UNSOLVED GEORGIA: Death of South Georgia radio personality still unsolved 10 years later
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - A cruel crime rocked a South Georgia community when a popular Valdosta radio personality was ambushed outside the radio station.
Nearly 10 years later, the crime is still unsolved. For the first time, we are able to hear some of the final words from Stephon “Juan Gatti” Edgerton as he called 911 and described his own assassin.
The booth at 96.7 FM where he spent his final hours has been named in his honor.
“To just keep hope alive. Keep him afloat,” said Kiki Chanel, a 96.7 radio personality who now works in the space. “You know, keep the memory alive.”
The callous killing just out front of the studio changed the landscape forever. Burglar bars and surveillance cameras are now attached to the building’s facade, and the station’s general manager has lived on the site ever since. Her trailer, surrounded by a privacy fence, is now parked in the area where the killer is believed to have emerged from.
“It was a typical South Georgia, January night,” said Captain Stryde Jones of the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office. “Although there was lighting at the radio station, the surrounding area was very dark, a perfect place for somebody to conceal themselves.”
Jones has been with the homicide division for 21 years and was at the scene the night it happened. It was a Friday evening and Edgerton was working the late-night shift. He was the only one left at the station as he locked it up just before midnight. Investigators believe the perpetrator was laid-in-wait and ambushed him as he made his way from the front entrance across the lawn to his car.
Edgerton was shot three times: Twice in the body, once in the head.
“Most likely, they came in from behind the building and was just waiting in that open area,” said Jones.
Police K9s tracked a scent to the wood line about 300 yards out from the stations, Jones said. Over the years, officials have told WCTV that they also found tire tracks and a potential second scene with cigarette butts, a drink, and a ski cap. In addition, there was an eyewitness account from a professional truck driver who was on his regular route and reported seeing a vehicle pulling out from the wooded area around the time of the shooting, Stryde said. The vehicle reportedly headed eastbound.
Incredibly as Edgerton lay wounded in the grass, he was able to make one final call to 911. For the first time, it has been made public.
“Do you know who shot you?” asked the 911 call dispatcher.
Edgerton responded, simply, “No.”
“We do have the benefit of the 911 call and the brief information that he was able to provide,” Jones said.
Brief but important information, including a clue about the assailant.
“Someone, a white man,” Edgerton said during the call. “He ran.”
That description, the source of several theories.
“He used the term ‘white boy,’ while he was talking,” said Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk.
Paulk was not in charge at the time, but he believes, after receiving an anonymous tip, the description was meant to lead detectives in a different direction.
“Some assumptions were immediately made, which would be reasonable assumptions, it would be a Caucasian person,” Paulk said. “Further investigation back when they were doing it, there was a fellow that he was familiar with who was African American and that was his street name.”
Sheriff Paulk said the agency now believes that Edgerton knew his killer and claims the agency has been able to establish “strong factors” which would make the man a likely suspect.
“They had some common friends and some of them were females,” he said. “It could have been the issue with one of those.”
However, Sheriff Paulk said that the suspect was killed a few years after Edgerton’s death in a drug-related homicide in nearby Brooks County. He declined to provide a name.
Despite the Sheriff’s confidence in the theory, his agency has never obtained DNA from the unnamed man to try to match to anything left at the scene.
“We may in the future if we develop a link, but we’re just not gonna arbitrarily collect it,” Jones said.
The theory is just one they are exploring.
The 911 call has been the source of some contention within the community. It has never before been released to the public and was only heard by a couple of citizens selected by LCSO investigators.
“The only thing that stood out to me was that the information was just unclear,” said Reverend Floyd Rose of Serenity Church.
Floyd listened to the recording, he says, because of his position in the community. He also knew Edgerton well and had spent many Sundays listening to him play the piano; welcoming the congregation in Edgerton’s role as the Minister of Music.
“He was a good person,” he said. “A real good, real good person.”
The piano keys Edgerton once played are still in the front of the church’s Sanctuary, and his music lives on through an old YouTube page and in the hearts of loved ones he left behind.
While he may have been a well-known radio personality, Edgerton was first and foremost a father.
“Just his presence alone just lit up any room that he walked into,” his daughter, Mia Edgerton, said.
She was just 13 when her dad was taken and has worked hard to move past the trauma of that night.
“I don’t think my father would be disappointed that I decided to let go and, you know, focus on my healing and loving toward impacting the world in a positive way,” she said.
Now a student neuro-scientist working on her PhD, Mia said her biggest accomplishment is becoming a mother. She has plans to honor her late father at her wedding next month.
“I plan to walk down the aisle to him singing and playing, like a recording of him,” she said.
Both of Edgerton’s boys- so young at the time of the tragedy- are now shining too.
18-year-old Christian was the captain of the Brooks County football team, which brought home a State Championship Title in December.
“He would have been psyched, just like I was,” Christian told WCTV’s Katie Kaplan. “He definitely would have been happy. I wish I could have seen him up in the stands.”
Head coach Maurice Freeman said it has been an honor to fulfill a pact he made to an old friend.
“I promised his dad that I would do my best with him,” Freeman recounted from a conversation he once had with Edgerton.
At the time, he did not realize how much the words would matter.
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Winston pushes through the pain of the loss by making music at Valdosta High. Recently honored as the number one high school tuba player in the state of Georgia. He said music keeps him connected with his late father.
“The sole fact that he is irreplaceable and still has such a large impact on my existence with him not being here, you know, speaks volumes for me,” he said.
Meanwhile Edgerton’s widow, Hilda, recently re-married to a good man. She has found a silver lining in life but said she will never forget about Stephon.
“It seems unreal, there are no answers, there’s no more knowledge out there than we’re led to believe,” she said. “That bothers me.”
She said she does not quite believe law enforcement’s theory.
“Being that I know he had a background in the military, being that I know how smart he was. He solidly meant exactly what he said- that was not a nickname. He did not know that person because if he did, he would have said something for us to know it. Stephon would not have left that open like that.”
Stephon “Juan Gatti” Edgerton would have celebrated his 50th birthday on December 15. January 20, 20211 will mark the 10-year anniversary of his murder. His little girl will walk down the aisle without him on the anniversary of the day they laid him to rest.
LCSO detectives have said they sent out some evidence for new testing within the last month, but they are hoping someone from the community will provide the final piece of the puzzle.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office at 229-671-2958.
You can view previous installments of WCTV’s “Unsolved Florida” at the links below:
- UNSOLVED FLORIDA: Police name potential suspect 15 years after Ali Gilmore vanished
- UNSOLVED FLORIDA: Family searching for answers in Wakulla County’s only unsolved homicide
- UNSOLVED FLORIDA: Father found murdered in car on Tallahassee’s southside
- UNSOLVED FLORIDA: Who is Kelley Brannon? Pt. 1
- UNSOLVED FLORIDA: What happened to Kelley Brannon? (case details) - Pt. 2
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