Robbery suspect faces murder charges in Auburn killing
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/08/08
AUBURN, Ala. ? One neighbor who grew up with Courtney Lockhart in his eastern Alabama town describes him as a troublemaker who liked to pick on younger boys.
Another says Lockhart seemed like a good kid who mowed his family's lawn and always said hello to her at the Wal-Mart.
|Murder suspect Courtney Lockhart, 23, is taken into custody.|
The Auburn Plainsman
|Murder victim Lauren Burk was a freshman at Auburn University.|
Both neighbors, however, were taken aback to learn that the 23-year-old from Smiths Station, Ala., had been charged Saturday with capital murder in a case everyone in town had heard about â?? the shooting death of Marietta's Lauren Burk, a freshman at Auburn University.
"That's crazy," said another neighbor, Thomas Moore, 19, who said Lockhart bullied him as a youngster, too. "I wouldn't have believed that."
Lockhart's arrest came three days after Burk was found fatally wounded Tuesday night along a highway not far from the university.
Burk's murder drew enough interest that Auburn police assembled a task force of local, state and federal investigators to find her killer.
But it was police officers from Phenix City who caught and arrested Lockhart on Friday. Phenix City is about a 35-mile drive from the Auburn campus.
"I wouldn't call it a lucky break," Auburn police Assistant Chief Tommy Dawson said Saturday. "I would call it a blessing from God."
Police held a news conference in Auburn late Saturday morning to announce that Lockhart has been charged with three crimes: capital murder during a kidnapping, capital murder during a robbery and capital murder during an attempted rape.
The announcement came less than six hours before Burk was set to be memorialized at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta. Her funeral is 5:30 p.m. today at Marietta's Temple Kol Emeth.
Lockhart's case will be presented to a grand jury on May 5. He is being held in the Russell County jail but is expected to be moved next week to the jail in Lee County, where records show he served time in 2002 for harassment.
Lockhart did not know the 18-year-old Burk, and he acted alone, police said. Aside from that, police are releasing few details.
Dawson would not say how investigators linked Lockhart to the crime. He did say police have "a lot of evidence," but declined to elaborate.
"We have the right individual in jail," Dawson said. "I'm 100 percent sure of that."
Burk's slaying drew national interest, compounded by a similar storyline that was developing at another quaint Southern college town: the murder of a young co-ed and student leader at University of North Carolina. CNN carried live feeds from 11 a.m. Saturday news conferences involving both cases.
Both women were from north Georgia and were shot to death, though police say the homicides are not linked.
Burk's family has kept mum this week, leaving interviews to a family spokeswoman, Kathy Singleton. Minutes after the formal announcement of Lockhart's arrest, Singleton said Burk's family "feels relieved."
"On the day of Lauren's service, it's a comfort to know that the police have moved so swiftly on this," she said.
Lockhart was arrested late Friday morning after he led Phenix City police on a high-speed chase. He declined comment as officers walked him out of the Phenix City police station and put him in the back of a cruiser on his way to jail late Friday night.
A traffic officer pulled him over for speeding. But Lockhart took off in his silver Chrysler Sebring when two other investigators were called to the scene. Backup was brought in because Lockhart's vehicle matched the description of one that was involved in a recent robbery, Phenix City police Lt. Curt Lewis said.
Lockhart didn't get far. Police believe his engine blew out, forcing him to get out of the car and run, Lewis said.
That chase, too, was short. With an officer close behind him, Lockhart stopped, hit the ground and put his hands behind his back, Lewis said.
Lockhart later confessed to robbing an elderly woman last week outside a Wal-Mart in Phenix City, as well as four other robberies in the area, Lewis said.
Before Friday's arrest, the task force assigned to the case was making progress on its own, Dawson said. Investigators obtained a photo of Lockhart shortly after the murder, and had it enhanced with the help of NASA.
They just didn't know who he was.
The photo might have come from a local gas station's surveillance footage.
The day after Burk's murder, investigators went to the Farmville Mini-Mart, near where Burk was found fatally wounded, and took photos of surveillance footage that showed a man buying gas, said the store's manager, Anna Tidwell.
But Tidwell said she didn't know whether the man captured by the store's camera was Lockhart.
Residents on Lee Road, meanwhile, are left to wonder what's to come for the young man who reportedly played high school football and later went into the military.
"I'm in shock. I really am," neighbor T.J. Moore said. "Just because there's never been anything negative going on over there. They seem to be a nice family."
â?? Staff writer Jeffry Scott contributed to this article.