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Beloved Pastor Slain, Set On Fire By Former Prisoner She Was Mentoring

Rev. Marita Harrell's remains were found in a burned-out car by her daughter and husband after she disappeared. Authorities now say that a former prisoner she had been mentoring is her killer.

A personal photo of Marita Harrell

A Georgia pastor was allegedly fatally stabbed and set on fire last week by a then-former inmate she had been mentoring, her family and police said.

Christopher Devonta Griggs, 27, has been charged in the murder of 57-year-old Rev. Marita Harrell, according to officials. He was arrested on Thursday, Newsweek reported.

Griggs is also facing six other charges on top of Harrell’s murder, including first-degree arson and removal or attempted removal of a weapon from a public official, online records show.

Harrell’s corpse was found in a burnt-out van a number of miles from from her house the day investigators suspect she was murdered by Griggs, according to Newsweek. Authorities say they believe that the 27-year-old killed the Georgia pastor at his home in the 1300 block of Panola Road in Ellenwood, Georgia — southeast of Atlanta — on Wednesday, May 18 and then abandoned her remains in a van in the 1600 block of Coffee Road in Lithonia. Detectives allege he torched the vehicle in an attempt to incinerate any evidence.

A specific motive in Harrell’s murder hasn’t been released by law enforcement. However, the woman’s family said she’d been assisting and mentoring Griggs through her church at the time of her death — first while he was incarcerated in the Fulton County Jail, and then after he was released on bail pending multiple charges, according to Fox5 Atlanta. The accused man had failed to show up for two hearings in nearby Gwinnett County on unrelated charges in March and again on April 28, and bench warrants were out for his arrest at the time of the murder.

When Harrell didn’t return home from a reported counseling session with Griggs on Wednesday evening, her family began searching for her. It was Harrell’s daughter who, with her father, reportedly found her mother’s body by using an app to track the pastor's phone. 

"I was there, and I still didn't believe it," Marae Harrell said, Atlanta television station WAGA-TV reported. "I was expecting her to wake up, open her eyes or move."

The slain woman’s relatives said her work with Griggs had been a thorny topic within family circles.

"That was a point of contention between the two of us, between all of us, especially with this gentleman because he called two weeks ago," her husband Antonio Harrell said. "She told me, 'Antonio, God has placed these people in my life, I cannot turn away from them.'"

Two weeks prior to her death would have been shortly after Gwinnett County had issued the bench warrants for his arrest.

A police report obtained by Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA indicates her husband told police he'd "told his wife not to meet anymore people who have just been released from jail for safety reasons," and another friend had expressed concerns for her safety as well.

Rev. Harrell reportedly said that she "to help people who have been in jail," the station reported.

Rev. Harrell was a mother of two who worked as a senior pastor at Connections at Metropolitan Methodist Church. She previously served at Rivertown United Methodist Church.

“I know the love Rivertown has for her, and the love she has for Rivertown,” Rev. Fleming Thompson Jr. said, WYFF reported. “We are asked to be in prayer, especially for her husband and daughters.”

The Georgia pastor’s family said she’ll be remembered for compassion and kindness. 

"She had an open, wonderful and accepting heart and she was always willing to learn about new people and she loved people," her daughter Alyse also told WAGA-TV.

Griggs is currently being held at a DeKalb County detention facility, according to online jail records obtained by Oxygen.com. It was unclear if he had entered a plea or secured legal counsel to comment on his behalf as of Tuesday afternoon.

No further information was immediately available this week. A spokesperson for the DeKalb County Police Department didn’t respond to questions regarding the open case when contacted by Oxygen.com on Tuesday afternoon.

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