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Diary of a Madman – Part III

Part III in a 4-part series exploring the life and crimes of Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis, imprisoned since 2012 for the point-blank shooting deaths of his elderly mother and stepfather in their Liberty County home. After eluding capture for nearly 5 years, Jason was finally nabbed by local cops here in Macon in 2009. While questions seem to linger about the double homicide, clues left behind in Jason’s own words leave little doubt that he was, and no doubt remains, plagued by severe mental illness.   

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Abductors: Don’t misunderstand who I am. I have a routine and a schedule. I also have the self-discipline and organization to keep track of the time … and I know when I’m missing time. That last time really pissed me off because you took me with an empty stomach and returned me with an empty stomach, you could have fed me. It is arrogant and inconsiderate of you to abduct me without my consent or an explaination [sic]. Perhaps with an explaination [sic], I could offer my consent. I would request the following: 

1. a human female companion
2. new teeth (installed)
3. repair of soft tissue injury in right elbow
4. $500,000 dollars in U.S. currency (10s & 20s)
5. new and legitimate identification documents
6. request to view genetic offspring
I feel that you are making a profit off of me without my consent. I ask that you do the right thing.
– Abductee, March 18th, 2009
Letter found in Jason Howard’s possession during his arrest

“Dee says she’s hearing the voices again.”

Though I was but knee-high to a grasshopper when I overheard my mother talking on the telephone to her sister, I remember the conversation vividly. Even now, I can shut my eyes and recall the prim flower-printed housecoat Mama was wearing. I remember clearly how the long stretchy cord connecting the phone’s mustard-colored handset to the rotary dial casing mounted on our kitchen wall looped and swooped and tightened in step with my mother’s tense, troubled pacing as she talked.

I was (and admittedly remain) a little pitcher with big ears, and I had long since perfected the art of lurking around corners to eavesdrop during my mother’s almost daily phone calls to her sister, my Aunt Nancy. But this call wasn’t the usual exchange of recipes and dinner ideas (it’s called pepper steak and you serve it over rice) or next-steps plotting in the latest family squabble (well then, Daddy can just sit over there drunk by himself this Christmas). Even as a kid, I knew that if my great aunt Dee was “hearing the voices again,” that meant she was having another one of her “episodes.”

What I didn’t fully comprehend until much later in life, of course, was that Dee was a diagnosed schizophrenic, and her waking delusions included being unshakably convinced the food she was served, even the water she drank, was being poisoned by unknown hands. In her lucid moments, which were prolonged, pleasant, and carefully regulated by anti-psychotic meds, Dee loved to paint, play the piano, and tinker in her rather glorious rose garden. She let me and my cousins stay up late and watch movies when we spent the night, and she taught us the favorite dance of her youth – the Charleston. She was fun. But when Dee was having an episode, the light in her eyes would diminish into hateful little pinpoints, and she became withdrawn and hollow in a way that was frightening.

As a kid, I was aware Dee had spent much of her adult life at “Bryce,” and that she was terrified of being sent back there. I didn’t know then, of course the facility was Alabama’s oldest, largest and somewhat infamous mental institution. But I heard Dee tell enough stories about her time there to make it clear to me Bryce Hospital was no place I ever wanted to end up. It was only later in life that I learned the heartbreaking details of the electroshock therapy Dee endured behind those institutional walls, and how, very likely, many of the terrible stories of abuse she would tell us were probably true. After Dee’s death, Mama told me also how my great-grandfather, Pop, hung his head and cried when Dee’s doctors wanted to cut into her beautiful artist’s brain and lobotomize her – a “cure” he agonized over, and ultimately refused to allow.

Reflecting on it now, I remember how Dee’s “episodes” could bring out a spitting meanness that was never present in her otherwise. She could say cruel things – she even slapped Libba, the mentally and functionally incapacitated sister who lived with her, once or twice. But Libba, (likely autistic and definitely the family pet) would just tell Mama or Aunt Nancy what Dee had done and sort of giggle when they both set in on her. I don’t recall, however, Dee even one time committing a truly violent act. I asked my brother, several years older than me, and he doesn’t either.

It doesn’t take much Googling of reputable medical sources and scholarly psychiatric journals to discover the debate about whether schizophrenics are prone to violence appears to be divided between factions. Some mental health care providers maintain it’s uncommon while others cite empirical evidence that certain subsets of schizophrenics present as overtly dangerous.

Where Jason Howard falls in the mix – crazy like a fox or an untreated psychiatric and criminal disaster waiting to happen –  is still vexingly unclear.
On 05-05-2004 at 19:53 Deputy James Caines was dispatched to the area of 6006 W. Highway 196 in reference to suspicious acts. Upon my arrival, I spoke with the complainant, Mrs. Wanda Parnell and she stated that she received a letter in the mail that was postmarked from Macon, GA. She stated that she needed to go to the residence and feed the fish and dog. In the letter, it advised her there was a key on the passenger side front tire of the Model A vehicle for the residence … She stated that Mrs. Cleveland and her husband Jewel Cleveland were older and had a mentally disturbed son that had threatened them before. She stated she had not heard from the Clevelands since Easter … I entered the residence and found the TV left on and the dog there; when I looked in a bedroom with a pistol and a rifle with ammunition laying beside it … Mrs. Parnell located in the living room an envelope containing money that had a note on it to use the money so the dog would not be taken to the animal shelter.
Liberty County Incident Report, Case #04060843
Marked “Internal Copy”

It’s been a long day in Liberty County, and not the most productive. Though God knows I love a scenic drive, I had been unprepared for the length of time getting from Macon to the Hinesville County Courthouse would take. When I finally make it to the Superior Court Clerk’s office just after 1 p.m.,  the employee who’s been assigned to pull the court records in Jason Howard’s 2012 court case informs me she can’t leave me alone with the records and most of them are unavailable for viewing anyway. They’ve been sealed by a judge’s order.

As though to prove her point, she lugs out a cumbersome cardboard file box and starts plopping bulky manila envelopes on the table before us. Each is tantalizingly marked “Evidence” yet spitefully sealed shut – I can touch but I cannot look. And though she is as professional and pleasant as she can be – despite the fact that my late arrival and my very presence is causing her to miss her lunch hour – I am taken off-guard and close to getting out of sorts. After all, I just drove three and half hours through the South Georgia swelter and a hells half acre of swarming “love bugs” committing blatant, insecty congress right out in the open and all over my car. I can feel my back bowing up ever so slightly as she tells me “you’re not allowed to look at” for the umpteeth time.

When it’s finally made clear to me, though, that the evidence in the case has been sealed because Jason Howard pled guilty, the light comes on and I relax. Ohhhhhhhh. “You mean the case never actually went to the jury?” I ask. She nods like a proud mother whose somewhat slow child finally got picked for something at school. By the time I have to leave (because the courthouse is closing), I am weighted down with questions – including how a guy mentally ill enough to receive a Social Security check every month could be found competent to stand trial. Not to mention how in the world a double murder case had gotten pled down to voluntary manslaughter and 20 years in prison. Jason’s court-appointed attorney, still a public defender in Liberty County, had already declined to answer any questions about the case and comments from the former prosecutor were limited mostly to vague references to a less than case-closed body of evidence.

As I’m heading out, I notice a group of deputies on security detail huddled together at the security checkpoint located just inside the entranceway. I’m three steps away from the exit before I turn around and take a bead on of the older officers. “Hey, by any chance, were you in the department when Jason Howard was convicted a few years ago for killing his mama and step-daddy?” I ask. He sure was, he says. He was even in the courtroom when Jason entered his guilty plea “completely out of the blue.”

Huh. Here I am, just about to leave Liberty County all but empty-handed, and just like that, somebody drops a steak on my plate.

A few minutes more of conversation with the good-natured deputy yields some scuttlebutt about the victims (“they were a little weird, to tell you the truth”) and that as soon as Jason Howard heard Wanda Parnell testify she would “never send that little dog to the animal shelter” the accused murderer tapped his lawyer on the shoulder and whispered something in his ear.  Both men left the courtroom shortly thereafter, returning after a brief recess with an announcement that “shocked everyone sitting in the courtroom,” the deputy tells me.

“It was all over the dog. As soon as he found out that dog was gonna be ok, he pleaded guilty.”

The defendant in this matter requests that the court would order the Liberty County Jail to remove the defendant from the jail’s general population and place the defendant into an isolation cell … the defendant feels that he was deliberately placed in a screamin’ boogaloo cell to disrupt his ability to work on his defense, to adversely affect his health, and to possibly provoke a violent incident.
– Submitted to the Clerk of Superior Court, Liberty County, Jason M. Howard, Dec. 6, 2010

Jason Howard’s 11th-hour concession to prosecutors does seems puzzling. Particularly as it fell on the heels of a barrage of correspondence from Jason directly to prosecutors so copious, the district attorney’s office added the reams of letters into evidence, dubiously noting the jail mail “supports competency.”

And then there was that eyebrow-raising motion filed by Jason’s own attorney a week prior to the plea deal asking the court to allow testimony that “others are responsible for the crimes set forth.” The motion named “Kenneth Manning” who was “in no way related to Jewel or Mildred Cleveland” yet who “has a remainder interest in one-half of the entire estate per Mr. Cleveland’s will.

“Kenneth Manning further believed that he was entitled to acreage owned by Mr. Jewel Cleveland immediately upon his passing and actively sought to gain title to the acreage … Upon discovery of the bodies and before being granted lawful authority to conduct business on behalf of the estate (he) took virtually every vehicle from the Cleveland family home to his residence in Wayne County.”

Even more directly, the motion claimed Kenneth Manning – who referred to Jewel Cleveland as a “silent partner” in his pawn shop business – “had a detailed knowledge of the Cleveland’s guns and other personal property including a stamp collection, a coin collection, and where Mr. Cleveland kept his cash.”

Mildred Cleveland, however, had not listed Kenneth Manning as an heir to her estate, the motion states. “Mr. Manning clearly has a financial motive to commit the crime and needs Mildred Cleveland to predecease her husband in order for him to receive anything.”

Coupled with the contention that the pawn shop merchant had failed to pass a polygraph test, Kenneth Manning had “consistently tried to shift blame to the Defendant, even speculating as to a possible motive,” the defense motion continues.

Which is a notable point. Because in all my scouring over court records and news reports, I can find no clear-cut evidence that even the prosecution had zeroed in an obvious motive.

Hello friend! Don’t be afraid, we are now friends. When I was short of time one of the last things I did was to put my spirit into this bottle … I’ve now attached myself to you. My name is Kevin, we’re gonna be good friends. I like camel cigarettes, black coffee, Pepsi, cake, pizza and the television show “la femme Nakita (not the movie). We’re gonna get along just fine. Where there was once one, there are now two, we are two me an’ you. You will find that I’m a good advisor, don’t be afraid to talk to me, what’s good for you is good for me. I’m not going back into the bottle. If you disrespect me like that, I will cause you extreme pain (long lasting). We are friends. Let’s eat. I love you & life.
– Second letter found in Jason Howard’s possession, 2009
Discovered scrolled inside a plastic bottle

When I was first handed the journals that led me to Liberty County, my own family experience was all that I really knew about the kind of mental illness so severe it can likely never be cured, only contained.

Written under the alias Kevin W. Lewis, the diaries Jason had maintained while on the run from the law and hiding out in the woods of Macon detail the inner workings of his mind and depict a break with reality so bone-deep it’s chilling to read. The very ink on each page fairly drips with an unhinged lunacy that ranges from the mildly delusional (Paul Harvey is triggering the sleepers) to the wildly paranoid.

“SHIT!! Oh SHIT! See what happens when I lower my guard … Last night I got back at 12:30 a.m., heavy drizzle, rained all day heavy at times,” reads an entry dated Dec. 31, 2006. “At 5 p.m., I went to get a load of drinking water, when I noticed that in my trail someone had set up a huge snare, either man or deer-sized. It was very skillfully done, very impressive, skills beyond my own…going on Red Alert, Kill mode. Should’ve known better – yeah while I’m lying in bed coloring “sunshine and Love” somebody else was on my turf laying a trap.”

I know from talking with the Macon investigator who apprehended Jason Howard that his “bed” was a brand-new Jeep he’d stolen from the same Enterprise rental center on Riverside where he was ultimately apprehended. His “turf” was an encampment plastered with hand-scrawled signs warning any encroachers of the lice, tuberculosis and AIDS “infestations” that permeated the place.

The detective had also noted Jason’s camp was littered with can after 5-gallon can of gasoline, ostensibly siphoned from the same automobiles he’d been scrounging around in and stealing from to survive. With both a means of escape (the Jeep) and the fuel needed to make a run for it, how, I wondered, had Jason Howard came to be mired down in Macon for years, living “on the wing” as police called it, less than a 3-hour drive from a brutal, bloody crime scene that made him the subject of a national manhunt?

Had he been stranded for reasons unknown or simply trapped in the snare of his broken mind?

Though I can find no paperwork detailing Jason’s specific diagnosis, the prosecutor in the case had told me his mother referred to her son as a “paranoid schizophrenic” when she reported a missing family she believed Jason had absconded with a few years before the murder. She also described him as dangerous. But then again, members of Mildred’s family describe both her and Jewel as abusive in pre-trial court filings, and neighbors in the community concur, albeit mostly in whispers.

Even die-hard fans of America’s Most Wanted seemed to feel a rare sympathy after viewing the 2005 segment detailing the double murder and seeking leads for Jason’s whereabouts. In an online AMW fan forum, a man using the moniker “Scumhunter” writes, “A lot of these guys diagnosed with schizophrenia or other types of mental illness oftentimes should have been in some sort of mental health clinic. I think Jason Howard was a great example of this – because it’s rough for any parent to handle a child or young adult with mental illness – but according to AMW’s re-enactment, Howard was an adult living with two elderly parents who ALSO seemed to not be able to completely take care of themselves. I’m not saying they deserved to die, but they were constantly nagging and making a guy with a mental disorder wait on them hand on foot.”

All of which leads me to the one question I can’t seem to shake about Jason Howard and his twisty-turny case: Just how much justice was truly served with that guilty plea?

In the fourth and final upcoming installment of Diary of a Madman, we will delve into Jason Howard current-day status as a Georgia prison inmate as well the probate dispute surrounding Jewel and Mildred Cleveland’s estate.


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