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Diary of a Madman, Part II

Part II in a 4-part series exploring the life and crimes of Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis, and the clues he left behind in the journals he kept while living on the lam here in Macon. Initially charged with the murder of his mother and stepfather, Jason eventually pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter and remains in prison. There are those, however, who continue to believe Jason, known to be mentally ill, had help from a South Georgia accomplice who was questioned but never charged in the case. By Stacey Norwood

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This house that I build: Homes, Houses are built to be functional, beautiful and filled w/love, eventually some of these houses become haunted. This house that I build, I build with pain, agony, torment, despair, hatred and rage. This one is haunted as it’s being constructed. Anticipating the mob’s desire to erase every trace, I’ve deliberately built it so mesmerizingly beautiful that they will be unable to destroy it.
June 9th, 2007
Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis

It’s the houses that give it away first. I’ve been driving for than two hours now on this perfect Indian summer day, having left Macon earlier this morning by way of U.S. Route 16 before exiting onto Highway 57, and finally turning on SR 196. In the most recent leg of the drive, I have been swallowed up by the great green stretches of farmland on either side of this quiet two-lane road, and too lost in the drowsily peaceful thump thump thump of tires on blacktop to notice until it comes on me suddenly what has changed in the scenery. It’s the houses.

From the clusters of homes sitting side by side in-town across the communities I’ve driven through so far (Cobbtown, Collins, Reidsville) to the stoic, serviceable structures located every few miles in the country, most of the family homes I’ve spied with my little eye have been a friendly mix of tin-roofed dogtrots, homey mill houses, and a few gabled Victorians.

But the further south I get, the more I begin to notice the interspersement of long and narrow, almost squatty, ranch-style houses. Most are brick, and almost all are detailed with either white or black wrought-iron trim. I can’t quite put my finger on why they stand out until I realize the last time I saw these kinds of low-roofed homes was in the inland areas of Florida and South Alabama. Those not-quite-coastal places where a hurricane like the one that passed over this neck of the woods just the week before could still pack a wallop with wind and rains if not the ocean’s surge. No sooner is this firing of the synapses sinking in that I realize the patches of earth laid bare here by Hurricane Irma’s recent rude assail is not the famous red clay of Georgia to which I’ve become accustomed. It’s sand.

When I had hopped off the interstate a few miles back at Wiregrass Junction, it definitely didn’t look or feel or smell like Macon. After all, we don’t have any gas stations where you can fill up and visit a petting zoo during the same pitstop (“Pay Inside Store: The Best Dollar Spent on I-16!), and you can’t buy homemade watermelon or blackberry “shine” in any convenience store I’ve been to. But I still hadn’t been able to put my finger on what natives to Middle Georgia mean when they say “South Georgia” in that peculiar knowing tone reserved for referencing the same.

As I toodle along on this lonely highway, it’s beginning to feel more and more like the entrance to some strange no man’s land where Revelations-sized swarms of bugs fly into every oncoming windshield with the suicidal speed and zeal of little kamikaze pilots. No one here but me, I notice, seems compelled to slow down and gawk at the eerily lifelike lynx air-sprayed on the side of Bobcat’s Diner, or appears alarmed by what precisely might be for sale inside the trailer that has “LIVE BAIT” spray painted on the front end.

Along the side of the highway and beyond, acre upon acre of Georgia pines tower over shrubby little palmetto bushes and not a soul in sight waves back at the stranger passing through in the bug-bedazzled white Nissan. Yet face-to-face encounters are so friendly I’m sort of waiting with my breath held to be invited to a family reunion or a community cookout. To almost every man over the age of 19 here I am “Honey,” while the women address me simply as “Shug” – no one asks me my name or where I went to school. Mile by mile as I get further away from Macon and closer to the “Golden Isles,” the dots are beginning to connect.

Ahhh. So this is South Georgia.

What I didn’t say years ago when minding my own business. I was accosted by a group of angry, hostile Christians disturbing my peace of mind … What I didn’t say:  I believe in two places, as now I don’t want to be where you are. I certainly don’t want to be where you are for eternity. I hope that you enjoy being with like-minded people for eternity, angry, hostile, jealous, slanderous, ignorant, easily led, spiteful, insecure. Wherever it is you’re going, I’m going opisite [sic]”
June 9th, 2007
Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis

All the while I’m driving, I’m trying to imagine Jason Howard fleeing headlong in the other direction more than 13 years ago, when he was on the run from the law and accused of murdering his own mother and elderly stepfather. When he was, above all else, desperate to leave behind all memory of everyone and everything he’d known his entire life in South Georgia. I know that last part to be true, because in his rambling, frequently bizarre journal entries (invest in donkey farm – invest heavily in donkeys), which I’ve been reading and re-reading for months now, Jason repeatedly writes about his longing to be “free of the past” and to make a fresh start someplace, anyplace else.

Though the diaries make frequent references to bullets, guns, and violence (going on Red Alert, kill mode, taking no chances, shoot first…), there is no explicit mention of the two bodies he’d left behind on his family’s sprawling Liberty County estate in the summer of 2004. But, as witness testimony would later show, it was Jason’s written words that first sent lawmen looking for Mildred Cleveland, 62, and Jewel Cleveland, 83. Unsigned letters mailed from Macon in May of that year to a family friend in Cobbtown, as well as relatives in Florida, informed the recipients the Cleveland’s home in Gumbranch had been “abandoned” and included details of where to find the spare key.

When police entered the home, located at 6006 Hwy. 196 West shortly thereafter, they in fact found it empty of human inhabitants – but filled with evidence that someone had recently lived, and possibly died, there.

Along with Mildred’s purse, which contained her driver license and credit cards, police also found the wheelchair and walker Jewel had required for mobility after suffering a stroke a year or two before he was killed. According to a line-item list of more than 187 pieces of evidence the prosecution collected in the case, items found at the scene where the double homicide occurred included a “damaged” couch in the living room with two of its cushions missing and samples taken from the carpet beside it. The “damage” in both cases turned out to be bloodstains.

Investigators also found the family dog, Tina, mentioned in the anonymous letters inside the house. Someone had left her with extra rations of food and water, as well as an envelope with money inside to be used to keep Tina “out of county animal shelter.” Among the items tagged and photographed in the bedroom identified as Jason’s: Bullets in a jar, rope in a drawer, a pistol case, parts for a .22, .30-.30 bullets and a bullet belt.

Molly, a cadaver dog brought to the home on June 15, 2004, repeatedly “alerted on an area” in a storage shed close to the main house. It didn’t take much digging to find Mildred and Jewel buried side by side in a single shallow grave, along with the missing, blood-stained sofa cushions. Both had been shot in the head, Jewel twice and Mildred three times, and wrapped in tarps prior to their burial. Ligature marks on Mildred’s body, an autopsy later revealed, showed signs of having been tied up at some point, as well as “trauma to the skull.”

Clothing worn by both victims tested positive for gasoline.

Heartbeat: Born into, raised and schooled in an angry, hostile environment, I was kept in a constant state of fear and dread, a rapid heartbeat became my operational norm. Whenever removed from this environment such as in the tranquil environment of a doctor’s office, my rate of heartbeat would be surprisingly low, notably so. Having biologically adapted to this altered state, I would show a “normal heartbeat” during staged acts of hostility which would be mistaken for a lack of caring.
June 9th, 2007
Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis

According to Mildred’s obituary, she was “a native of Jesup, GA and lived the past 40 years in Hinesville. She received her BS degree in Elementary Education from Georgia Southern in 1969 and her Master’s degree from Armstrong Savannah State in 1976. She taught school for 30 years, the last 20 years at Collins Elementary School, and was named Teacher of the Year for 1988-1989.” Jewel, Mildred’s second husband – was retired Army, a soldier and veteran of two wars who had earned the Purple Heart in combat. The husbands and wife shared a mutual love of traveling and being in the outdoors, their death notices read.

But who Mildred and Jewel Cleveland had truly been in life varies, depending on who you ask. And I’ve asked plenty on this sunny September day. Though I have driven down more dirt and gravel roads than Lucinda Williams ever dreamed of singing about, and knocked on door after door in the tiny community of Gumbranch, I’m not having much luck. Either the folks answering their doors are either recently relocated military families connected to nearby Fort Stewart or they simply didn’t know much about either the victims or their convicted killer, they tell me.

“They kept to themselves,” I am told – more than once. But something about the way some of the people I talk to say it tells me there is an unspoken paragraph dangling at the end of that oft-repeated sentence. And being from a teeniny country town myself, I know “they were very private” is code for something with a juicy hunk of meat on the bone. Mindful of the fact that I’m in rural Georgia and a total stranger asking nosy questions, I find that not pushing too hard and letting all the sugar in my Southern accent drip like so much cane syrup gets better results.

Janice, a neighbor who lives a mile or so away from 6006 Highway 196 W, give or take a dirt road or two, speaks hesitantly, telling me she’s not from the area, and that she had only relocated here a few years before the murders occurred. “All I know are the rumors I’ve heard,” she says unexpectedly. About Jason Howard, I ask? “No,” she responds. About the Clevelands.

Oh. What kind of rumors, I ask. “That the children were abused.” By Mr. Cleveland? “Well yes … and by her too.”

Oh. She sends me (politely) packing at that point, giving me detailed directions to the Cleveland homestead. Nervous I might end up on the business end of a bull in some pasture – or worse – I hadn’t even bothered asking Siri. Turning off on the dirt road “after the curve, right past the dump” to try and find the house, I see nothing but a log cabin and a thicket of woods. According to Janice, the Cleveland’s brick house is somewhere behind it, but I can’t spot it from the road. I decide to keep driving and find, a little to my surprise, that are some fairly swanky new brick homes tucked away back here.

I finally spot an oddly elegant looking gentleman outside one of them, hoe in hand. His ballcap reads “Jekyll Island” and his manner is friendly. After going through my opening spiel for the umpteenth time today, I learn his name is Bill Barnett, and that he both a retired Army chaplain and a 1961 graduate of Mercer University in Macon. Small world.

The Clevelands had been his neighbors for years, he tells me, and though he didn’t know him very well, he had talked to Jewel a few times about this and that. Good neighbor, he says, though a “hard man.” Hard how, I ask? “He reminded me of a sergeant in the Army,” Bill says. Which is odd. Jewel Cleveland’s obituary listed his rank as Sergeant First Class.

What about Jason, I prod. “The boy? Didn’t really see him. He was gone a lot,” Bill says, adding that while he hadn’t heard whispers of abuse at the hands of either Jewel or Mildred, he wouldn’t be terribly surprised if the hearsay I’m asking about was true. All he could say for sure, he tells me, is that Jason hadn’t acted alone in the 2004 murders.

Come again?

“Have you seen him?” Bill asks. Only in mugshots and news pictures, I tell him. “Scrawny fella. He couldn’t have killed both of them and buried them by himself.” Jewel, he adds, weighed somewhere this side of 250 pounds and was a tall, overbearing man – even after the stroke. Mildred (the victim who bore signs of being restrained) was about 150 pounds, Bill says. Both were physically bigger than Jason, he insists – which is pretty accurate. When Jason was arrested in Macon in 2009 after being caught rifling through rental cars on Riverside Drive, his weight was listed as 180 pounds and his height at 6’0. When he we went to trial in 2012 in Liberty County, however, jail records clock him in at 5’10 and 140 pounds. Currently an inmate in a medium security prison in Abbeville, Jason’s Georgia Dept. of Corrections information sheet describes him as 5’10 and 155 pounds.

His maximum possible release date is listed as April 11, 2029.

I was reared by my grandparents until I was 15 years old. Their murders dredged up memories of verbal and emotional abuse resulting in counseling from 2004 -2007. Then (I) started counseling again in 2010 after moving back to the area. Though I was abused by both of them, I don’t feel anyone deserves to die at the hands of their own child. I have dealt with anger issues, times of deep depression, and memories surfacing that have been suppressed for years. Emotional distress, times of withdrawal from family, friends and work – I have endured panic attacks. There is a fear of checking locks, watching faces of every man I pass while shopping or eating out. In 2006, I was in the mall parking lot in Macon, GA and spotted Jason Howard. I reported my sighting to the U.S. Marshalls. I felt all along he was in Macon. After the sighting, I was cautious of leaving my home, because I lived in Macon.
– Shannon Mooney (Granddaughter)
Georgia Crime Victim Impact Statement

Bill Barnett isn’t the only person who believes Jason may have had help killing the Clevelands before covering up the crime and hightailing it to Macon.

In a crime victim impact statement filed with the court, the Clevelands’ granddaughter, Shannon Mooney, writes of unhappy memories of living with the couple, as well as suffering “a lot of apprehension” after they were killed and the search for Jason began. The subsequent manhunt was so intense America’s Most Wanted aired a segment about the crime in 2005, the year before Shannon says she spotted Jason here in Macon and reported it to lawmen looking for him.

In the statement Shannon also writes, “If Jason committed this crime, I want him taken care of so that he doesn’t harm anyone else. However, there is some doubt that he acted alone – possibly there may have been coersions [SIC].”

“Who do you think may have helped Jason?” I had asked Bill when we chatted in his backyard. “I have no idea,” he’d told me. But had the murder case gone to trial, Bill might have been able to call the same name the defense spelled out in brief filed with the court and stamped March 15, 2012 – just one week before the trial halted unexpectedly and Jason Howard accepted a plea deal for voluntary manslaughter.

The brief had been submitted in opposition to the state’s motion to prohibit defense testimony “that others are responsible for the crimes set forth in the above-referenced indictment.”

The brief names the alleged accomplice, a South Georgia man who “has consistently tried to shift blame to the Defendant.” A man whose polygraph results were, the brief continues, ruled “inconclusive” when he was questioned in the case. A fellow who, though no relation to either of the victims, stood to inherit “a substantial portion” of Jewel Cleveland’s not inconsiderable estate, while Mildred would inherit the bulk and Jewel’s biological children would receive “exactly $1.00” each.

“However, if Mr. Cleveland is not predeceased by his wife (who is much younger than him),” this man “would receive nothing … as Mildred Cleveland does not provide for him in her will.”

In other words, Mildred would have to die too.

Part I in this series can be found in the online version of The 11th Hour. In the next installment, we will explore more about the background of Jason Howard’s case and conviction, as well as his life both in Liberty County before the double homicide, and after he fled to Macon. 

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