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STRANGER’S ROW: The Unsung Murder of Shirley Odom

“And there is Stranger’s Row! What a melancholy tales this tells! Death far from home and kindred! Consigned to the grave unwept, unhonored, and unsung.” - The Macon Telegraph, Jan. 15, 1907

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• THE COLD CASE FILES •

When the city fathers of Macon undertook the architecture and design of Rose Hill Cemetery in 1840, they envisioned a glorious “City of the Dead” that would “rob even the grave of its accustomed gloom.” And as good Christians are wont to do, these men of means apportioned a remnant of Rose Hill for the least of these – a paupers’ section that has come to be known as Stranger’s Row.

Located in what is now the Oak Ridge section of Rose Hill, Stranger’s Row sits largely under the comforting shade of a cluster of towering trees, but there the appearance of graciousness ends.

No monuments celebrate the fallen interred in Stranger’s Row, at least not the kind of the resplendent remembrances found elsewhere in Rose Hill. Grandiose statuary, headstones inscribed with loving memorials, flowers, wreaths, and trinkets of the tomb may grace the graves of others here, but not the nameless dead who no doubt rest fitfully on Stranger’s Row.

A 1907 newspaper article on Rose Hill depicts in loving detail the “perfect picture of rural beauty” that serves as the eternal landscape for the souls laid to rest in Macon’s City of the Dead. By stark contrast, the writer notes, there are no “chaplets of flowers” nor “voices of affection” ringing out on Stranger’s Row – no mourners to mind the dead or even grieve their passing. “No tombstone with the loving inscription: ‘Remember me.’ All is silent and desolate.”

EVERYBODY KNEW SHIRLEY

Shirley Odom, mugshot

Like those laid to rest in Stranger’s Row, there is very little physical evidence to suggest that Shirley Peavy Odom of Macon, Georgia was celebrated in life, or frankly that she was ever even here at all.

Locating the 54-year-old’s gravesite – or verifying that she has one – takes no small amount of legwork. Though it’s customary to grant even so-called paupers a death notice in local newspapers, or to find some mention of their life and passing on online memorial sites, not even a dozen Google searches yields anything of the sort for Shirley. Only a recently added entry on Findagrave.com appears to substantiate her final resting place as Macon Memorial Park, a cemetery located on Mercer University Drive.

Yet ironically, according to Capt. Shermaine Jones with the Bibb County Sheriff’s Department, however, “Everybody knew Shirley.”

Certainly, Capt. Jones did. Though he is now assigned to the Violent Crimes unit for county law enforcement, the investigator started out his career in Macon law enforcement as a “dope cop” for the city. It was during his tenure there that Capt. Jones got to know Shirley. He liked her, he says – even when he was arresting her.

Her arrest record is, by any standard, lengthy. Shirley’s first known offense in Macon occurred in 1985, for simple battery. A marijuana possession put her behind bars in 1987, followed by at least one arrest a year through 1991 over a motley assortment of petty criminal charges ranging from DUIs to disorderly conduct. Records show Shirley’s handcuffed interactions with law enforcement ceased until 1995, after which she was arrested at least once or more a year on cocaine possession, drug court bench warrants, probation violation and crimes of a similar ilk.

“I’d see her be-bopping down the road during patrol and stop and talk to her. ‘Whatcha doing Shirley? Nothing. You holding? ‘Nope.’ That was Shirley,” Capt. Jones says, describing her with a smile as a “short white lady with scraggly hair” who was also both a “staple of the community” in West Macon, well known and well liked.

SHE BARTERED SOMETIMES

Shirley Odom was also an enthusiastic consumer of crack cocaine.

“She loved her drugs, but she was comfortable with law enforcement, and she was easy to talk to. Shirley was just a free spirit. She was gonna do what she wanted to do. We might describe her life as rough, but she wouldn’t have.” Capt. Jones says. It’s a sentiment echoed by more than one departmental long-timer who crossed paths with Shirley prior to her death in 2010.

“Shirley didn’t give a shit what you thought about her,” says one investigator.

Not only was she unapologetic for her drug use, she’d even joke about it, Capt. Jones recalls. One of his favorite stories about Shirley occurred after a narcotics raid in her home yielded 40-50 bagged “rocks” as well the arrest of the dealer using the house as a front to sell his wares.

“I saw her the next Monday and she flagged me down and said, ‘you missed a spot, Jones,’ meaning there were a few rocks stashed around that we didn’t find. She just laughed and said she tayed high all weekend long.”

Finding hidey-holes for crack in her home or allowing dope dealers to operate out of her living room wasn’t the only way Shirley managed to pay for drugs either.

“She bartered sometimes,” Capt. Jones says, adding Shirley wasn’t shy about sharing the details. Nor did she hesitate to defend her life choices, he adds. “‘It’s my body Jones – you can’t arrest me for having sex!’ and she was right. She knew the law.”

IT STILL BOTHERS ME

Shirley also also knew who not to cross, investigators say – and when to clamp down on loose talk with the local 5-0. Snitches, as they say, get stitches.

“What do you know about that, I’d ask her,” Capt. Jones recalls. “But she knew who not to aggravate. Sometimes she’d tell me what she had heard, sometimes she’d just say ‘unh-unh, I ain’t gonna talk about that,’”

But for all Shirley’s street savvy, at least one wolf in sheep’s clothing managed to get in under her well-honed radar, and it proved her undoing. In 2010, Shirley was strangled to death in her home by assailants still unknown.

“When I heard about it, I figured it was an overdose and her body had just finally taken all the beating it could take – that her lifestyle had finally caught up with her,” Capt. Jones said. “I never thought I’d see her murdered.

It bothered me,” he says. “It still bothers me.”

Though Jones and others in local law enforcement knew Shirley from the streets – and valued the information she occasionally shared – personal details about her life didn’t truly begin to emerge until after her death. And even then, so much about Shirley Odom was, and continues to be, an oxymoron in the truest sense of the word.

On the one hand, Shirley had a lengthy criminal history, yet even the officers who frequently hauled her off to jail talk about her more as an affable character than a hardened criminal. Comparing Shirley to Ernest T. Bass – Mayberry’s most manic (yet mostly harmless) mischief maker – gets a “yeah, exactly!” response a  few times.

Yet none of the officers in Macon who remember her express even the vaguest sentiment of feeling sorry for the 54-year-old – at least not the kind of “Christian charity” bequeathed to the beleaguered souls buried on Stranger’s Row. Which is to say, none of the investigators speak about Shirley Odom as though she was some poor creature to be pitied.

“She kept to herself with her drugs,” Capt. Jones, noting too while viewing her succession of mugshots the rather painfully obvious fact that “drugs do take a toll on the body.” Even though Shirley was only 54 when she died, she looked at least 20 years older in every image taken – more husk in some ways than woman. Her hair is thinning, white and unkempt; her skin is mottled with a pallor that is more loamy than peachy; and there is zero vanity about her. Hard to tell, really, if these jailhouse pictures depict a dearth of pride or merely a lack of concern for what others might have thought of her.

And though she was almost embarrassingly open about her most private predilections, very little about Shirley’s personal life came to light until after she died.

Jones was stunned to discover, for instance, that Shirley had been married. Her husband, Robert Odom, was also a frequent flier of Bibb County’s penal system, racking up 41 arrests before his death in 2013. Most of the charges were alcohol-related or the same kind of nuisance crimes that had landed Shirley in legal hot water throughout her life.

And from what little public information can be unearthed about either of the deceased Odoms, their marriage seems to have been legitimately loving, and both seem to have belonged to a community that knew and cared for them.

Following Robert’s death, one mourner on the memorial website Legacy.com wrote, “Robert, you always had a positive outlook on everything. I will miss your calls … your voice … and most of all you. But I know that you will be watching over me and your loved ones.” Another said, “May you find the peace you seek and may The Lord Our Savior welcome you home. Once again you will be with Shirley.”

IT WAS PERSONAL

Capt. Jones, who transferred both to the county and the Violent Crimes Unit following the Macon-Bibb consolidation, has now inherited the murder investigation. Shirley’s murder is one of more than 100 open cold cases that stretch back as far as the 1970s, and it’s one that frustrates him. In no small part because he knew the victim, but also because “we still don’t know the why.”

The murder occurred eerily enough on Halloween Eve  – also known as “Devil’s Night” – in the living room of Shirley’s home, an address listed at 3975 Brown Avenue. A friend who had dropped in to visit about 10 p.m. discovered her dead inside the front room of the house. She was lying on her back on the floor in the middle of the room, face-up.

There were no signs of forced entry – indicating Shirley knew her attacker and allowed them in willingly – and the means of murder would indicate the same. Strangling someone to death is not only an intensely violent act, it’s also relatively rare and obscenely intimate.

“Everyone has a personal bubble, and there are all kinds of murders, but to get close enough to put your hands on someone, they have to have trusted you at some point,” Capt. Jones points out. “This was a personal killing.”

According to Uniform Crime Statistics compiled by the FBI in 2010, there were 12,996 murders in the U.S. Only 122 of them were due to strangulation. Shirley Odom, who was 5’3 and 110 pounds, would not have been difficult for even the most average-sized perp to overpower, but strangulation is not necessarily a quick death. It can take several minutes for the victim to lose consciousness, let alone die – and the killer is, by necessity, literally only a breath away from the victim, requiring close contact to see the murderous deed through to the end.

According to the coroner, who was quoted in news stories following the murder, Shirley was discovered “in the nude.” He declined to say whether her autopsy had revealed signs of recent sexual activity or assault.

Jones says there were no signs of disturbance in the home, but there is evidence “on her person” to suggest Shirley fought for her life. Statistically speaking, a woman who is choked to death is most often the victim of domestic violence – and indeed, the spouse is frequently the first suspect on the list for many murders. In Shirley’s case, however, her husband was considered but ultimately moved to the bottom of the list, Capt. Jones says.

Though the murder investigation remains active, it is growing colder with each passing day and where lawmen remain 2,246 days after Shirley Odom became the 19th homicide of the year is, quite simply, at an impasse. They believe, however, the information to crack the case is out there, though, in the matrix of street scuttlebutt and behind-closed-doors conversations.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that whoever did this remembers it and they told somebody,” Jones says. “Unless you’re a super-psychopath, something like this would bother you and you would, at some point, have to talk about it to somebody.”

Anyone who may have information on Shirley’s movements or other details in the last few days of her life, or who may have seen anyone coming or going from her home is asked to contact investigators, anonymously or otherwise.

“Maybe she had a beef with somebody, we don’t know,” Capt. Jones says. “But we’re looking for any rhyme or reason as to why this happened to her.” A $2,000 reward for the successful conviction in the Shirley Odom homicide case remains in place. Anyone with information is urged to call CrimeStoppers at (478) 742-2330.

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