The Death Of Blake Chappell
Sunday’s column talked about the stories I wrote on the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Blake Chappell. This is one of them, a timeline of sorts that includes interviews with police, family and friends.
It was one of the hardest stories I’ve written, both personally and professionally.
It was, and is, tragic.
Here’s his story as published in The Newnan Times-Herald:
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Blake Tyler Chappell, last seen leaving his girlfriend’s house early on the morning of Oct. 16, 2011.
Two months later, his body was pulled from the creek that runs through the SummerGrove subdivision in eastern Newnan — his only clothing a white tank top and boxer underwear.
According to his Georgia death certificate, Blake died from a “gunshot to the head.” The presumed date of death is listed as 6 a.m., Dec. 16, 2011, although authorities have no way of knowing the exact time or day because of the length of time his body was in the water.
Investigators with the Newnan Police Department, who are handling the case, will not comment on where Blake was shot, or how many times. They have determined the caliber of the bullet or bullets used, but will not comment on that either. They will say he was shot at close range.
It was the only homicide in Newnan that year. A $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest remains unclaimed.
Investigators have talked with more than 50 people, many students at East Coweta High School where Chappell attended. Two potential suspects have since been cleared; a third individual can’t be placed in the area at the time of the shooting.
“I know they are doing everything they can,” said Melissa Becker,Chappell’s mom.
“We are going to solve this case,” Newnan Police Deputy Chief Rodney Riggs said bluntly in a recent interview.
* * *
Oct. 15, 2011, was a Saturday. That night was homecoming at East Coweta High.
That afternoon, Melissa drove her son to Kohl’s to pick out a tie for the dance. She waited in the parking lot. Inside, Blake texted photos of tie options to his girlfriend, Rion Cameron. They went back and forth and finally Rion picked one that matched her dress.
Melissa recalled how Blake had to get a clerk to help him tie his tie, as he didn’t know how. Afterward, Melissa drove him over to Rion’s house, located on Avondale Circle in The Parks of Olmstead subdivision next to Welch Elementary School.
About 5:30 p.m., Shannon Cameron, Rion’s mom, drove her daughter and Blake to Tokyo’s off Newnan Crossing Bypass for dinner.
“He was the only boyfriend I had who loved sushi,” Rion said. “I love sushi.”
Shannon picked them up around 7 p.m. and drove them to the dance at East Coweta. Blake was wearing black pants and black Ralph Lauren shoes with “RL” in white lettering on the side, a white tank top, and over that a brand new Fruit of the Loom white T-shirt. Topping it off was a button-up black shirt and the tie he and Rion picked out.
“We danced a lot,” Rion recalled. “Blake got really sweaty and took off his black shirt and tie.”
They danced and danced. They hung out with friends. There’s a photo of Rion, Blake and their best friends, Colby Huddleston and his date, Alasia Matznick, side by side. That photo appears on many Facebook pages — friends’ pages, memorial pages for Blake.
Around 10:30 p.m., Shannon came and picked them up. They went back to Rion’s house and watched a movie. Shannon remembered that Blake sat on the floor, saying he was hot and sweaty. Blake had taken off his black shirt and left it in the kitchen.
Later, Shannon would give that shirt back to Melissa.
About an hour later, Shannon drove Blake to Austin Harmon’s house, on the west side of SummerGrove on Highwoods Parkway, where Blake was spending the night.
Once there, Blake used the house phone to call his mom. His phone, which he had gotten only a week before, only had a text messaging plan, although he could dial 911.
“I asked him how it went,” Melissa said. “He said, ‘It was awesome. I had the best day of my life. We danced all night.’”
“We had never really firmed up that Blake could stay at Austin’s until then,” she said. “I told him he could stay the night but not to leave the house.”
“He called me ‘mama,’ said ‘I love you and will call you tomorrow.’”
I interviewed Melissa in a church parking lot, sitting next to her in her red pickup. It was at this point that Melissa broke down. It would not be the last.
Melissa never heard from her son again.
* * *
Mentioning the phrase “cold case” while sitting around a table with Newnan Police investigators will get you a frown and a raised eyebrow.
“We don’t like giving up and this is not a case where we are going to give up,” said Lt. Tate Washington, who heads up the department’s criminal investigation division. “I don’t like the term ‘cold case.’ That implies it’s sitting on a shelf somewhere.
“This is an active case,” he stressed.
Detective Brent Blankenship, who’s heading up the investigation, brings in a large, three-ring black binder. It’s close to 6 inches thick and at the limit to what it can hold. It’s Blake’s case file.
“Every time we get a lead we follow it up,” he said. “We are not closing any door.”
Deputy Chief Riggs said they are “confident” they have eliminated two individuals as suspects. A third suspect “can’t be placed in Coweta County” at the time of the killing.
They are not releasing the names of those individuals.
They also will only say the caliber gun used was between a .22 and a .45, but did say the weapon was not a shotgun.
“There is nothing from the autopsy to indicate there were any other injuries other than the gunshot wound,” Riggs said.
* * *
After calling his mom, Blake and Austin walked over to the BP gas station at the entrance to SummerGrove. They were hoping to buy some cigarettes even though both were underage. The store was closed and the two walked back. Austin said they got back to his house shortly after midnight.
Austin said he and Blake texted some friends and just hung out. Rion got a text about 2 a.m. from Blake saying he was coming over to her house.
“I fell back asleep after that,” Rion said.
Austin said sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Oct. 16, Blake came into his room and said he was going over to Rion’s house.
“He was wearing black pants and had on a white T-shirt,” Austin recalled. “I gave him my jacket and a house key to get back in. After he left I went to sleep.” He never heard from Blake again.
About 4:30 that morning, Rion said she woke up again and had a text from Blake saying he was coming over.
“He tried to scare me when he got there,” she said. “He climbed through the window. I remember he was freezing.”
She said Blake was wearing his black pants and had one of his white hoodies. Based on descriptions from Austin and Rion, Blake was not wearing Austin’s jacket when he arrived at Rion’s. Austin said he never got his jacket back. Melissa said Blake’s hoodie had the word “Aeropostale” across it in brown letters, which was not what Austin had given Blake to wear.
Rion and Blake laid down on Rion’s bed and talked about the day. They had plans to meet at 11 a.m. and hang out.
“He told me he loved me and no matter whatever happened to him, he would always love me,” she remembered.
About that time, Rion’s grandmother walked in.
“I remember Blake trying to hide under the covers,” Rion said with a laugh. “My grandmother said she was going to get my mom and walked out. Blake asked me if I wanted him to go and I said yes. He kissed me and started going out the window.”
Right then, Shannon walked in Rion’s room. She was not happy. It was around 5 a.m.
“Blake started sending texts saying he was sorry,” Rion said. “Then he’d say ‘tell your mom I’m sorry.’ He said he was sorry in every text.”
The texts continued with Shannon and Rion both texting Blake on Rion’s phone. At some point, Shannon said she started texting Blake on her phone, telling him everything would be OK.
* * *
Shortly before 5:30 a.m., Blake sent a text to Rion’s phone. According to Rion, Blake said a cop was pulling him over. He mentioned he was near a bridge.
Blake was not familiar with the SummerGrove area and the common consensus among police and friends is that Blake was walking along Lower Fayetteville Road, the easiest way for him to get back to Austin’s house.
A few minutes later, Blake texted back, saying the cop looked at his ID, asked him where he was going and let him go.
Riggs said there is no record of any law enforcement officer stopping Blake that morning.
“We have talked with the Georgia State Patrol, the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies and there is no record of that,” Riggs said. “It is standard procedure for any officer to call in when they make a stop. And it’s standard procedure to ask for identification. But we cannot find anything.”
Around 5:30 a.m., Blake texted something on the lines of “damn, it’s cold out here,” Rion said.
It was his last message.
“I should have just gotten in the car and gone and picked him up,” Shannon said in a recent interview, where, as with Melissa, tears flowed. “I should not have let him leave.”
* * *
About the only things certain in this case are that Blake was killed, and that his body was pulled from the creek running through SummerGrove on Dec. 19, 2011, where the coroner pronounced him dead.
Newnan investigators have retraced various paths Blake could have taken from the time he left Rion’s house supposedly headed back to Austin’s. There are two main paths, one along Lower Fayetteville Road, the other along SummerGrove Parkway. The common consensus among family and friends is Blake took the Lower Fayetteville route since he wouldn’t have known how to get back if he took SummerGrove Parkway.
That route would take him out Avondale Circle to Mary Freeman Road. He would then turn west onto Lower Fayetteville Road until he hit the main entrance to SummerGrove. The distance between the two houses is three miles.
Investigators believe, based on various walking speeds from Rion’s house, that Blake was somewhere in the vicinity of the creek that runs beneath those two parallel roads when he sent his last text.
“It appears he was assaulted in the general area where he was found,” Riggs said. “The crime lab cannot determine the exact time of death… but generally, we believe death occurred on Oct. 16.”
At night, the area along Lower Fayetteville in question is very dark, with heavy vegetation coming almost up to the roadway.
Since the beginning of the investigation, authorities have wrestled with one key question:
“How would anyone know where Blake was at that particular time?” Riggs said. “That’s the question we’ve been dealing with since day one. No one knew what path he was going to take and when he would be where he was.”
Police have pulled the messages of everyone who was in contact with Blake during the last hours of his life. They have not found anything that answers that question. They also have determined the only texts Blake sent from 5 a.m. on were to Rion’s phone, Riggs said.
That leaves open the possibility the killing was random, that Blake might have been the victim of some robbery gone bad involving a stranger. But that scenario does not wash with family and friends. Melissa, Shannon and other family members are adamant that someone who knew Blake was involved.
* * *
Shannon and Rion continued to text Blake after his last message. Shannon finally went back to bed and woke up her husband, Matt Cameron, to tell him she caught Blake in Rion’s room.
“He rolled over half asleep and half-jokingly said ‘damn teenagers’ and went back to bed,” Shannon said.
About 6:30 a.m. that Sunday morning, Shannon went into Rion’s room to see if Blake had contacted her. He had not. She finally told Rion around 9:30 a.m. to contact Austin and see if Blake was there.
Austin remembers being awoken by his mom around 9 a.m.
“I kinda went back to sleep and then Rion texted around 9:30 a.m.,” he said. Austin said he looked around the house and couldn’t find Blake. He texted Rion back.
Shannon and Rion jumped in a car and drove over to Austin’s house. They drove around for about 45 minutes but did not see any sign of Blake. Shannon also called her husband, Matt, and told him Blake was missing.
Matt had left about 8 a.m. to pick up a friend. The two were headed to Heard County, where they had leased some hunting land.
“He went down to set up his stands and get things ready for the upcoming season,” Shannon said in another interview. “He doesn’t bow hunt so his season hadn’t even opened yet. Had he been down there with a gun he could have lost his lease and his hunting license. He was home with us until he left.”
From then on, the search expanded. A clerk at the BP station in SummerGrove was shown a photo of Blake and told Rion he saw Blake earlier that morning, around 7:30 a.m. Blake asked when the store opened and the clerk told him 8 a.m. Blake left in an unknown direction.
Other sightings, according to friends out looking for him, included at the QuikTrip on Highway 34 and also sitting outside at Bruster’s on Newnan Station Drive.
Police investigators, however, don’t believe those individuals mentioned were Blake.
Matt Cameron got back around 11 a.m. and began walking around the woods and trails in the area looking for Blake. He met up with Austin, who had been dropped off by Shannon earlier, and the two canvassed the area.
A little after 11 a.m., Austin flagged down a passing Newnan Police patrol car and told them Blake was missing. The officer called Melissa around 11:30 a.m. and told her to file a missing person report.
The search continued with more friends joining in throughout the day. Melissa said that, for some reason, she believed she just needed to stay by the phone, but her boyfriend went out and joined the search.
* * *
Chris Ripley, Blake’s half-brother, got a call from their mom, Melissa, a couple days later.
“She said he was missing,” said Chris, who at the time lived in Texas. “He has left home before, but he always let someone know where he was. And he would always tell me what he was up to.”
“I started making some calls, but just couldn’t get anywhere,” Chris added. “But as Thanksgiving approached, I began to think something was wrong. He’d never been out of contact that long.”
At the time of Blake’s disappearance, police suspected there were some personal issues and Blake, for whatever reason, just decided to take off.
“I thought he had just decided to run away,” Rion said. “I don’t know why.”
Rion said she knew about Blake’s upcoming court date in Clayton County.
“We talked about it,” she said. “But he didn’t seem too worried about it. I was going to go with him.”
Melissa also mentioned the court date, saying she and Blake had discussed it.
“I thought maybe, in the back of my mind, that Blake had run off,” Melissa said. “Maybe he was more worried about it than he let on.”
* * *
In the early summer of 2011, Blake was living briefly in Clayton County at the Hunter Ridge trailer park in Jonesboro. He was dating another girl at the time. That earlier girlfriend, who was 16 at the time, has asked her name not be mentioned in this article.
In May 2011, she ran away from home and went to Blake. Her mother and stepfather went out to look for her.
According to a May 28, 2011, Clayton County Police Supplemental Report, police responded to a disturbance call at the park. Once there, they met Blake, who told them he had been hit in the face, thrown to the ground and then kicked twice more in the face. Blake was about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed about 120 pounds.
A witness said the suspect, the girlfriend’s stepfather, went up to him and asked where Blake was, according to the report, which added: “The suspect then lifted his shirt, showing a handgun, and said, ‘tell him I’m looking for him’ then left with another unknown male.”
Clayton officers stated in their report that witnesses said the stepfather then grabbed his stepdaughter and “put her in the trunk of the vehicle he arrived in and drove off.”
The then-girlfriend said she was not thrown in the trunk of the vehicle, although the rest of the police report was accurate.
It’s unclear what happened after that, as Blake and the girlfriend did not continue seeing each other.
On July 1, a warrant was issued by Clayton County police against Blake for interfering with custody, according to court records. Blake was 17 and considered an adult in the eyes of the law, but his then-girlfriend was a minor. He was booked in the Clayton County Jail on June 2. He spent 16 days in jail trying to raise bond, and was finally released on a $2,500 signature bond on June 18.
Pre-trial and related court matters occurred with a final court date set for Oct. 24, 2011, in Clayton County Superior Court.
On that date, Blake’s case was nolle prossed in court, a legal term basically meaning the prosecution decided to drop the case, said Tasha Mosley, solicitor general for Clayton County.
“The prosecutors spoke to the girlfriend and she said she had run away,” Mosley said. “She said Blake encouraged her to go back home. Because Blake was trying to help, trying to do the right thing and the girlfriend did not want to continue, we decided to drop the case.”
Melissa said she received a phone call from Blake’s attorney and said the stepfather told the judge he would drop the case provided “he never saw Blake again.”
Attempts to reach the stepfather have been unsuccessful. For a number listed on court documents, a man who answered said there was no one by the name at that residence; another number was disconnected. A Facebook message requesting an interview sent to his wife was never answered.
Blake, who was supposed to be in court that Oct. 24, did not show up.
* * *
Authorities swarmed SummerGrove Parkway on Dec. 19, 2011. A decomposing body was found south of the roadway’s bridge in the creek below by people walking by.
Shannon and her family had just spent an early Christmas with her relatives. She was coming back from the grocery store.
“For some reason I decided to take the parkway and it was completely blocked off,” she remembered. “Something in my heart knew.”
Later that night, the police called, asking Shannon what Blake was wearing when he left their house on Oct. 16.
Melissa called Chris, Blake’s half-brother, on Dec. 20.
“She said the police were pretty sure they had found Blake,” Chris recalled. “I flew into Newnan on the 21st. I hadn’t seen him in a year, and finally I was going to get to, but it was going to be his funeral.
In a press release issued Dec. 22, 2011, the police department said: “Based on jewelry found on the body and a particular tattoo, the person has been identified as Blake Tyler Chappell, 17 years old, from Senoia, Georgia.”
His body was found floating face down, clothed only in a T-shirt and boxers. The statement continued, “An examination of the body revealed that the cause of death was a gunshot wound.”
“I just sat down,” Rion said. “I couldn’t cry. It didn’t feel real. I couldn’t even think. I didn’t know what to do.”
Rion said that, for some reason, about four or five days before Blake’s body was found, she just stopped eating; she couldn’t.
Shannon recalled how on weekends, Rion and she would just drive around and look for Blake.
“It was the not knowing, the worrying, that was the hardest,” she said.
Rion said it was around Thanksgiving time that she starting getting over Blake’s disappearance.
“I was mad. I was livid,” she said. “I thought he had just left me.”
* * *
Over the next few days the investigation went into overdrive. The city of Newnan offered a $20,000 reward for information, the highest ever.
Deputy Chief Riggs said investigators got “decent leads” from callers, adding they seemed more interested in helping to solve the case than the money.
“There was a general interest in helping find who did this,” Riggs said.
To this date, authorities have not found any of the clothes Blake was wearing when he left Rion’s house that October morning.
“We have combed and searched the creek for hundreds of yards in each direction,” Lt. Washington said. “We have not come up with anything.”
Investigators also have not been able to locate Blake’s backpack, which he left at Austin’s house, where he was supposed to spend the night. Melissa said the backpack contained deodorant, cologne, a pocket knife, the white hoodie Rion said he wore over that night and his phone charger.
“He never went anywhere without his phone charger and a knife,” Melissa said. “I remember seeing that knife in his pocket when I dropped him off at Rion’s and told him he’d better not take that on school property.”
Austin said he has been unable to find Blake’s backpack.
“We were in the middle of moving and it got put somewhere and we just can’t find it,” he said. “I just don’t know where it is.”
The only thing Melissa has from that night is Blake’s black dress shirt, which he left at Rion’s before initially going over to Austin’s.
* * *
On Dec. 29, 2011, friends and family gathered for a memorial service at McKoon Funeral Home on Jefferson Street in Newnan.
Brent Beaman, who lived down the street from Blake, had made a video memorial of Blake. There were lots of photos of Blake and Rion, of Blake on a skateboard, of Blake playing Guitar Hero, on which everyone said he was a master above all else.
“I know his one wish would be for us to cherish every minute of our lives, to live every day as if it’s our last, as he did,” Brent said during the service. “There wasn’t a happier man.”
At the end, “Carry On My Wayward Son,” a song by the group Kansas, was played. It was Blake’s favorite, and one he loved to play on Guitar Hero.
On the afternoon of Jan. 7, 2012, Melissa and Chris attended a brief “good-bye” moment before Blake’s body was cremated.
Melissa said there was a large box without a lid and inside was a plastic bag that contained Blake’s remains. A sheer sheet was over the box.
“Chris and I went by the side and I touched the sheet and then the plastic and then his thigh with two fingers,” she said, demonstrating with a slow movement of her hand. “And I could feel his leg and his muscles and …”
We both took a much needed break.
On Jan. 9, Melissa went back to McKoon Funeral Home and picked up Blake’s ashes.
“My only wish is that whoever did this, they ask God’s forgiveness and repent,” she said. “That’s what Blake would have wanted. And I have to try and forgive these people and move on. But it’s so hard. Sometimes, I just feel like my life is over.”