In all the years Willie McGahee rode to work with George Garth, he never once worried about being late — Garth always showed, and he was always on time.
Even after both men retired from the U.S. Pipe foundry, Garth still gave McGahee rides around town, to the doctor's office or to the grocery store.
One week in late September, Garth agreed to give McGahee a ride to a doctor's appointment at 9:30 a.m. the next day. That Wednesday morning, McGahee sat out on his porch, looking for Garth's familiar truck.
But by 9:45 a.m., Garth still wasn't there. McGahee called his house and got the answering machine. Then he went inside, dug up Garth's cell number, and called that, too. Twice.
The appointment came and went, and Garth never showed. That's when McGahee, 73, knew something was very wrong. He wondered if Garth was in the hospital again.
The next day, McGahee learned that his old friend had been killed, shot once in the chest inside his home on Central Avenue. His body was found on Sept. 22.
Garth, 78, became the oldest person to be killed in Chattanooga in at least the last seven years, records show.
He was a practical, down-to-earth man who kept a small circle of friends for decades, attended church nearly every Sunday and grew a vegetable garden that enveloped the yard of his small blue-and-white house.
"I really would like to know what happened to him and who did it," McGahee said.
Born in 1937, Garth grew up in Courtland, Ala., a tiny town about 45 miles west of Huntsville. He graduated from Central High School and moved to Chattanooga as a young man, McGahee said.
"I've been here 50 years, and he was here when I came here," McGahee said.
Garth worked in at least two foundries in Chattanooga and retired from U.S. Pipe in 2000, the same year his wife died. His son and grandchildren live in Ohio.
He attended St. Matthew's Primitive Baptist, a squat brick building with a short white steeple just a half-mile away from his home. He rarely missed a Sunday service.
"He was the type of person who would do what he told you he'd do," McGahee said.
He was quiet, and kept his circle small, his friend Louise Hunter said.
"He didn't deal with a lot of folks that he didn't know," she said. "And he was the type that wouldn't even deal with someone if he found out that something wasn't right."
She and McGahee puzzle over Garth's violent death. It's not clear when Garth was killed, but he would never have opened the door for a stranger during the night, McGahee said. He wasn't into drugs, Hunter said. He lived in a modest, 1,000-square-foot home built in 1940.
"We just cannot believe this," she said.
Garth was found dead inside his home with a single gunshot wound to the chest. Police have not said whether there was any sign of forced entry or whether anything was stolen. Investigators have not named any suspects or given any indication of a possible motive in the attack.
On Tuesday, police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said there were no new updates in the case.
Garth is the oldest of a handful of senior citizens who have been killed in Chattanooga during the last seven years. Four other people in their 70s have been killed since 2011, Times Free Press records show.
Orlandus Metcalfe, 71, was at home in bed when he was killed in a March drive-by shooting. A 73-year-old man was bludgeoned to death in a 2013 robbery, and a 76-year-old man was beaten to death and a 75-year-old woman was strangled in 2012.
Suspects were arrested and convicted in three of those cases. Metcalfe's slaying remains unsolved.
Garth's garden curls around his entire house, the plants filling nearly every empty space inside a short chain-link fence. Four lanes of traffic whiz by an old wooden porch swing out front.
Garth ate some of what he grew, McGahee said, but he also gave much of it away.
"He said he just liked to raise it," he said.
Three weeks after his death, Garth's garden is turning wild, with vines and bushes climbing the fence.
A half-dozen plants hang thick with ripe peppers.
Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or email@example.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.