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Woman Conspires With Boyfriend to Kill Her Husband in a Backwoods Homicide
For masterminding the brutal slaying of her husband, Kelly Gissendaner became the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years.
On February 8, 1997, the rural community of Dacula, Georgia was rocked by the disappearance of a young family man.
Douglas Gissendaner, 30, had gone to a friend’s house around 7 p.m. to work on a car and never returned, according to his wife Kelly Gissendaner.
“The police started the usual procedures of a missing persons case,” Danny Porter, former District Attorney for Gwinnett County, told The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
The Search for Douglas Gissendaner
Officials contacted hospitals and checked Douglas' credit card activity and pressed Kelly for details. During their investigation, they learned that he was a mechanic who loved his job and his family.
The couple had met on a blind date in 1989 and clicked. Kelly, who had a son, “was vivacious … and he was down to earth,” said author and journalist Lyn Riddle.
They married and had a daughter but divorced after hitting a rough patch. Within two years of their divorce, Kelly gave birth to another man’s child. But then, she reconciled with Douglas, and they remarried.
Douglas considered all of Kelly's children his kids, according to Riddle. “He was always there for us,” said the couple’s son, Dakota Brookshire.
Douglas Gissendaner's Incinerated Car Found
Thirty-six hours after Douglas went missing, a ranger found a burned-out car in the woods. The car was “completely gutted” so they had to determine the owner through its VIN, said Clenton Bond, former sergeant with the Gwinnett County Police Department.
With few leads to chase, the detectives focused on people closest to Douglas and the state of his marriage.
“Kelly said that Doug had been a great father to her children and that everything was great,” Porter told The Real Murders of Atlanta.
Authorities ramped up efforts to locate Douglas and deployed helicopters. Community-based search teams tirelessly helped.
Meanwhile, Doug Davis, now a former investigator with the Gwinnett County Police Department, reached out beyond Douglas' close circle of friends. Davis learned that during Kelly's separation from Douglas, she had been involved with a man named Gregory Owen, whom she met while she and Douglas were separated.
Kelly said she hadn’t revealed this to police because “she was embarrassed by the relationship,” said Riddle.
Kelly claimed that when she told Owen she was getting back with her husband he “threatened to kill Doug,” added Porter. “Owen became the number one suspect.”
Police confronted Owen with Kelly’s statement. He had an alibi for the night of February 7, when Douglas went missing. A friend, Ricky Lee Barrett, confirmed Owen’s account of the night in question, according to Davis.
How was Douglas Gissendaner's body found?
Two weeks into the case, an official searching the woods where the burned-out car was found discovered a body about three-quarters of a mile from the vehicle. “The body was face down,” said Porter, adding that a crime scene technician removed a wallet from the victim’s jeans. Credit cards and cash were found in the wallet, along with a driver’s license belonging to Douglas Gissendaner.
The crime scene and the woods around it were processed in search of additional evidence but the efforts failed to produce fresh leads. Since the cash remained, “we ruled out any kind of a robbery,” said Porter.
The medical examiner found that Douglas had suffered blunt trauma and knife wounds to the neck and chest area, detectives said. The severity of the wounds indicated the killer acted out of anger, according to Porter.
The whole community was in shock — and fearful that what happened to Douglas could happen to someone else in Dacula.
Detectives attended Douglas' funeral. “A lot of times killers will go back to the funeral,” said Porter. “It’s part of their ritual.”
At the funeral Kelly was “acting oddly,” said Porter, adding that her grief “seemed to be sort of a show.”
The victim’s family told police that they had their own suspicions about Kelly. They had discovered that she’d taken out a $15,000 life insurance police on her husband shortly before his death, another fact that she failed to disclose to police. The revelation raised a red flag and a possible financial motive for Douglas' murder.
Investigators obtained a warrant for Kelly’s telephone records, at which point they learned that, on February 7, the night Douglas vanished, there were than 40 calls between her and Owen. Kelly’s constant communication with her ex-boyfriend moved her to the top of the suspect list. “My thoughts were that she’s involved in this,” said Davis.
Police brought Barrett in for more questioning. He said that Owen left his house at 9 p.m. on February 7 and didn’t return until 8 a.m. the next morning. Barrett also said that Owen asked him to lie about his whereabouts.
Kelly Gissendaner and Gregory Owen become suspects
Owen was brought in for questioning. When faced with Barrett's statements and records of his phone calls, Owen confessed.
“Greg said that he and Kelly had never broken up,” said Porter, adding that the “whole idea” for the murder was hers.
She’d reunited with Douglas for the insurance payout. She wanted the money for a house and feared that if she divorced Douglas, she’d never be able to get that.
Owen said that on the night of the murder “Kelly picked him up and brought him back to her house,” said Davis.
When Douglas came home, Owen surprised him from behind and held a knife to his throat. He forced him into his car and instructed him to drive to the wooded area, where he bludgeoned him with a nightstick and stabbed him, according to investigators.
After the murder, Owen called Kelly from a pay phone. She told him to buy gas and to torch Douglas' car, then picked him up and returned to her house.
Owen claimed that in addition to being the mastermind, Kelly provided him with the nightstick.
He was arrested for murder. A short time later Kelly was arrested and charged in the murder.
Kelly denied being the brains behind the slaying and said she had no role but detectives didn’t buy it.
As prosecutors built their case against the suspects, they uncovered damning testimony from witnesses. Individuals said that Kelly had made statements about getting rid of her husband. “The insurance money would just be a bonus,” said Porter.
As the trial approached, Owen pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life with the chance of parole in exchange for testifying against Kelly. She faced the death penalty.
Her trial began in November 1998. She was convicted of murder. Despite appeals by Kelly’s relatives to spare her life, she was sentenced to death.
Kelly Gissendaner's Last Words
After 18 years on Death Row and several appeals, 47-year-old Kelly's execution date was set for September 29, 2015. “Georgia had not executed a woman in 70 years,” said Rhonda Cook, former reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The day before she was put to death Kelly “said she did everything that they said she did,” Brookshire told producers.
As the lethal injection was administered, NBC News reported, Kelly was singing “Amazing Grace.”
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.