't believe all these things are happening in our little county."

Pritchett said no charges have been filed in the case of the 1-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted Monday near Madison, the county seat about 10 miles from Rutledge. The baby is recovering from surgery for "extensive injuries" at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, Pritchett said.

"We don't know yet whether she was raped or attacked with an object," he said. "She had been staying with a baby sitter whose boyfriend may have come over but he is not a suspect at this time. We're still investigating."

With only three investigators, the county sheriff's office is spread thin, said Vance, who is looking into Stephanie's death -- and her life before she came to Georgia from Chicago.

"I've been told her mother was addicted to cocaine and that Stephanie was abused, both physically and sexually," Vance said. "The child had old cigarette burns on her body."

Stephanie and her siblings, including a younger sister, Crystal, 6, were removed from their Chicago home by Illinois state authorities, who severed parental rights, Vance said. In early April, Stephanie and Crystal were placed with the Morris family by Adoption Services Inc., a private, nonprofit agency in Thomas County that deals exclusively with special-needs children, said Tucker attorney Craig Sinclair, who represents the agency.

Paul and Sheree Morris had a 2-year-old son; Sheree Morris had three older boys, ages 7, 13 and 15.

About a month after the girls arrived in Rutledge, Sheree Morris called the county Department of Family and Children Services and complained about Crystal's behavior and asked if they would take the child, Vance said.

"That was the first DFACS here knew anything about the adoption," Vance said. "They told Sheree to call Adoption Services."

Sinclair said the agency was opposed to splitting up the sisters.

But "they were overruled by the Chicago Department of Children and Family Services," the attorney said. Crystal returned to Chicago and Stephanie stayed with the Morrises.


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