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Devout Churchgoer and Mom Found Raped and Strangled to Death In Her Atlanta Home
The search for the rapist and murderer of a beloved member of the Atlanta community leads detectives to her daughter's ex-boyfriend.
In the quiet enclave of Campbellton, Georgia, homicide detectives faced a shocking case on November 26, 2005.
“We noticed that there was some hemorrhaging in her eyes, which is consistent with strangulation,” said Anthony Gentile, former homicide detective with the Atlanta Police Department.
Candiace Person killed in her home
Person was naked from the waist down, which suggested a sexual attack, detectives said. The contents of her purse were on the floor. Credit cards were missing, as was Person’s car. An APB was issued on the vehicle.
A crime scene unit found that the home had been wiped clean of fingerprints. The phone line had been ripped out. It appeared that the killer entered through a back door, where a window was broken.
Detectives canvassed the victim’s neighborhood in search of leads. Neighbors hadn’t noticed anything unusual. The killer likely “entered under the cover of darkness,” said former Atlanta Police Department Homicide Detective Nicole Esquilin.
Investigators learned that Person was independent and had a custodial job in the local school system, according to Lawanda Hodges, a former Fulton County assistant D.A. She was a devout churchgoer and devoted mother.
Autopsy confirms Candiace Person was strangled and raped
While the victim’s loved ones grappled with their grief, the autopsy report came in. Person died by asphyxiation. The medical examiner confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted.
DNA evidence was collected and sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for processing. In the meantime, detectives questioned Person’s inner circle about the men in her life.
Family friends reported that Person wasn't dating anyone. She was focused on work and her church.
Investigators began by questioning Person’s ex-husband, a typical start in a homicide case. Investigators determined the couple’s divorce had been amicable and ruled out the ex-spouse via a DNA sample. Law enforcement was back to square one.
Two days into the case, Person’s car was located five miles away at a rapid transit station. It was methodically processed by the GBI. Yet, just like at the crime scene, the vehicle yielded no useful evidence. Investigators hoped that the suspect had been caught on surveillance cameras, but he was parked so far away, the grainy image was useless.
Detectives were concerned that the case could go cold, according to Hodges.
On December 1, police believe they caught a break when a man was picked up for attempting to break into a home not far from Person’s residence.
Detectives learned that he’d targeted a number of older women. The suspect agreed to give a DNA swab, which ended up clearing him in the Person case.
Just over a week into the investigation, police had no suspects. Anxiety grew in the community as the media picked up on the case and dubbed the killer the “Southside Strangler.”
Willie Lee Bryant becomes a suspect
Detectives eventually caught a break when Person’s daughter alerted them that she’d gotten a letter from a bank indicating that someone tried to use her mother’s credit card at a gas station shortly after the murder.
“Fortunately in this case, we hit the jackpot and were able to recover video,” said Esquilin. Police shared the image of the suspect with the media, and tips came in.
One witness, Nicole Andrews, told police that the man in the picture was her ex-boyfriend Willie Lee Bryant. She tried to end their relationship and got a restraining order because it was “toxic and very abusive.”
“He just kept repeating ‘If I can’t have you, nobody else will,’” Andrews told producers. “He decided he was going to rape me. He did monstrous things.”
Following the attack in which he choked her, he dumped out her pocketbook and stole her credit card, she said. He threw her phone against a wall to disable it.
The events echoed what occurred at the Person crime scene. Those events had never been released publicly.
At that point, Andrews revealed that she was a friend of Person’s daughter Tisha. Detectives were shocked when she said that Tisha dated Bryant after her.
Willie Lee Bryant's link to Candiace Person found
The fact that Bryant began to date Tisha was the first real big connection to tie Person’s killer to him, according to Esquilin. “Cutting phone lines and raping somebody is the ultimate control for a person like Willie,” she said.
But when detectives interviewed Person’s daughter, she painted a different picture of Bryant. She didn’t believe he was capable of violence. She said that her mother treated him like he was part family, according to Gentile.
Tisha acknowledged that Bryant had a bad side. He stole $500 from her. That was a deal-breaker. She ended their relationship.
Investigators believed that with Bryant's temper, the incident with Tisha may have motivated him to kill.
Police moved ahead and got an arrest warrant for Bryant. He was brought in for questioning and reluctantly agreed to provide a DNA sample.
As Bryant turned over the sample, he alleged that he and Candiace Person had a consensual intimate relationship.
“He stated that about a week before she was found dead she came down to the hotel he was staying at,” said Esquilin. “They had sexual intercourse.”
Investigators didn’t buy that and believed he “on the fly” made it up to cast doubt on the case. While police believe “they have their man,” said former journalist Linda Looney, they hit a hurdle.
When the DNA results came back, Bryant’s DNA was only a partial match. “It was like hitting a huge brick wall going like 90 miles an hour,” said Esquilin.
Willie Lee Bryant charged with rape and murder
Bryant was charged with Person’s murder. Andrews was a key witness during the trial, testifying to the violence Bryant put her through.
On February 15, 2010, Bryant was found guilty of felony murder and rape. He was sentenced to life plus 20 years behind bars.
To learn more about the case, watch Real Murders of Atlanta on Oxygen.