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Murders bring unwanted fame to small town : Residents and officials of once-quiet Monticello, Fla., are trying to cope with the uproar and costs of two high-profile cases.

March 16, 1995|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MONTICELLO, Fla. — For the better part of the last 150 years, this graceful Southern town of moss-draped live oak trees was known for its antebellum homes, antique shops and tranquillity. Until recently, the only real excitement the 3,000 residents could count on was the annual watermelon festival, which features a seed-spitting contest.

And then little Monticello got a reputation.

Two sensational murders, including one that lured news reporters from as far away as Japan and Britain, so rocked this northern Florida hamlet that many residents, according to Jefferson County Sheriff Ken Fortune, "wondered how this could happen to a small county like this."

"For a while," said Fortune, "we had so much news media in town that . . . people couldn't lead their lives. It really shook people up."

Adding to their dismay was the fact that both killings took place on Interstate 10--which passes five miles south of town on its run between Los Angeles and Jacksonville--and the fact that all but one of the people involved were not even Monticello folks.

"We don't deserve to be known as the headquarters for crime," said Eleanor Hawkins, the county clerk of courts. "I think everybody is real anxious to have this over with."

But it is not over yet. On Monday, 17-year-old John (Billy Joe) Crumitie will be in the stately domed courthouse, on trial for first-degree murder. An earlier trial ended in a hung jury.

Crumitie is one of four teen-agers charged in the fatal September, 1993, shooting of a British tourist. Gary Colley, 34, was the ninth foreign visitor to Florida to be killed in less than a year, and although a host of safety measures and juvenile-justice reforms were launched, the state's $30-billion tourism industry has yet to recover fully.

The Colley murder came 19 months after another bloody crime sent Monticello reeling. In February, 1992, Florida Highway Patrolman Jimmy Fulford--from nearby Madison County--made a routine traffic stop and was blown apart by a pipe bomb placed in a gift-wrapped microwave oven that he found in the car's trunk.

Fortune said the bomb was meant to silence a witness to a South Florida murder and that it was the work of a Jamaican drug posse with no ties to Jefferson County. One man was convicted in Fulford's slaying.

Located 25 miles east of Tallahassee, Florida's capital, Monticello has been growing in recent years. Still, the town named in 1827 for Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home remains more Old South than new, the seat of a rural county without a single stoplight. Steeped in two centuries of Southern tradition, people here not only know their neighbors, black and white, but they know their neighbors' parents, grandparents and cousins.

As in many Deep South towns, relations between the races are a blend of formality and familiarity that outsiders find difficult to understand. "It's like a marriage," said Fortune, sheriff here for 11 years. "We may have our differences, but we still love each other. We find a way to work it out."

In many ways, the Fulford and Colley cases--where the victims were white and the accused black--tested that marriage. In the days just after the Colley murder, law enforcement agencies were criticized for what some civil rights groups labeled a wholesale roundup of black suspects. But the anger was short-lived.

"There was some initial concern, but that has passed," said Willie C. Cuyler, a black city councilman. "The majority of folks here have a good racial understanding."

To some, Monticello seems star-crossed by geography, not race. Three of the youths charged with Colley's slaying had been relocated to Monticello from Tallahassee by social workers hoping to change the teen-agers' behavior by changing their environment. Although all three had been living with relatives here, only Crumitie is considered a local.

As for the Fulford bombing, Fortune said: "It was an out-of-town case. These were people just going through Jefferson County."

Deserved or not, the damage to Monticello's good name was done.

And along with tarnishing the area's reputation, the two criminal cases have left the county deep in debt. Since Colley was murdered, the woman who was with him that night has been flown over from Britain, first class and accompanied, three times. Expenses in the Fulford case shot up when the trial of his accused killer was moved to Pensacola, and most of the witnesses involved had to be brought in from South Florida.

Several months ago, Fortune asked the state to reimburse the county $750,000 to cover the extraordinary expenses of the murder cases. So far, the county has received a little more than $300,000.

What the debt means, Hawkins said, is that the county cannot replace its 25-year-old firetruck or buy two new ambulances. "We have no extra money. . . . The county has had to cut back the library budget by 20%, and no county employee gets a raise this year," Hawkins said.

In the meantime, life goes on. Restoration work on the 1908 courthouse is continuing, and residents are getting used to the new telephone system. To make a local call, subscribers now have to dial seven digits instead of just five.

"We have a good little community here," Fortune said. "Three summers ago, the (Ku Klux) Klan came to town, trying to recruit. But it didn't take them long to realize they had come to the wrong place.

"Now we've had enough of international publicity. We want to move on to our normal routines: Get up, go to work and take care of our families."

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