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Attack On Wealthy Atlanta Couple Leaves Husband Dead and His Wife in Critical Condition
The investigation into the murder of a mild-mannered Atlanta man leads detectives to unexpected places.
On the morning of October 5, 1998, the Gwinnett County 911 Center received a call regarding 52-year-old Donna Roper.
She was employed at a prominent Atlanta law firm and hadn’t come to work. First responders went to the seven-acre farm in Lawrenceville she shared with her husband, Marvin, 55, who was retired.
They found the door open and a gruesome trail of blood. “When you enter a house and find that amount of blood, you know, something's amiss,” detectives told Oxygen's The Real Murders of Atlanta.
Officers quickly checked Donna’s vital signs and to their astonishment, she was still alive. As doctors worked furiously to save her life, investigators notified her family and secured a search warrant.
Searching for a Suspect
“There were no fingerprints,” investigators said. “There just really wasn't anything there that would lead us to a suspect.”
Detectives were not able to locate any evidence of the firearm casings, but the house had been ransacked. Electronics items and Donna’s jewelry were missing, as were their vehicles including a red truck and a white Mercedes.
Marvin was also nowhere to be found. “Nobody knew where he was,” detectives said. “He looked pretty suspicious.” A BOLO was issued on the Ropers’ vehicles.
A Diary with Secrets
At the home, detectives found Donna's diary, in which she wrote that her marriage was on the rocks and that she was having an affair with Michael Fox, a convicted felon with a lengthy rap sheet.
Fox became a person of interest, but investigators learned that he was serving time for robbery in the county jail, where he’d been for weeks. In an interview with Fox, he expressed his feelings for Donna. Police eliminated him as a suspect.
At the hospital, investigators learned that Donna had been struck with a blunt instrument, possibly a hammer. Two or three of her wounds had penetrated at least two inches into her brain, according to David Henry, a retired detective with Gwinnett County Police Department.
Investigators expanded their search of the Roper property and found Marvin deceased in a workshop in the barn. Like his wife, he had been bludgeoned to death, likely with a trailer spring that was found covered in blood near his body.
Police were back to square one, though they found something unexpected near Marvin’s body in the barn – a small quantity of methamphetamines and equipment that you would use in a drug business, investigators said.
The Drug Scene Becomes a Factor
What initially appeared to be a domestic violence case, now seemed to be tied to Atlanta’s growing drug scene.
Neighbors were shocked. “Marvin Roper was the last person that they thought was involved in any way with drugs,” said former TV journalist Shaunya Chavis.
Marvin had run a gas station before retiring and raising chickens. Was he really part of the drug scene?
As detectives worked the case, they spoke with a source who confirmed that Marvin was involved in the drug scene. Police learned that Marvin had been enlisted to store suitcases containing 140 pounds of marijuana in his barn. But, according to the source, Marvin sold 40 pounds of the marijuana. Then someone broke into the barn and stole the remaining 100 pounds.
Police considered that Marvin’s murder may have been retaliation, according to Henry.
Meanwhile, Donna was in a coma and unable to give investigators any information about Marvin’s alleged involvement with drugs, said Thomas Medley, a retired lieutenant with Gwinnett County Police Department.
Detectives reached out to the narcotics unit, which confirmed that Marvin had been on their radar for some time. He had sold drugs to an undercover officer six months before the murder, but Marvin hadn’t been arrested because investigators were hoping that by monitoring his actions, they could get more information.
After his murder, investigators questioned if Marvin had gotten in over his head. The team needed to determine if Marvin’s brutal slaying and Donna’s attempted murder was linked to organized narcotics.
Police honed in on the Texas mafia, an organization known to use ruthless tactics to keep dealers in line, according to The Real Murders of Atlanta.
Detectives hit a brick wall. None of the drug unit street contacts panned out and the drug angle was “degenerating,” investigators said. There were no new leads to follow up.
The Lead That Cracked the Case Open
But then a call from the DeKalb County Police changed the entire case. They had arrested a woman who tried to cash Marvin’s checks.
She told police that Walter Thompson had given her the checks and tried to sell her electronics equipment and jewelry. She denied any involvement with the Roper murder.
She was charged with forgery and passing stolen checks and remained a person of interest.
Police learned that Thompson was a career criminal, mostly involved with drug offenses. They set their focus on determining if Thompson had a link to the Ropers, later learning that he had done handyman work around the Roper farm.
Police spoke to Thompson, who had been arrested in Donna’s white Mercedes a day after the attack on minor moving violations. Thompson claimed that the Ropers let him borrow the car.
“Police had not connected the dots that the car he was driving was part of this crime scene,” said Chavis. Locating Thompson was now the top priority.
Police tracked down Marvin’s truck, which Thompson was trying to sell, but couldn't find the man himself. The search for Thompson was “a full-blown operation,” said investigators.
Detectives finally caught up with Thompson, who admitted that he stole property from the Ropers but denied being involved in the attack and murder. He said a different man was the real killer — but investigators found out that the man was in jail at the time of the Roper crimes.
Investigators developed a theory of what happened. They believed that Thompson attacked Donna first. She knew him so she would have opened the door and let him in. Thompson knew about the drugs in the Roper barn, so he then ambushed Marvin.
Thompson was charged with aggravated battery and felony murder. If convicted, he faced the death penalty.
As prosecutors built their case they learned that Donna was awake and able to speak. Police were hopeful that she could identify her attacker, but she was unable.
To spare Donna from going through a trial, prosecutors allowed Thompson to plead guilty. He received a life sentence.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing on Oxygen.