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Man “Hog-tied” and Brutally Stabbed to Death During Robbery in His Atlanta Home
How a special cold case task force solved the murder of a young paralegal who dreamed of being a lawyer.
In May 2004, John Ray, a 32-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran and paralegal, failed to show up for work or to return calls.
Police made a welfare call at his Lakewood Heights home, where there were obvious signs of a struggle. “John Ray was in the dining room on his stomach in a hogtied fashion,” said Nicole Esquilin, a detective with the Atlanta Police Department.
“He appeared to have been stabbed,” she told The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.
Who murdered John Ray?
The medical examiner determined Ray had been stabbed numerous times, once so violently that the blade broke off and stuck in his body. “He had been laying there for at least three days,” said Ab Calhoun, a former detective with the Atlanta Police Department.
The crime scene was processed but it had been scrubbed down. “We could smell the bleach,” said Esquilin.
Investigators surveyed the scene, finding what appeared to be the killer’s bloody shirt in the washing machine, which was bagged as evidence. Two glasses on the table suggested Ray was having drinks with someone. Further inspection turned up a broken vodka bottle. But a TV, DVD player, watch, briefcase and other valuables were all missing, indicating a robbery.
Was John Ray's murder a robbery gone bad?
“It appeared that John and this person were maybe having cocktails and then suddenly there’s a burst of violence,” said Esquilin.
Although Ray had no security camera, he did have an alarm system that had been turned off. It suggested that Ray likely knew who he’d let in.
Investigators dug deeper to find out more about Ray. Members of his inner circle described him as a “great guy” who was “bright” and driven by an ambition to be a lawyer. He was on the path as a paralegal.
But the investigators also uncovered a secret. “Speaking with friends, we did learn that John was gay,” said Esquilin. “That wasn't something that he wanted everybody to know.”
Police determined that Ray’s car was missing and issued nationwide APB. To their surprise, they get a hit right away. The vehicle had been in an accident three days earlier and was impounded, per investigators.
A clue to the killer from Jay Ray's stolen car
The traffic infraction had occurred close to Ray’s home. Investigators learned that in the early morning hours of May 16, 2004, officers attempted to pull over a Black male for running a red light, said Calhoun.
The suspect sped away and crashed the car into a power pole before fleeing on foot, according to Adriane Love, Chief Deputy District Attorney for Fulton County DA’s Office.
Ray’s car became a key piece of evidence. Items stolen from his house were in the vehicle.
“Whoever killed John and took these items left all those items in the car so probably the person who fled from the car is our killer,” said Esquilin.
In addition, the driver’s blood was on the airbag, which had inflated on impact. Evidence was sent to the crime lab to create a DNA profile. The profile wasn’t a match for anyone in the database of offenders.
Detectives focused on the scene of the murder. They learned that Ray had been burglarized a number of times. “We started to lean more towards thinking that this was a burglary gone bad,” said Esquilin.
John Ray's case goes cold for nearly 7 years
Considering the repeated break-ins, police asked Ray’s friends who might be targeting him. They learned there was bad blood between Ray and his landlord. Ray was led to believe he was in a “rent to buy” arrangement, but the house was actually in foreclosure.
Police investigated this avenue thoroughly. Between the landlord’s airtight alibi and DNA sample, he was cleared as a suspect.
“DNA doesn’t lie,” said Esquilin. “So you just eliminate people one by one.”
Back at square one, detectives reached out to the media with a news blast to help rustle up leads.
One tipster told police that Ray had been dating a man named Grant. The relationship soured when Ray refused to loan him $500, said Esquilin.
Investigators learned that Grant and Ray broke up two weeks before the murder and that Grant moved out of state after their split. He agreed to give a DNA sample, which cleared him as a suspect.
The case idled for weeks, and then months. A painstaking and time-consuming search of online gay dating sites proved to be yet another dead end for investigators. A year went by and investigators were no closer to catching Ray’s killer.
“The case of the murder of John Ray sat on the shelf in the Atlanta homicide division for six years,” said Marcus Garner, a former reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Torico Jackson named a suspect in John Ray's murder
In 2010, there was a glimmer of hope. The Fulton County District Attorney’s office created the Complex and Cold Case task force, which began investigating the case.
Detectives learned that Jackson was “a career criminal. He had done a lot of armed robberies,” said Esquilin.
At the time, it turned out that Jackson was behind bars for a similar charge. Investigators confronted Jackson about why his blood was inside Ray’s car.
Jackson repeatedly denied any knowledge of Ray. Convinced they weren’t getting a confession out of Jackson, they obtained a DNA swab sample. As they did, they took note of the scar on Jackson’s nose, which they believed may have come from crashing Ray’s car.
Going through photos of Jackson before and after the car crash, police observed that he didn’t have the mark on his nose prior to the accident. Jackson denied injuring his nose in the crash, even though Jackson’s DNA sample matched the blood inside Ray’s car.
Investigators still faced a hurdle. They had to show that Jackson had been inside Ray’s house.
Detectives looked at John Ray’s phone records and they observed numerous phone calls made from the residence around the time of John Ray's death, according to Esquilin. Investigators reached out to people who had been called from Ray’s house. A number of them reported that they didn’t know Ray but did know Jackson.
The phone records were damning, but then investigators found more evidence he was inside the house. They turned up a photo of Jackson wearing the same shirt that had been found in Ray’s washing machine and collected as evidence.
Torico Jackson arrested for John Ray's murder
In September 2011, Jackson was indicted for murder. Investigators theorized that Jackson targeted Ray, perhaps suggesting he was interested in dating. But he was really interested in robbing him. The confrontation, detectives believed, turned deadly.
Jackson’s defense team argued self-defense. But in the end, Jackson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the chance of parole.
To learn more about the case, watch The Real Murders of Atlanta, airing Fridays at 9/8c on Oxygen.