Jurors view video of deadly 2017 Georgia prison bus escape

Donnie Rowe's death penalty trial for the escape that resulted in two officers' deaths opened Monday


This story contains graphic descriptions of two killings.

By Joe Kovac Jr.
The Macon Telegraph
        
EATONTON, Ga. — Four years, three months and nine days after Georgia prison corrections officers Curtis Billue and Chris Monica were gunned down as they ferried 33 inmates toward the state penitentiary near Jackson, video and audio recordings of the final two hours of their lives were played for jurors in the death penalty trial of one of their alleged killers.

The man on trial, Donnie Russell "Whiskey" Rowe, could be sentenced to die if convicted.

Rowe, who turned 48 last month, is already serving life without parole for a 2001 armed robbery at a Super 8 motel in Macon.

The black-and-white footage, grainy at times and hard to hear at others, was shown for the first time publicly on Tuesday morning.
The black-and-white footage, grainy at times and hard to hear at others, was shown for the first time publicly on Tuesday morning. (Georgia Department of Corrections)

Rowe and his alleged accomplice in the bus attack, Ricky "Juvie" Dubose, now 28, face murder and escape charges in the June 13, 2017, attack.

Authorities have said Dubose, who is expected to be tried later and who also may face lethal injection if convicted, has admitted firing the 9mm pistol that killed both officers. The gun was one of two department of corrections-issued Glocks that the officers carried on the trip.

Dubose and Rowe are said to have burst into the bus's driver's compartment after Rowe jimmied a lock on a security gate as the vehicle cruised through rural Putnam County, 10 or so miles east of Eatonton at daybreak the morning of the slayings.

Rowe's defense attorneys, in early efforts to spare him a possible death sentence, have argued that he sought only to escape, that Dubose was the trigger man who, acting on his own, fired the fatal shots.

But such a claim may prove difficult.

Before the attack

Scenes from surveillance footage on the bus that jurors viewed appear to show Rowe as a participant in an escape that resulted in the deaths of the two officers.

The black-and-white footage, grainy at times and hard to hear at others, was shown for the first time publicly on Tuesday morning. Despite the imperfect camera angles and at-times-unintelligible audio, the scenes were clear enough to depict a harrowing drama that unfolded over a fateful two hours.

The recordings show Rowe slipping out of his body chains, allegedly preparing to pounce, as more than two dozen other prisoners looked on. Most of them made their ways to the rear of the bus in anticipation of a confrontation up front.

In the days after the killings, the sheriff here had described the other prisoners in the video as a "tank of piranhas."

While they were not directly part of Dubose and Rowe's alleged escape plot, they nonetheless had looked on. They had howled, gleefully at times. Some hooted as Dubose and Rowe, seizing the opportunity afforded them by an unsecured gate padlock, snuck through it during a stop at a Sparta prison and stole the guard's lunches — a ham sandwich and some almonds — then slipped back to their seats unnoticed, allegedly awaiting a moment to rush the officers and flee.

Many of the prisoners cavorted and cut the fool as the bus, a long-bodied, white-and-orange-trimmed Bluebird, motored along in the predawn darkness south of Lake Oconee, hauling the two officers up front, unwittingly, to their deaths.

For those incarcerated, the early-morning ride afforded them a rare glimpse of the free world, respite from lives locked indoors.

But for those viewing the video of that trip in court on Tuesday — for the jurors and for the officers' families who sat in the gallery on benches bearing four boxes of tissues — the footage offered an agonizing journey to dread. For they knew how it ended: horribly.

A bloody end

The raw surveillance footage doesn't clearly show Rowe using an ink pen as he allegedly manipulated an unclasped padlock dangling on the hasp of a gate separating the officers and the inmates.

But at a second before 6:40 a.m. that day, after Rowe shimmied out of the body chain linking his handcuff and shackles, there is a view from a rear camera of him, along with Dubose, breaching the gate and rushing the officers.

Billue, the driver, jammed on the brakes. Somehow in that nightmare moment, he did not crash. He kept the bus on the road.

Then, in a burst, in an instant, came seven gunshots.

Three bullets were fired into each guard.

Half a minute or so later, the voices of the prisoners Dubose and Rowe left behind could be heard narrating the carnage the alleged escapees left in their wake.

"Should we help them or what?" one prisoner said of the fallen officers.

"Dude, he's bleeding out of his head!" cried another.

One inmate suggested they call for help on a radio, but no one did.

Some yelled at passing cars: "Help! Help!"

Several minutes passed before anyone stopped. Then again, who in their right mind is going to pull over for a stalled prison bus full of inmates and two dead guards?

A man trailing the bus in his Honda Civic had stopped and considered going around it when, prosecutors said, Rowe and Dubose allegedly commandeered his car at gunpoint and took off toward Rowe's native Tennessee. The man in the Honda, left in the road without his cellphone, ran to a store half a mile or so away to summon help.

More than 20 minutes passed before the police arrived. While the prisoners waited — none taking the chance to break out — one of them gazed in awe at how much blood there was.

Monica's blood had seeped from where he had collapsed, in the stairwell of bus, onto the highway outside. Blood from Billue, slumped dead at the steering wheel, dripped through the pedal slots in the floorboard onto the road below.

"This was a tragedy that I think about every day," said Billy Ralston, an inmate who'd been on the bus who testified Tuesday.

Ralston later recalled the shooting, how he had prayed in the aftermath.

"We were all terrified," he said. "We were all in shock."

Next: 'A mind full of evil.' Inmate convicted of murdering COs in escape from Ga. prison bus
   
(c)2021 The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2021 Corrections1. All rights reserved.