Stranger Than Fiction
Podcaster and writer explore true-crime stories with Athens connections
By Don Rhodes | Photos Courtesy of Cameron Harrelson and Jaclyn Weldon
Most people have been trying to kill time at home while socially distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cameron Harrelson, of Athens, and Jaclyn Weldon White, of nearby Hoschton, Ga., on the other hand, have been spending much of their time talking to media representatives about people who kill other people.
Both have moved onto the radar of true-crime fans in recent months — Harrelson through his immensely popular podcast, Classic City Crime, and White through her latest book, Pure Evil: The Machetti Murders of Macon, Georgia.
Harrelson, who broadcasts under the name “Cameron Jay,” launched his podcast in July. The first episode was about the unsolved killing of Tara Louise Baker, a 24-year-old University of Georgia law student. White’s book, which was published in August, is about Athens-reared Rebecca Turpin Smith, who was on Georgia’s death row for convincing her second husband to kill her first husband and his new wife.
Fascination with crime, especially murder, goes back to biblical days of Cain killing his brother, Abel, in the Garden of Eden. William Shakespeare certainly fueled the fires of crime fascination with his theatrical stories of diabolical murders and suicides. And British author Agatha Christie was a master of leading readers deep into intrigue with twists and turns that kept readers guessing as to “who done it.”
Harrelson and White have a fascination with telling modern-day true crime stories in different mediums. And, Lord, do their fans love the stories they have been telling lately.
Embalmer Trainee Turned Wedding Planner Turned Podcaster
“I came to Athens in 2013 to go to UGA and never left,” related Harrelson, who grew up on a 36-acre farm outside Baxley, Ga., near the world onion-growing capital of Vidalia.
This jack-of-all-trades found a job as a funeral home apprentice at Lord & Stephens East on Lexington Road.
“I did everything a funeral director and embalmer can do but without the certificate on my wall,” he said. “I was mainly focused on embalming and did that for three years, until I learned just about everything I could learn.”
In January 2016, Harrelson began Marrying Athens, a business based on the premise that people from any background should be able to get married where they want and to whom they want without feeling awkward while setting up the ceremony with the minister and location.
That particularly matters to Harrelson, since another hat he wears is as vice president and spokesperson of the Athens Pride organization, which supports LGBTQ individuals in their legal rights and lifestyles.
In that role, he has been the director of Athens’ LGBTQ Pride Day festivals, coordinating entertainers, volunteers and other participants. His goal is to get the Athens mayor and council to support an annual pride parade like those in other Georgia cities.
But it is his podcasts based on true-crime stories that have gained him the most recent media attention and personal satisfaction.
“My mother’s cousin was murdered in the 1990s,” he said. “I was 3 at the time, but growing up, I just remember that affecting my mom a lot. They were very close. Her cousin was working in a Blockbuster kind of video store and was killed in a robbery. They did get the guy who did it.”
Harrelson read in the Red & Black, UGA’s student-run newspaper, about the killing of Baker, who had been stabbed, beaten, strangled and possibly sexually assaulted on Jan. 19, 2001, the day before her 24th birthday.
The graduate of Georgia College and State University and first-year UGA law student was killed in the bedroom of her apartment on Fawn Drive, just a short distance from the funeral home where Harrelson later worked.
When he decided to pursue his interest in creating a true-crime podcast, he thought of the Baker case and reached out to her sister, who embraced any kind of assistance in solving the brutal slaying. For whatever reason, the family and others have felt that the Athens police have not been very forthcoming with information.
“I think the biggest issue is pride,” Harrelson said about the case going unsolved for a decade. “I have the most respect for law enforcement, but I also believe we should hold them accountable when they are not doing what they should be doing. … I think my podcast is motivating people to take a second look.”
Harrelson knows more than he is telling about the case. “There is only 40% of what I do [know] that is on my podcast. There is 60% I don’t air because it’s an ongoing investigation.”
The $100 question is: Does he have a pretty good idea who killed Baker?
“Do I know what happened to Tara? Absolutely. Do I think I know who killed her? I think that I have a pretty good idea, and I think they’re pretty close to solving it,” he said.
The other big question for Harrelson: Has he been surprised at how fast and how widespread interest in his podcast has become?
“Oh, by God, yes,” he exclaimed. “I thought when I started this there were maybe a couple of hundred people who might be interested [in the Baker case], and I would do a few episodes and be done. But now it’s become an entire season, with 100,000 people tuned in and more episodes planned.
“The family asked me, ‘How many episodes do you think you will do?’ And I said, ‘However many as it takes.’”
Police Officer Turned True-Crime Author
If you look on a map just northwest of Athens, you will see the town of Hoschton in Jackson County, just south of Interstate 85 near Braselton.
Google will tell you that it has an estimated population of less than 2,000. Locals will tell you that one of those residents is Jaclyn Weldon White, who has been building her true-crime fan base since the publication of her first book, Whisper to the Black Candle: Voodoo, Murder and the Case of Anjette Lyles, in 1999.
Her family and friends call her “Jackie,” even though the covers of her books, mostly published by Mercer University Press in Macon, bear her formal name.
“I’m one of those people who doesn’t seem to have a specialty,” she said. “I’ve written about true crime, but I’ve also written several novels, three biographies, a travel book and a book about herbs.”
You often can learn about authors from the blurbs on the inside back covers of their books, and this is what an early book of White’s reveals:
“Jaclyn Weldon White was born, raised and has lived all her life in the South. She was a police officer for six years, where she investigated street crimes and traffic offenses. She worked for four years as a detective, investigating murders, sex crimes, burglaries and other offenses. She left police work and retired as an administrator for a large metropolitan Atlanta juvenile court.
“She is an herb gardener, designs and makes her own line of silver jewelry, and enjoys genealogical research. She has three living children and seven grandchildren. She lives in Hoschton, Georgia.”
White’s first book came about after a series of life changes. “I had changed jobs,” she said. “I had married my boss at the police department, and he outranked me and one of us had to leave. I went to juvenile court as an investigator, and then became the court administrator.”
Her husband was Carl White, a native of Fitzgerald, Ga. He and Jackie were married for 26 years and had three children: Shannon, Dean and Kim. (Carl died in 2010 at age 60.)
Carl had retired as chief of police for Gwinnett County in 1998 after achieving many honors. His elderly parents lived outside Monticello, Ga., so the Whites moved in 2001 to nearby Macon, where they became heavily involved with St. Andrews Presbyterian Church.
White had become fascinated with Macon’s criminal past, especially after being told the story of serial killer Anjette Lyles, a popular local restaurant owner in the 1950s who was accused of killing four family members over seven years.
“She was a very charming, very flirtatious woman, and everybody went to her restaurant across the street from the [Bibb County] courthouse,” White said. “Everybody thought she had such a tragic life.
“Her first husband died [at 29] and left her with two small children. Then her second husband died [at 26]. Her first mother-in-law moved in to help raise the two children, but then the mother-in-law died. It was finally when her 9-year-old daughter died that somebody finally realized something was wrong here. It was the 1950s, and nobody thought of women killing people.”
The success of Whisper to the Black Candle led to more books, including another true-crime book called The Empty Nursery, published in 2001. It was based on the 1992 disappearance of 7-month-old Haley Hardwick, whose father, Kenny Hardwick, claimed that two stranded motorists he tried to help had kidnapped his daughter from his car.
The missing child case, in the metropolitan Atlanta area of Lawrenceville, resulted in huge searches by volunteers. The baby’s mother, Kathy Hardwick, was torn between believing the husband she loved or believing the law enforcement authorities who kept saying that her husband was responsible for the baby’s disappearance.
You’ll have to read the book to find out the rest of the story. One fan posted online: “If you didn’t know that it really happened, you would think you were reading a novel. The author writes in such detail that you think she must have been a fly on the wall.”
In addition to her true-crime books, White has written three biographies with Macon ties, including The Greatest Champion That Never Was about popular Georgia boxer W.L. “Young” Stribling Jr., who was killed in 1933 at age 28 in a motorcycle accident.
White’s latest book, Pure Evil, was begun 20 years ago and was ready for publication in 2005, but it was put on hold until finally being released in August.
The tale is about Rebecca “Becky” Turpin Smith, whose second husband, John Eldon Smith, in December 1983 became the first man executed in the Peach State in 19 years.
As described in news accounts, the 53-year-old “balding former insurance salesman” was convicted of the shotgun slayings of Becky Smith’s first husband, Ronald Akins, and his newlywed wife, Juanita, in 1974.
When he was strapped into the new, wooden electric chair at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, his only remark was, “Hey, there ain’t no point in pulling so tight.”
Becky Smith originally also was sentenced to death, but the federal appeals court in 1982 overturned the sentence. She was retried, convicted of murder and sentenced to two life terms, eventually serving 35 years in prison.
Smith was paroled in 2010 and lived the last 10 years of her life in a house on Camelot Drive in Athens, dying at age 83 on Sept. 14, 2020, at a hospital in Lavonia, Ga.
“When you write about true crime, people bring you other cases that might interest you, and this man who had been a sheriff in Bibb County brought me this case of this Macon woman,” White related. “Most of the times, those cases people bring you don’t have anything unusual about them, and you can’t make a book out of something pretty cut and dried.
“But the thing that intrigued me the most about Becky is that she wanted to become part of the Mafia, and she set up her home in Macon like a bar with a jukebox. And she moved her family to Florida and married this guy and talked him into changing his name from John Smith to Anthony Machetti because it made him sound more like a hit man.
“And then he made her three daughters change their names to Machetti and would beat them if they got their last name wrong.”
White said there was a good reason for waiting so long to publish the book. “Becky, in prison, was filing suits against many people for all sorts of things, and so we put the book on hold because we didn’t want to be tied up in courts for years,” she said.
In recent years, when Smith started going through many medical problems, White and her publisher decided it was time to let the book go to press. She noted that her greatest asset in developing the story was Smith’s middle daughter, Valerie, who actually called White early one morning to say that her mother had died.
Like podcaster Harrelson, who has become close to Baker’s family, White has become very close to Smith’s daughter.
“My biggest concern in writing this book,” White concluded of Pure Evil, “was wondering if readers would think it was fiction instead of the truth.”