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The Final Installment: Diary of a Madman

Jason Howard (alias Kevin W. Lewis) remains in prison under a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and is eligible for release no later than 2029. He has denied all ownership of the journals left behind at the Macon campsite where he lived while on the run.

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From the day he first handed a bank teller a note demanding all the 100s, 50s, and 20s she had in her drawer, Jason Howard has damned himself with his own words.

That was May 18, 1995, at the First Bank of Coastal Georgia in Richmond Hill. The hand-scrawled message, prosecutors say, informed the frightened clerk that he had a gun, a bomb, and the intent to kill if his demands were not met. “I will feel no guilt in killing anyone who interferes with my plans,” the note read.

The gun, a loaded Glock, was real. The homemade bomb was not. Though fused together, it wasn’t wired to blow, by all accounts, and whether because the bomb was a decoy or the result of Jason Howard’s ineptitude with explosives is anybody’s guess. But in the cold, hard facts department, a bank robbery was, in fact committed, violence was threatened, and Jason Howard left with the loot. He got as far away as the parking lot, where police penned him in as he attempted his getaway.

     And just as they would some 17 years later, Jason Howard’s written words were enough to demonstrate murderous intent, lawmen say, which in both cases would help send him to prison.

When Jason was released from the Federal penitentiary, he ended up at his mother and stepfather’s home in Gumbranch – by default. He had expressed a wish to live with his father, Morris Howard – just as he and his brother had done when his parents had divorced years before.

This time, though, Jason’s stepmother, Shelby Howard, wouldn’t hear of it. Known to be mentally ill to the extreme, and said to be given to paranoia and threats of violence, Jason was persona non grata at the Howard residence.

His mother Mildred Cleveland and stepfather, Jewel Cleveland, were equally reluctant.  So much so they lived in the home proper, located at 6006 Highway 196 W, while Jason lived in a less trafficked part of the house – a room where he was padlocked in at night. The Clevelands let Jason out during the day, though, and he was expected to serve as a caretaker for Jewel. It was, according to court records, the subject of some contention and the match that lit the fuse and which led to the explosive events just after Easter in 2004.

Sorry it had to be like this. I regret nothing that I’ve done.
I regret only what I didn’t do.
June 6th, 2008
Jason Howard, alias Kevin W. Lewis

According to the court transcripts that were to come many years later, Jewel Cleveland survived a severe stroke in 2003 – barely. After that, he slept in a “hospital kind’a bed,” and needed a wheelchair to get around, and by the spring of 2004 the 82-year-old was wearing diapers. Though 20 years his junior, Mildred was a foot shorter and a good 50 to 60 pounds lighter than her husband – so the job of caring for the infirm former Army sergeant became Jason’s responsibility.

“You’ll hear testimony that the defendant has been receiving a social security disability check. And his mother and stepfather managed that money for him. And what they would do is they would give him an allowance They would give him something less than all his check. And in exchange, he had responsibilities. He had duties around the house. And one of those duties was to care for Mr. Cleveland’s personal hygiene … part of the defendant’s job around the house was to change Mr. Cleveland and to help him go to the bathroom, and he didn’t like those. He didn’t like those chores that they expected him to do.”

Jason wanted to control his own money with no strings attached, family members later told police. His mother and stepfather’s refusal led to more than one bitter argument too many.

      The last time anyone in Gumbranch or nearby Hinesville saw hide nor hair of Mildred and Jewel appears to be around Easter of 2004. A month or two later, unsigned handwritten letters mailed to family members out of state and a family friend in a neighboring community sent lawmen scrambling to the couple’s home.

Inside, they found the TV on and the family dog making itself at home with plenty of food and water. Mildred’s purse (and all its contents) were present and accounted for, along with Jewel’s sizeable gun collection. Officers and family friend Wanda Parnell also found a letter in the living room containing money and instructions to care for the dog.

Before the end the day, a cadaver dog located the Clevelands remains inside a single shallow grave in a shed at the rear of the house. Both had been shot in the head covered, at some point, in gasoline, wrapped in plastic tarps, and buried.

Inside a week the couple’s van was located in the parking lot of a Greyhound bus station in Savannah. By then, unbeknownst to anyone, Jason was camped out in the woods in Macon – where he would stay, alternatively sleeping under the stars or in a stolen Jeep for the next 5 years.

In the first week of January ’05, the temperatures were mid
70s for highs and mid 40s for lows, under blue skies by
day and starry skies by night. In that week, I saw one snake
sunning itself, one mosquito and the night was filled
with the chirping of frogs. I was concerned that a sudden
cold snap would surprise the frogs, catching them unprepared
and freezing them to death. I was concerned about a massive
frog kill-off that would affect the food chain come springtime.
I was wrong … frogs are tough, and don’t need me worrying
about them. Even so, I keep them in my prayers.
Dec. 26, 2006

When it comes to the life and deeds of Mr. Jason Morris Howard, Flannery O’Connor couldn’t have written it better herself. Which is to say, the plotline is a pure Southern gothic descent into those dark, damp, dirty places we can’t resist rubbernecking at, no matter how grotesque the visage may be.

Journals and letters found in Jason’s possession after he was caught breaking into rental cars in Macon in 2009 make it clear he suffered from mental illness (today, my 4’ king snake woke me up by nuzzling and investigating my earlobe as food) – and also violent tendencies (Stick, brick, knife or gun … under the right conditions, pretty pretty will be thrown into the trunk and taken for a ride. New opportunities, nothing bleeds like the scalp baby). The numerous items found there by police after his arrest included random items he had stolen as well as two unused body bags.

While there can be absolutely no doubt that Jason was involved in the murder of his mother and stepfather, speculation remains rampant that he didn’t act alone. Though Jason’s defense attorney has refused numerous requests for comment regarding the case, his stance a week before the 2012 trial began was that the motive was old-fashioned greed. Not on Jason’s part though.

The motion named a pawnshop owner 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.” The same man who “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,” the motion stated.

Stamp, coin and gun collections owned by Jewel that don’t seem to be entirely accounted for and may have fallen into who knows who’s hands. But the property was in Mildred’s name, and Jason is the heir apparent. Not that he stands to gain from it.

According to a legal ad that ran in The Coastal Courier on Nov. 4, 2015, the estate – now so overgrown it’s difficult to even see the house – was up on the block for auction due to unpaid property taxes. “Current Record Holder: Howard, Jason M. CRH Address: 6006 Highway 196 West Hinesville, GA 31313 Amount Due: $2,155.35 Tax Years Due: 2014, 2013 ,2012 ,2011 ,2010 Deed Book: 1033/463 Legal Description: All that tract of land being in the: State of Georgia, County of Liberty, 1756th GMD, being 51.45 acres, more or less,” the ad reads.

Other family members who submitted letters to the court as part of the trial indicated bygones were bygones as far as the Clevelands’ estate went – but hard feelings remained about their murder.

“I talked to Jack yesterday and he and I are in agreement that we have no claim to submit for their death,” writes a man who identifies himself as Uncle Harry in a letter written to the Cleveland’s granddaughter, Shannon Mooney. “However, he and I both did not like the fact this MF murdered Dad as he did. If he’d just waited a while, I am sure Dad would have succumbed on his own, considering what his health was when he was killed…Therefore, I hope he’s found guilty and sentenced to the death penalty. If so, and there’s death by firing squad, I will the first to submit my name and a member of the squad…I will not charge the state for anything, even the bullet I use.”

Jason remains in prison under a 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and is eligible for release no later than 2029. He has denied all ownership of the journals left behind at the Macon campsite where he lived while on the run. The Georgia Department of Corrections, however, lists Kevin W. Lewis – the acknowledged author of the diaries – as one of Jason’s known aliases.

Foolishness, wasted time, no intent in journals or book. Bury it, bury the past, can’t move forward until the past is buried. Depression, wasted time. No plan. Foolishness. “This Is How I Wasted Two Years of My Life,” reads a 2007 entry. “New book … At least I know this area well as a place to hide and rest … starting over with no plan, no clue, no goal. Drift. Spiritually adrift. Foolishness. Shake it off, be free, to drift. Lost faith. All is lost.”

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