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Atlanta tech mogul Lance Herndon’s career, like the city he lived in, was humming in the late 1990s. He’d even been hailed by the Clinton administration as a rising entrepreneurial star.
Herndon’s bright star fell tragically on August 9, 1996. The 41-year-old computer consulting businessman was found bludgeoned to death in his bed at his upscale home in Roswell, reported UPI.
Herndon’s mother had called 911 after employees informed her that he hadn’t shown up for work at his home office, investigators told “The Real Murders of Atlanta,” airing Sundays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
“Someone struck his forehead and top of his head with such force that there were streaks of blood droplets that were streaming down the wall,” said Clint Rucker, former executive district attorney, Fulton County.
No defensive wounds were on his hands and little blood was found below the victim’s waist. “Our theory was that the killer climbed onto his naked body and straddled him, struck him in the head and face, causing his death,” said Rucker. This detail would later figure into court documents.
Investigators took stock of the crime scene, where there was no sign of forced entry as well as evidence that suggested the killer showered before leaving.
Three clocks in the bedroom had been unplugged, with one frozen at 4:10 a.m. Silver gum wrappers were found near the garage, Herndon’s valuable laptop was missing, and a bedside picture of Herndon’s current girlfriend, Kathy Collins, was face down.
Detectives interviewed and cleared Collins, who’d been with another boyfriend when the murder occurred. “She came off very genuine and she provided us with an alibi,” said Tommy Williams, former police officer with the Roswell PD.
Herndon’s ex-wife Jeannine Price was also considered. “Not only had they recently been divorced, but Lance also had a $1 million life insurance policy that listed Jeannine as a beneficiary,” investigators said. Price provided an airtight alibi.
The medical examiner studied the wounds and, based on an earlier case, concluded that an adjustable crescent wrench was used to kill Herndon. Detectives discovered that a 16-inch adjustable crescent wrench was missing from Herndon’s workbench. Shortly before his murder he’d used the wrench to put together exercise equipment. That “made it readily accessible for the killer to use,” said Williams.
Police believed Herndon’s violent murder may not have been premeditated, but was a crime of passion.
An interview with Talana Carraway, who’d once dated the victim and now worked part-time for him, helped establish a window of time for the murder. She left work at his home office at 10:30 p.m. on August 9. After she got home, the two talked on the phone until midnight.
Detectives theorized that the crime occurred between 12 a.m. and 4:10 a.m., the time frozen on the unplugged bedroom clock. Caraway told officials she hadn’t returned to Herndon’s home and dropped the name of Dionne Baugh.
Baugh was attending Georgia State University when she met Herndon at his 41st birthday, which she finagled her way into through her work at the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. They began dating.
“He lavished Dionne with a lot of material goodies,” said Rod Stodgill, author of “Redbone: Money, Malice and Murder in Atlanta.” That included a shiny new Mercedes. Expensive gift-giving went with a self-image Herndon had cultivated. “He positioned himself in town as kind of a black Jay Gatsby,” Stodgill told NPR.
“What Lance didn’t realize was that Dionne Baugh was probably as much a player as him,” said the crime author. “She didn’t tell him she was married.” Because her husband was away in Jamaica, she began seeing other men. Herndon was among Atlanta’s most eligible catches.
When authorities interviewed Baugh, she claimed that she and Herndon were “madly in love,” said Rucker. She also said she had told her husband, Shaun Nelson, a Jamaican resident and Air Jamaica pilot, that Herndon was just a mentor.
But the expensive car indicated otherwise and Nelson knew of the affair. But at the time of the murder he was back in Jamaica, clearing him from suspicion.
Detectives turned their focus to Baugh, whose relationship with Herndon was tumultuous because he saw other women. A month before the murder she’d come to his home and saw Collins there.
Baugh banged on the door so aggressively, Herndon called 911. She was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor of criminal trespassing. That criminal case was scheduled to go to court on the day Herndon’s body was discovered, said Rucker.
Could she have killed him to prevent him from testifying against her in court?
Investigators scrutinized Baugh’s account of the night of the murder. She claimed that Herndon had come to her home in Norcross between 9 and 10:30 p.m. to loan her his laptop. That timeline contradicted Carraway’s account.
Detectives were convinced that Baugh was behind Herndon’s murder, but a lack of forensic evidence kept them from connecting her to the crime. Eighteen months passed with no new leads. But in 1998, a tip from Shaun Nelson, who was divorcing Baugh, cracked things wide open.
Nelson claimed that in the throes of an argument months earlier he questioned if she had anything to do with Herndon’s death, and Baugh turned violent. She threatened to kill him – “just like she did Lance,” Rucker told producers.
Baugh’s sworn statements in divorce court about Herndon that contradicted what she’d told homicide investigators came back to haunt her. In this case, she swore that she and Herndon were just friends, a complete 180-degree turn.
Baugh also said that on the night of August 9 she had gone to Herndon’s home to pick up the laptop. The statement contradicted what she’d told homicide investigators two years earlier and put her at the scene of the crime.
In 1998 police arrested Baugh for murder and aggravated assault. At her trial, which began in 2001, she faced a sentence of life in prison. Prosecutors faced a difficult case built on circumstantial evidence.
“The consistent theme I pointed out to the jury is ‘When did Dionne get the laptop?’” said Rucker. “There was really one opportunity to do it. And that was when she came to the house at midnight.”
Rucker ran down his account of the homicide. After Baugh had sex with Herndon, he fell asleep. She climbed on top of him, straddled his body, and violently beat him to death with the wrench. She took the laptop, leaving through the garage area and dropping silver gum wrappers before fleeing.
The jury returned with a guilty verdict. Baugh was sentenced to life in prison.
But two years later, Baugh’s conviction was overturned based on a technicality concerning detectives’ testimony. A mistrial was declared at the second proceeding.
To learn more about the case, watch “The Real Murders of Atlanta,” airing Sundays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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