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Diary of a Madman, Part I

Macon needs a serial killer. Not drunks, drug addicts or fornicators. Could be anybody (victims), Modus operandi. M.O. of the Macon, GA serial killer. Melting zinc pennies to make bullets for those who refuse to accept my pennys [sic] in commerce. Predatory lesbians of convenience stores, drug dealers of vice, cigarettes, liquor, lottery tickets (no robbery) Jan. 31, 2007, Jason Howard

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Wanted since 2004 for the murder of his mother and stepfather in Liberty County, the jig was finally up for Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis, in 2012 when Macon police arrested him as a transient looting local automobiles. Among the collection of “peculiar items” later discovered at the remote wooded encampment where he’d been hiding out: Unused body bags, the personal belongings of strangers, and a series of personal diaries he had written in almost daily. This is Part I in a 4-part series exploring Jason Howard’s crimes and his life on the lam here in Macon.

Because of my past procrastination and cancelations, I’m writing the next journal entry in advance to put forth an aura of positivity … if I’m not back by the 14th, camp is abandoned, take what you need, burn the rest as payment, but make no camp here, as this area has been contaminated by my pain, agony and torment.
April 11th, 2007
Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis

By the time Macon police caught up with Jason Howard in the spring of 2009, he had already spent the bulk of his adult life in a jail cell, of one form or another.

At 25, he had been shuttled off to North Carolina, where he served a four-year stretch in Federal prison for bank robbery. Upon his release in 1999, Jason returned to the home his mother shared with her second husband in Gumbranch, a small community in South Georgia located just outside Hinesville.

Jason Howard, known to be mentally ill – possibly schizophrenic – would spend the next five years locked up there too.

“His stepfather made him live outside the living quarters,” says former Liberty County prosecutor Greg McConnell. “They had a room for Jason — it was his room — and they locked him in it at night. He was allowed out in other parts of the house during the day.”

Though a decorated war veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart, Jewel Cleveland was, at 78, rapidly declining in health. He kept his stepson under lock and key because he feared him, telling family members he was afraid for his life with Jason in the house. In all fairness, the Cleveland’s home wasn’t Jason’s first choice either. According to family member accounts at the time, Jason had wanted to live with his biological father when he was released from the penitentiary, but his stepmother wouldn’t hear of it.

Unable to work because of a shadowy “mental condition” and with only a Social Security-issued disability check to live on, the convicted felon had few options. And what self-respecting mama from the Bible Beltiest part of the state could turn away her own blood? Mildred agreed to take him in — but not, by all accounts, without more than a few reservations. A retired school teacher with a Master’s degree in education, Mildred described her son as “dangerous” and “a paranoid schizophrenic” when she reported him missing less than a year later — along with her new Windstar minivan — in 2000.

That time, she got lucky. Police in Savannah quickly scooped Jason up at a bus station, along with the van, and delivered both man and vehicle back to Liberty County post haste. It would take Jason Howard another four years to spring himself for good from the confinement of his family’s home. This time he made it all the way to Macon, where he remained free as a proverbial bird for the next five years.

By then, of course, Jason Howard was a highly sought-after fugitive from justice.

Two years ago on Riverside Drive, I saw your Grim Reaper or Angel of death. I saw him before he saw me, he was caught off guard – surprised. Did he tell ya that? Have much respect for him and his job. Consider this my application should he need an assistant or a holiday.
March 9th, 2007 

Turns out, Jewel Cleveland had every reason to fear his stepson. Sometime just before or right after Easter of 2004, Jason shot Jewel Cleveland twice in the head.

The gun he’d used was equipped with a crudely made silencer Jason had made himself from a soda bottle filled with liquid — a method learned about while researching the how-to’s on the Internet. Presumably, Jewel — by then an invalid in diapers who was bound to a wheelchair — was the first to go.

Mildred Cleveland, whose body showed signs of having been hog-tied during the attack, took three bullets to the head before her son covered her body in a tarp along with her husband, then buried them both in a single shallow grave in a shed behind the house on their sprawling property in Liberty County.

Evidence shows Jason continued to live in the house, located off Highway 196, for at least a month afterward, and took pains to hide his crime even while getting his first taste of freedom in many years.

Never allowed to smoke in the house while Jewel and Mildred ruled the roost, Jason Howard smoked his fill anywhere he wanted in the place once they were gone, extinguishing the butts in Pepsi cans. He also paid household bills, lovingly tended to family pets, watered Mildred’s indoor plants, and just in case any nosy neighbors or pesky family members decided to drop in unexpectedly, he carefully covered a blood-soaked sofa in the living room with one of his mother’s sheets.

What may have spooked Jason into leaving or propelled him more than 158 miles from the scene of the crime, is anybody’s guess. But what he left behind is indisputable.

According to court records filed with the Office of the Clerk of the Courts of Liberty County, cadaver dogs helped Hinesville lawmen unearth the bodies of Mildred Cleveland, 62, and Jewel Cleveland, 83, on June 15, 2004. Bloody cushions from the sofa had been buried with the elderly couple and their clothing tested positive for gasoline.

Last seen alive in early to mid-April, the couple had been reported missing by a family friend in nearby Cobbtown who had received a letter that read “The house … is now abandoned. Dog, and plants, and goldfish are still inside. Find dog a good indoor home, daily walks, go to local sheriff, take inventory and contact whoever you must.” In another foreboding – and eerily menacing – line the sender wrote, “It’s exactly what it looks like.”

Though unsigned with no return address, the letter was postmarked May 3, 2004 from Macon.

Macon needs a serial killer. Not drunks, drug addicts or fornicators. Could be anybody (victims), Modus operandi. M.O. of the Macon, GA serial killer. Melting zinc pennies to make bullets for those who refuse to accept my pennys [sic] in commerce. Predatory lesbians of convenience stores, drug dealers of vice, cigarettes, liquor, lottery tickets (no robbery)
Jan. 31, 2007 

In the days following the grisly discovery in Gumbranch, Liberty County lawmen continued to identify Jason Howard as “an extremely sensitive witness.”

Privately, it was later revealed, they had quickly begun putting the pieces of the puzzle together. A second letter, also postmarked from Macon, had been mailed to a family member in Florida and the Cleveland’s Windstar van was found at the same Greyhound bus station in Savannah where Jason had been found when he made off with it in 2000. The vehicle had been parked at the terminal for at least three weeks.

Before the summer was over, investigators openly identified Jason as a suspect in news reports from Savannah to Augusta. Yet despite the wide net lawmen spread for him, no one saw hide nor hair from the man who had meticulously hatched then executed a plan to kill his mother and stepfather.

Believing Jason had long since fled the state, Liberty County investigators even reached out to the producers of America’s Most Wanted in 2005, and television crews showed filmed a segment that aired in November of that year. “This is going to make the world such a smaller place for Jason,” the show’s celebrated host, John Walsh said at the time.

Little did the local police, state investigators, U.S. Marshals, John Walsh or anyone else looking for Jason Howard know that he was practically under their nose the entire time. After mailing the go-find-them letters from Macon, he stayed put, assumed the name “Kevin W. Lewis” and began setting up house in a carefully guarded, remote wooded encampment.

Nor did the citizens of Macon have the slightest clue that the scruffy-looking man occasionally walking amongst them, five-finger discounting his way through dollar stores across town, or shopping beside them in the neighborhood Kroger was actually a wanted killer whose case had drawn national attention. A man who spent his late-night and pre-dawn hours rifling through their cars pilfering everything from their personal mail to whatever spare change or paper money he could find. A man who had already killed at least twice — that we know of — and who had a specific “destination, schedule, and a plan” in mind.

“Stole this notebook tonight along with many pencils, pens, coloring pencils and a better backpack. Stole a lot this week … the thrill is gone,” he wrote in an entry dated Dec. 15, 2006. “Don’t need but about ten percent of what I steal. Maybe I will progress to robberies or random acts of violence during this stressful and desperate holiday season.”

Bibb County’s Lt. Michael Kenirey believes Jason was more than capable of both.

In the spring of 2009, while working as a sergeant with the Macon Police Department, Kenirey was assigned to a special patrol to curtail local robberies and thefts. While traveling south on Riverside Drive in the wee, wee hours of March 27, the officer did what his brothers in blue across the country had been unable to do for more than five years – he came face to face with Jason Howard.

Kenirey caught Jason red-handed, pilfering through vehicles at the Enterprise Rent-a-Car located on Riverside. Approaching him “in a stealthy manner,” the officer got his man – who identified himself as Kevin W. Lewis. It was the same name scrawled on three letters in the yellow plastic Dollar Tree bag Jason had on him, along with 2 mini Mag Lites, a pocket knife, a key chain, and some Now and Later candies.

When Kenirey and back-up officers checked the perimeter, they found a blue backpack on a well-worn trail leading to nearby railroad tracks. It contained both the tools of a thief, bolt cutters, vice grips, a screwdriver, a channel-lock wrench — and the weapon of someone with malice of intent, a .50 caliber powder gun. Sticking to his story that he was Kevin W. Lewis from Evansville, Indiana, Jason denied the items were his, saying he was homeless and hungry — just hoping to scrounge up enough change to buy a hot meal. The gun belonged to someone else, he maintained.

“Have you ever seen the movie The Outlaw Josie Wales? That’s what the gun looked like to me, I remember thinking at the time,” the lieutenant says, adding, “I think he was planning on if he encountered someone, or the other way around,  I think he fully planned on using it.”

He was right. In his diaries, “Kevin W. Lewis” makes repeated references to the revolver — which he identifies as a .44 — and his willingness, desire even, to use it. “If cops can use deadly force against those who are allegedly trying to run them over, then why can’t I? Many, many times I’ve had to jump out of the way of vehicles. Pedestrians have the right of way. In America, everyone is entitled to one accidental shooting (of one shot). Gonna start shooting all the people who have tried to run me over.”

Also unbeknownst to the Macon investigator at the time he arrested Jason, his suspect was no stranger to that particular Enterprise lot – and he was a pedestrian (and in Macon) by choice. Almost two years earlier, Jason, a.k.a. Kevin, had lucked up on a brand-new SUV with the key in it and stolen it.

“Got a ’07 Jeep Compass last night, 11:16 p.m., key in, no tag. Hell of a nice vehicle,” Jason wrote in his diary on March 13, 2007. “Makes me want to go to Utah, spring fever and such as that, any kind of a road trip (ways & means). Still I procrastinate. What is motivation? Burning of the camp? A random killing? I love Macon, but I’ve got to go.”

And yet he stayed – and presumably, would have dug his heels in here even deeper if he’d never been caught and extradited back to his home county to face those long outstanding murder charges. Why he didn’t run when he had the getaway car to do so – and just what other crimes, violent or otherwise, Jason Howard may have committed while living on Macon soil remains largely unanswered to date.

But how the questions linger.

About a month after arresting Jason, says Lt. Kenirey, his department got a strange call. A cross-country runner had stumbled on a rather strange sight in the woods – a jeep that appeared to be the center of some sort of makeshift camp – an encampment with, among other oddities, signs that read “Entire camp is infested with lice and tuberculosis.” A closer examination upped the creepy factor by 10.

“He’d obviously gone around town and over time collected items there were … kind of peculiar,” Lt. Kenirey says. “There were peoples’ IDs, a TV in the back of the jeep, there was mail that belonged to other people. My impression was that over time, he was taking stuff from vehicles or wherever, some items that were usable for survival, some that weren’t.”

What kind of items, I ask the detective, noticing that his tone has become a little peculiar as well. “Well,” he responds, “We found body bags still in the plastic, not used, among the collected items.”

Click the journal to view some of the pages!

And here’s something the detective did not know about the quirky camp left behind by Jason Howard. In a diary entry dated April 12, 2007, the fugitive from justice living in our very midst makes reference to “making it back” to the camp with $6,000 in hand, and appears to have been considering a plan to put Macon in his rearview. Though it’s impossible to tell if he actually pulled off a heist with money in hand or was just fantasizing about doing so, in the margins of the same entry he also wrote, “For the reader: On the shelf by the bed on top of the books, there is a sealed jar with a treasure map in it. Enjoy.”

Jason Howard’s “treasure map” – or just what exactly is buried where X marks the spot – remains, for now, a mystery.

The second story of this series, appearing in October in the 11th Hour, will explore Jason Howard’s subsequent trial and his inner world in greater detail. To read select, downloadable entries from the diary, please visit 11thhouronline.com/diary-of-a-madman-revisited.

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