February 13, 1979, in Cedartown, Georgia, Rhonda Joan Tanner (8) is kidnapped, assaulted, and killed by her uncle.
On the afternoon of February 13, Tanner’s mother waited for her daughter to arrive home from school, though the child was not on the school bus. Her mother called the school to ask about Tanner’s whereabouts and was informed a man had picked her up from school. The man, according to the principal, had visited the school around 2:30 p.m. and had claimed Tanner’s father had been injured during a construction accident.
Tanner was withdrawn from class and ran to the man’s side, whom she called her uncle. Because of the girl’s obvious familiarity with the man, the principal was not suspicious, and Tanner was released to him. Tanner’s mother next called her sister, the wife of James Messer (24). The sister could not think of any reason why Messer would pick up his niece from school, however.
The day after Tanner’s disappearance, one of her aunts spotted the child’s coat in a bush near the railroad tracks and contacted authorities. The FBI and GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigations) were working on the case with local law enforcement when they found the body of Rhonda Tanner.
She was dressed only in a shirt and was covered in blood. Tanner’s autopsy revealed she had been stabbed six times (including a fatal stab wound to her chest), slashed five times in her abdomen, and had lacerations and abrasions to her face, neck, and upper chest. Tanner also had bruising and swelling to her head, indicative of being kicked and stomped.
During the investigation into Tanner’s kidnapping, authorities interviewed a woman who was operating a shop alone on the morning of the abduction. The employee encountered a man who repeatedly asked for items to be retrieved from the back of the store. The woman refused and called her husband to visit her, at which point the stranger left. The man returned again when he assumed the employee would be alone but left abruptly again when her husband came out of a back room.
Around 2:30 p.m., the employee witnessed the same man look into the store’s windows as he drove past, traveling in the direction of Tanner’s school. Both the employee and her husband positively identified the man as Messer during a photo lineup.
Investigators questioned Messer on the evening of February 14, at which point he consented to a search of his home. He initially denied involvement in the crime but “broke down crying” and confessed after investigators confronted him with witness statements.
According to his confession, Messer attempted to “pick up” the employee at the store but when he was unsuccessful, he drove to his niece’s school with the intention of sexually assaulting her. He asserted he did not intend to injure or kill her but stabbed and beat her when she fought against his assault.
In addition to the store employee’s identification, other witnesses positively identified Messer by photo lineup, including the school principal, his secretary, and the mother of one of Tanner’s classmates. Another witness testified she had seen Messer’s car parked near the railroad tracks where Tanner’s body was later found and saw Messer returning from the woods to the vehicle.
Physical evidence was also brought against Messer in the form of clothing found during the search of his home. A pair of blood-stained pants were tested, which showed the presence of type O blood (Tanner had type O while Messer had type B) and hair consistent with Tanner’s hair. Blood was also found on a pair of shoes belonging to Messer, but the quantities were not substantial enough for testing.
Messer was convicted of kidnapping and murder after the jury deliberated for 49 minutes; he was sentenced to death. The United States Supreme Court declined to review Messer’s case, although two of the Justices dissented from the decision, noting Messer’s lawyer “made no opening statement and put on no case” and that during the sentencing phase, the attorney’s efforts “were piteously deficient.”
Messer was executed in the electric chair in July of 1988. Tanner’s father told reporters the execution was a “big relief. He finally paid.”