Racheyl Brinson

Shelbey Thornburg Shelbey Thornburg
Date:
Sunday, November 25, 2001
Crime:
Suspected Murder
Location:

Woodbine, GA

Age:

32

Racheyl Smith Brinson was having problems in her marriage. Steve Brinson was allegedly an abusive husband. There were rumors that Steve was once again cheating on Racheyl. Witnesses report having seen bruises on Racheyl, and police were called many times out to their home to address domestic disturbances. Steve and Racheyl had a toddler; Racheyl had hoped having a child would fix their marriage, according to witnesses.

On Sunday, November 25th, 2001, Racheyl told at least three people that she was going to tell Steve that she wanted a divorce. He had been staying at their campsite at the Mumford Island Hunting Club in Woodbine, GA. She dropped their son off at her mother's house at 2:40 PM that day. She planned to go hunting at the club, and to confront her husband.

Steve Brinson's Story
After sighting in their guns, Steve's story is that they went out to hunt together. They had each had been drinking beer. He went to his tree stand, and she went to hers. At about 6:00PM, he said, he went to go find Racheyl at her stand. He found her body lying face down at the foot of a different stand; one that hunters had stopped using years before because it was deemed unsafe.

According to Steve, he called 911 and then called out on the radio for help. A friend responded to the scene. Steve stated that he began CPR as instructed by 911. When EMTs arrived, they took over CPR. They never revived her.

Investigation
The Camden County Coroner, L.W. Bruce, ruled Racheyl Brinson's death and accident. Officially, she died of blunt force head trauma due to falling from a tree stand, complicated by a high blood alcohol level. An autopsy was performed by Dr. Lora Darrisaw. No photographs or radiographs were taken by the medical examiner. She later admitted that had she known about the domestic abuse, she would have performed a more detailed investigation. But, she stated, because the coroner told her Racheyl had fallen from a tree stand, she just went with that.

No thorough investigation into Racheyl's death was done by the Camden County Sheriff's department. The Sheriff at the time, Bill Smith, was related to Steve Brinson; they were cousins. Sheriff Smith was known to have protected Steve Brinson, according to witnesses.

Theory:
According to Steve Brinson, Racheyl was found face down on top of her rifle. The rifle, according to him, was under her right shoulder. There's no mention of any bruising on Racheyl's shoulder, or anywhere else on her body. Curiously, Racheyl's pants were unsnapped and unzipped. EMTs all stated that they did not do that. According to them, they would cut clothing off if it were necessary.

Racheyl sustained a fracture to her skull that extended from right to left through the right and left petrous bones. Her right clavicle was fractured, and there were multiple rib fractures on the right side.

There wasn't evidence under Racheyl's nails to suggest that she tried to grab onto anything as she fell. Add in the fact that there wasn't any bruising from the rifle, and many witnesses don't believe Racheyl fell from the stand.

Further, multiple witnessed report that they overheard Steve Brinson tell his father, "Pop, I really f***ed up this time." Another witness stated they overheard Steve say to his father, "I really f***ed up!"

The theory that has been reported to me by multiple witnesses is that Steve and Racheyl Brinson got into a heated argument at their camp. Presumably, Racheyl told Steve that she wanted a divorce. He became enraged, as he frequently did according to witnesses. As she turned to talk away, he grabbed her by the top of her jeans, and swung her around violently into a tree. The force unsnapped and unzipped her jeans. She struck the tree with her right side, fracturing her skull, clavicle, and ribs. She was knocked unconscious.

Not know what to do, according to the theory, Steve took Racheyl's lifeless body, and staged it at the bottom of an unsafe tree stand. He then dialed 911.

Death Scene Photos

Case Documents

Georgia v. Steve Brinson
04/04/1989

1989.04.04-Georgia-v.-Steve-Brinson-

Domestic Disturbance
07/22/2001

2001.07.22-911_Call_Domestic_Disturbance

Welfare Check Request
08/16/2001

2001.08.16-Wellfare_Check_Request

Steve Brinson 911 Call Log
11/25/2001

2001.11.25-911-Call-from-Steve-Brinson

Steve Brinson Statement
11/25/2001

Racheyl_Brinson_Steven_Brinson_Statement

Coroner's Report
11/25/2001

Racheyl_Brinson_Coroner_Report

Hunting Incident Report
11/25/2001

Racheyl_Brinson_Hunting_Incident_Report

Autopsy Report
1/30/2002

Racheyl_Brinson_Autopsy_Report

GBI Ivestigative Summary
11/12/2002

2002.11.12-GBI-Investigative-Summary

GBI: Bundy & Glisson
11/12/2002

2002.11.13-Sheriff_Detective_Bundy_Report

GBI: Darrisaw Email
11/18/2002

2002.11.18-Email-Between-Shaw-and-Darrisaw

GBI: Steve Brinson
11/21/2002

2002.11.21-Steve-Brinson-call-to-Shaw

GBI: Pat Smith
11/22/2002

2002.11.22-Interview-of-Pat-Smith

GBI: Aaron Smith
11/22/2002

2002.11.22-Interview-of-Aaron-Smith

GBI: J.D. Turner
11/25/2002

2002.11.25-GBI-Interview-of-JD-Turner

GBI: Ricky Beckham
11/26/2002

2002.11.26-Interview-of-Ricky-Beckham

GBI: Frank Leino
11/27/2002

2002.11.27-Interview-of-Frank-Leino

GBI: Jed Turner
12/09/2002

2002.12.09-GBI-Interview-of-Jed-Turner

GBI: Mary Ann Kicklighter
12/11/2002

2002.12.11-GBI-Interview-of-Mary-Ann-Kicklighter

Letter from ADA Turner
2/26/2003

2003.02.26-DA-Stephen-D-Kelly

Timeline

1985

Steve Graduates High School

Steve graduated from Camden County High School two years ahead of Racheyl. They were described by witnesses as “high school sweethearts.” Pat Smith, Racheyl’s mother, said that Racheyl started drinking when she began dating Steve. According to her, Steve would buy beer for Racheyl. Pat asked him to stop, but this appears to be the beginning of Racheyl’s love of alcohol.

1987

Racheyl Graduates High School

Racheyl was described as a “tom boy.” She loved anything that could be done outside. She played on the girl’s softball and basketball teams. She loved playing football with her cousins and neighborhood kids. She was a natural at tennis, horseback riding, and water skiing. She enjoyed fishing and hunting. She took classes in Typing and Home Economics, but preferred Construction and Horticulture. She was a good student and made good grades. Steve Brinson was the first boy she ever dated. Prior to meeting him, she had never had alcohol.

December 25, 1988

Steve Arrested for DUI, Serious Injury by Vehicle

Steve was arrested for driving under the influence on Christmas night. Racheyl was in his truck with him, which was a small Ford pickup that was raised. He hit another car driven by a girl named Karen Murray. According to people close to Steve and Racheyl, Karen Murray was in a coma for a month. After she regained consciousness, she learned that she was permanently disabled.

June 8, 1991

Steve & Racheyl Get Married

According to witnesses, Steve and Racheyl did not plan on having children right away. They built a nice home for themselves. They spent their time outdoors: skiing, fishing, crabbing, shrimping, hunting, and camping. After a period of time, Racheyl reported to family and close friends that Steve stopped helping around the house. He wouldn’t do the yard work. He wouldn’t work on the cars without Racheyl pushing him to do it. She was a good mechanic, so she maintained her own car.

August 29, 1991

Steve Convicted of DUI, Serious Injury by Vehicle

Steve was ultimately convicted of serious injury by vehicle, a felony in Georgia. This crime comes with a mandatory sentence of no less than one year and no more than fifteen years imprisonment. Witnesses claim that because Steve was related to the County Sheriff, Bill Smith, he was given preferential treatment. He was sentenced to five years probabtion, the first 180 days of which was to be served in the Claxton Detention Center, plus a $3,500 fine. That sentence was revoked and he was ordered to serve 90 days in the Truetlin Boot Camp. He was to serve the balance of his probation and pay the balance of his fine.

About 1994

Steve is Discovered to be Cheating on Racheyl

After about five years of marriage, Racheyl reported to family and close friends that Steve had been cheating on Racheyl with one of her close friends. She decided to work through it. In time, the pain of his betrayal eased and they made plans for their future together. Witnesses say Racheyl couldn’t fully trust Steve after the affair.

October 1999

Steve & Racheyl’s Child is Born

Thinking that having a baby together might help to heal their relationship, Racheyl got pregnant with their one and only child. Because their child arrived premature, Racheyl’s mom spent a lot of time in their home to help nurture the child. According to witnesses, Steve and his child “never bonded.” He would refer to the baby as “it.” When the baby would cry, Steve would lose his temper and storm out of the house to drink. He wouldn’t come back inside until late, after the baby went to sleep. Some witnesses described what they saw as Steve being jealous of the child.

December 1999

Racheyl Disgnosed and Treated for Melanoma

Shortly after the birth of her baby, Racheyl found a spot on her upper right arm. It turned out to be melanoma. Witnesses have stated that Steve did not seem concerned about Racheyl’s diagnosis.

Early 2001

Steve is Discovered to Be Cheating Still

Witnesses say that Racheyl told them that she overheard Steve talking on the phone with the woman with whom he’d previously had an affair. She heard him end the conversation by saying, “I love you.” Racheyl then called the woman’s husband, who then assaulted Steve at his home.

July 2001

Steve’s Domestic Abuse is Getting Worse

According to a witness, after the confrontation with the husband of the woman with whom he’d been having an ongoing affair, Steve’s drinking worsened, along with his verbal abuse. He began shoving Racheyl. Witnesses noticed a change in her demeanor. She began to suffer from low self-esteem. The added stress made her see a doctor, who prescribed Zoloft. The arguing with her husband persisted; Racheyl reports that Steve was hitting her, but would black out and wouldn’t remember. In one instance, she shoved her so hard into a chair, her entire side was left bruised. He then poured bear over her head and ripped the phones out of the walls so she couldn’t call 911. Steve would leave for days at a time, but always came back. Racheyl reported to several close friends and family that she was going to get a divorce.

August 16, 2001

Family Worried About Racheyl, Call Police

Close family members have stated that they could see Racheyl’s injuries and her emotional state, and tried to convince her to leave her husband. They became so worried about her safety, and the safety of her child, that they called 911 and asked police to do a wellness check. When police arrived, they found that the couple had left the residence separately. Pat Smith wanted her daughter out of danger. She noticed that her grandchild began using the word “bitch,” and would say things like, “My daddy is mean. He hit my mommy.”

August to November 2001

Racheyl Shares with Relatives that She’s Going to Demand a Divorce

Witnesses say that family members and even friends at the hunting club begin to advise Racheyl to divorce Steve. She confided in several family members and a close family friend that she’s going to do it soon.

About November 22, 2001

Steve Moves Out to Their Hunting Camp

It’s unclear precisely when it happened, but witnesses have stated that Steve had left Racheyl at their house and had been staying in their camper at the Mumford Island Hunting Club “for a few days” before Racheyl died.

November 25, 2001 — 10:00AM

Racheyl Drops Off Cole, Plans to Confront Steve with Divorce

Mary Ann Kicklighter, a close family friend, reported to GBI Special Agent Shaw that Racheyl had told her, “Steve hasn’t been home in three days.” She said that Racheyl stated that “she needed to go see Steve and end this.” Racheyl dropped off her child to her mom in the company of Ms. Kicklighter so the child could go to church services with them. Racheyl’s mom asked her not to go because she had a bad feeling.

November 25, 2001 — Early Afternoon

Steve Calls Racheyl, Asks Her to Come to the Hunting Club

One witness at the hunting club recalled that he saw Steve at the club the day of her death before he saw Racheyl. He then recalled that Steve had called Racheyl from his cell phone to ask her to come hunting. The witness said Steve had been drinking beer, either Bud or Bud Light.

November 25, 2001 — 2:30PM

Steve & Racheyl Seen Sighting in Their Rifles, Drinking Beer Together

A witness at the hunting club said he saw Steve and Racheyl together at 2:30PM. It was still early, so they decided to go and sight in their guns before they went to their stands. He recalled that both Steve and Racheyl were drinking beer while they were shooting, but neither appeared to be intoxicated.

November 25, 2001 — 4:30PM

Steve Reports that He And Racheyl Leave to Go to their Stands

In his written statement, Steve Brinson said that at around 4:30PM, he told Racheyl thay had better get going if they were going to hunt. According to Steve, when they arrived at the place they were going to hunt, Racheyl told him that she wanted to hunt in his stand. He agreed and went to another stand according to his statement.

November 25, 2001 — 5:50PM

Steve Reports That He Finds Racheyl Face Down on the Ground

According to Steve’s written report, at about 5:30PM, he heard a dear “blow at” him. A few minutes later, he heard a dog come in and jump the deer. At about 5:45PM, he said he went to his truck to “see about the dog.” At 5:50PM, he said he called out for Racheyl. He got no response. So, we walked into the woods calling out her name. When he got close to her stand, he shone his light up the tree and couldn’t see her there. He then found her lying on the ground at the base of the tree where the stand was mounted. Again, this is according to his written report. He described her as laying face down on top of her rifle. He said he eased her over and found no signs of life. Note that the tree stand that he called “her stand” in his written report was not actually her stand at all. It was an old, broken, and never-used tree stand. Nobody who knew Racheyl believed she would go up into that stand.

November 25, 2001 — "Shortly Before Dark"

Steve Contacts Terry Holmes by CB Radio, Reports Racheyl Had Fallen

According to Steve Brinson’s written report, he ran out to his truck, called 911, and then called Terry Holmes on the CB radio. He told Holmes to come quickly, that Racheyl had fallen out of her tree.

November 25, 2001 — 6:04PM

Steve Calls 911

According to the 911 center’s call logs, Steve Brinson’s call to 911 occurred at 6:04PM. According to his statement, that would be 14 minutes after he found his wife laying face down with no signs of life (he said she didn’t have a pulse, she wasn’t breathing, and her eyes didn’t respond to light). The 911 operator told Brinson to begin CPR, which he said he did.

November 25, 2001 — about 6:19PM

Terry Holmes Arrives on Scene

According to a later interview with Terry Holmes, he said when he arrived on scene, which was approximately 15 minutes after he received the CB radio call from Brinson, Racheyl was still laying face down. He told interviewers that he helped Steve turn her over and it was then that Brinson began CPR. Holmes also stated that Brinson was calm, and that he “never shed a tear.” Note that had Steve Brinson called Terry Holmes on the CB radio just before he called 911 (because 911 operators would have stayed on the line with him), Holmes would have arrived on-scene at about 6:19PM, almost 30 minutes after Steve Brinson said he discovered his wife’s lifeless body.

November 25, 2001 — 6:28PM

First Responders Arrive at the Scene

According to interviews with EMT Ricky Beckham, first responders arrived at the hunting club at 6:23PM, but it took them until 6:28PM to get to Racheyl. Racheyl was laying on her back when they arrived. They took over CPR from Steve Brinson. They had to intubate her because there was fluid in her lungs. They continued CPR until 6:49PM, when the EMS crew called Dr. Martinez, who instructed them to terminate resuscitation efforts. Lt. Beckham reported that there was the smell of alcohol on Racheyl’s body, but there weren’t any cans or bottle in the area. At that point, they called off the life flight helicopter that had been en route. Lt. Beckham recalled that Steve Brinson asked him, “Is she going to be OK?” In another interview, Lt. Beckham told investigators that he Steve Brinson was “taking it better” than he thought he should. Terry Holmes also told investigators a similar story. He said that Brinson’s demeanor was odd; that he just stood or sat off to the side and calmly smoked a cigarette. He thought Brinson should have been more frantic and attentive. He never saw Steve Brinson cry over Racheyl’s death. Not in that moment. Not ever.

November 25, 2001 — sometime after 6:50PM

Steve Calls His Dad for the First Time in Three Months

A friend who lived across the road from the hunting club, and who helped direct and transport EMS personnel to Racheyl’s body, Royce Proctor, told investigators that he drove Steve Brinson that night because he didn’t think Steve was in a condition to drive due to his drinking and the fact that his wife had just died. While they were in his truck, Proctor suggested Brinson call someone. He suggested that he call his father. Brinson said he hadn’t spoken to his father in over three months. But, said Proctor, Brinson did call his father and said, “I don’t know. I f***ed up. Racheyl is dead.” Steven’s father said he would meet him at the home of Pat Smith, Racheyl’s mother.

November 25, 2001 — sometime after 7:00PM

Steve Talks to His Dad in Person

As Mr. Proctor and Steve Brinson were making their way over to Pat Smith’s home, others were as well. News of Racheyl’s death had spread. One witness told investigators that he was sitting on the tailgate of a truck outside Pat Smith’s home with Steve Brinson and his father when he witnessed Steve Brinson tell his father, “I really f***ed up!” The witness sated that there was dead silence after that. He characterized Brinson’s statement as an admission of guilt.

November 26, 2001 — 9:35AM

Investigators Return to the Scene of Racheyl’s Death

Upon taking Racheyl’s body out of the woods, neither the Sheriff’s department nor the Georgia Department of Natural Resource locked down the scene as a possible crime scene. They didn’t put up yellow crime scene tape. They didn’t take any photos. They didn’t do any investigation that night. Instead, the scene was left open for anyone to visit, tamper with, or cover-up. The following day, Lt. Dale Bundy of the Camden County Sheriff’s Department went out to the scene with Department of Natural Resrouces Corporal Scott Glisson and EMS Lieutenant Ricky Beckham. Lt. Beckham was volunteered to go up the tree to inspect the tree stand. He found that there weren’t any leaves on the stand and that there were scratches in the wood. He then climbed down and got an axe at the request of Lt. Bundy, and cut down the tree. The stand was then taken into evidence by Lt. Bundy.

November 26, 2001 — 10:00AM

Steve Brinson Calls About Life Insurance Policy

The morning after Racheyl’s death, Steve Brinson called Racheyl’s workplace to inquire about the status of her life insurance policy. One witness stated to investigators that Racheyl had discussed changing her life insurance beneficiary to her mother several weeks prior to her death. That change never occurred. Steve and Cole were still listed as her beneficiaries. She had a total of three life insurance policies with a total value that was over $300,000.

November 26, 2001

Camden County Coroner L.W. Bruce Issues His Report

The coroner’s report states that he examined Racheyl’s body and found crepitus (a “grating sound”) in the right neck and shoulder area. He also noted a two inch hematoma about two inches above her right ear. He didn’t note any other trauma at the time. Mr. Bruce noted that there had been domestic problems in the marriage, so he requested a complete autopsy from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

November 27, 2001

Autopsy is Performed by Dr. Lora Darrisaw

Racheyl’s body was transported to Atlanta to undergo a complete autopsy. The examination was performed by Lora Darrisaw, MD under the supervision of Kris L. Sperry, MD. In an interview later, Dr. Darrisaw said she had been informed that this was an accidental death due to a fall from a tree stand. She was not informed of the domestic abuse prior to releasing the body to the funeral home. Had she been told that, she said, she would have pursued a more thorough autopsy. Besides this, there is evidence that Dr. Darrisaw didn’t perform a thorough autopsy. She noted under “Identifying Marks and Scars” that none were readily apparent. However, Racheyl had undergone a surgery for melanoma which had left a scar more than six inches long on her right arm. In addition to this, there were no photos taken of the autopsy. Dr. Darrisaw stated that this was standard operating procedure.

November 29, 2001

Racheyl’s Funeral is Held

Witnesses report that Steve Brinson acted more like a happy bridegroom than a grieving husband at Racheyl’s funeral. One witness said, “He was laughing and carrying on at the viewing. One girl asked him if he needed a hug. He said he needed all the hugs he could get. He never came inside, he stayed outside laughing and joking with the boys. At the funeral he was dressed in a shiny silvery grey suit with a black tie and black shirt. he looked like a Saturday Night Fever reject.” Another witness stated that he overheard Steve say that Cole would never have to worry about money for the rest of his life.

December 19, 2001

Toxicology Report is Completed

The Division of Forensic Sciences of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation tested multiple samples of Racheyl’s bodily fluids. They found that Racheyl’s body was negative for amphetamines, barbituates, cannabinoids, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and opiods.

January 4, 2002

Postmortem Blood Alcohol Report is Completed

The Division of Forensic Sciences of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation tested Racheyl’s blood and vitreous fluid for alcohol and found 0.156 grams per 100 ml in her vitreous fluid, and 0.159 grams per 100 ml in her blood. According to the California DMV, a female of Racheyl’s weight would expect to reach those levels after three to four 12-ounce beers with a 5% alcohol level by volume. This is the alcohol level in Bud and Bud Light.

January 30, 2002

Official Autopsy Report is Completed

Dr. Darrisaw found blunt force injuries of the head, a complete transverse fracture of the middle cranial fossa, a diffuse subarachnoid hemorrhage and mild left subdural hemorrhage, blunt force injuries of the chest, multiple posterior right rib fractures, and a displaced fracture of the right clavicle. The cause of death was ruled as blunt force head trauma. The manner of death was ruled as an accident.

February 6, 2002

Camden County Coroner Amends Report to Include Case & Manner of Death

Curiously, after L.W. Bruce read Dr. Darrisaw’s report and found that the manner of death was “Accident” and that the cause of death was “Blunt Force Head Trauma,” he amended his report to say that the cause of death was “Blunt force trauma due to a fall from a tree stand, complicated by a high blood alcohol content.”