A documentary news magazine will air an episode dedicated to a 28-year-old Walker County murder this weekend.
"On the Case with Paula Zahn," a program on the Investigation Discovery channel, will recount the twists and turns from 1989, when Nikia Kay Gilbreath's body was found in the woods. Someone had broken her ribs and stuffed wads of paper down her throat, suffocating her.
About four months after the killer abducted Gilbreath from her LaFayette home, investigators identified a suspect: Jamie Ray Ward, who had recently been arrested for stalking and raping another woman. He treated the victim in that case similar to how Gilbreath was treated, investigators determined.
In his home, where he lived without walls, water or electricity, investigators found a notebook. Inside the notebook, Ward wrote directions to Gilbreath's home, along with a descriptor: "Fine looking." Investigators later learned that Ward had previously drilled a well on her property.
Larry Israel, executive producer of the program, said Gilbreath's murder fits the criteria for a good true crime program. The victim should be completely innocent, he said, as opposed to someone killed during a drug deal. The case should also be a mystery for several weeks or months, forcing detectives to work around the clock to find the culprit.
The show airs at 10 p.m. Sunday.
"The thing I always hope people take away from our episodes is the courage and strength and faith of victim's families," he said. "The way they found a way to move forward that most of us can't imagine. And also, the incredible hard work and dedication that goes into solving a crime. It goes beyond knowing who did it. You have to be able to prove it."
Gilbreath's mother, Linda Tucker, flew to New York City in late June for an interview. She said she was impressed with Zahn's work and believes the case should not simply be forgotten. Gilbreath had a 22-month-old daughter and was five months pregnant at the time of her death.
"He took the life of a lot of people that day," she said. "It's changed everything. ... It's not something that I sit and watch and dwell on — I try not to, anyway. It gets it out there. It's an awareness, I guess. Something people need to know."
The case has been featured in true crime books before because of the killer's curious psychology. When investigators searched Ward's home, they found thousands of dollars' worth of lingerie, boxes of pornography and a collection of newspaper clippings about rapes and murders. He had been arrested five previous times for assaulting and stalking other women.
When investigators asked Ward if he killed Gilbreath, he said, "I might have and I might not have. I'm just not sure. I told you, I black out when I take pills and drink liquor. ... I've been a liar all my life. I need some help. If I done it, I didn't mean for it to happen and I'm sorry."
A jury convicted Ward in July 1991 on charges of kidnapping with bodily injury, feticide and murder. They gave him two life sentences and the death penalty.
But in 2010, a federal appeals court reversed his sentence because a bailiff answered a question that only a judge could handle. The reversal did not impact his conviction; the issue occurred during the sentencing hearing of the case. A judge then sent the case back to Walker County for a new hearing.
The staff of "On the Case with Paula Zahn" planned to air an episode of the case years ago. But after the court of appeals' ruling in 2010, they backed off. Even though Ward's guilt was still not up in the air, Israel said, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin told detectives not to participate in any documentary for the moment.
"The first place we turn to decide whether we're going to move forward with the story is to talk to the family," Israel said. "But we also sort of need the go-ahead of law enforcement. The prosecutor held all the cards. When the appeal was brought forward, he kiboshed law enforcement from participating."
In addition to Tucker, the show's team interviewed Gilbreath's brother, John Tucker; Maj. Pat Bedford; investigator Johnny Bass; Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Del Thomasson, Superior Court Judge Ralph Van Pelt Jr. and Detective Chris Johnson.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.