Roger Dale Hayes' life history, or at least his rap sheet, reads like the plot of a B-movie.
He is a 34-year-old ex-con with an apparent penchant for torching cars. He is known for slipping unnoticed out of jails. He says he can down a few fifths of vodka and still stand. He married a woman who was married to his father before him. That makes his half-sister his stepdaughter.
Some city folk might say, "Only in North Georgia."
Stories like Hayes' do seem to emerge from the recesses of decency, the back of backwoods. But something about the way Hayes explains himself is thoughtful. He is articulate. He is not what you might expect from a man accused of double-murder, a man who is facing a death penalty trial.
"I've had a really hard/rough life, my childhood was a nightmare in itself. Well, you may be wondering, 'Why are you telling me this? Are you guilty? That's what I want to know!' OK we will get to that part, as I say I have nothing to hide," he writes in a 36-page letter addressed to the "citizens of United States of America." He left the pages on his bunk in February, right before he bolted from jail a fourth time. That's when the manhunt began, and "America's Most Wanted" joined the chase. It ended in a hotel on Los Angeles' skid row.
It began in the mountains of North Georgia.
Outside Atlanta, past I-985, there is a point where the soft hills rise into sharper peaks. It's about the same place that convenience stores stop touting cappuccino and ATMs, and start advertising boiled peanuts and live bait. It is the region James Dickey had in mind when he wrote the novel Deliverance.
It is the part of the state Hayes calls home. He does not recall it happily.
Hayes, who goes by Dale, was 9 years old when his father tried to kill his mother. It was May 1976, nighttime. Dale's father, Roger Joseph Hayes, walked into their trailer 15 miles south of a Stephens County town called Toccoa, pointed his .22-caliber revolver at a man named George Hunt and killed him. Then, he fired at and hit his fleeing wife, Fay. She lived.
Four months later, a jury convicted Roger Hayes of the voluntary manslaughter of Hunt, who Roger believed was sleeping with his wife. (Attorneys now say that wasn't the case. Hunt, they say, was there to sell Fay a car.).
A judge sentenced Roger to two years in prison. He was released after 11 months.
Dale recalls that his father spent a year in Florida after he got out of prison, then rekindled his relationship with Fay.
Dale tells police that soon after his parents got back together, he tried to choke his father and that his sister had to pull him off. He was 12. He says he remembers his father throwing hot coffee in his mother's face. He remembers that before he had a driver's license, he drove his drunken father around town, while his mother sat home with a black eye. He claims he was in his early teens when his father started sexually abusing him.
"This went on for quite sometime and I was very scared to say anything," Dale writes more than 20 years later. "I was a child. I couldn't talk to my mom, I was afraid she would suffer a beating, I was only a kid I did not know what to do."
Dale may be making a case for himself, looking for sympathy from the judge who might determine whether he will be executed. If so, he's using powerful images.
"This man was a monster, not a Daddy," Dale writes. "He has beat my mother with a Hunt's 64 oz ketchup bottle, with coke bottles, frying pans, he's stomped her until her lungs collapsed. ... [He] chased me with shotguns, he's chased me with one and has pulled handguns on me a couple of times, he's dragged me with a car."
Back then, at least, Dale didn't want his father dead. He writes that he was horrified at his memory of Roger Hayes holding a shotgun under his own chin, threatening to blow his brains out. Dale feared his father's suicide. He feared someone might murder his father.
"In 1980 my mother started to kill him at the un-employment office here in Toccoa with a 12 gauge shotgun," Dale writes. "I had unloaded my mother's gun several times only to find out that she had another shell. I jumped between him and the gun and saved his life, she blew a hole in the back of his 1971 Ford LTD, she was tired of going through all of the torture and wanted it to be over."
Fay and Roger Hayes eventually split, and by 1989, Roger Hayes met someone else. A warrant issued that year for his arrest alleges that he punched the woman in the head, threw her to the ground, pulled her hair and banged her head against the wall. Deputies charged him with simple battery, but the district attorney dismissed the case the following year.
Roger Hayes went unpunished. But his son, even when he wasn't taking abuse, was taking stock of it. Dale's rage was swelling. And in that way he began to grow into a likeness of his father. Roger Hayes spent a lifetime contributing to the development of his own destruction.
"Roger Hayes is my Biological father, the man responsible for bringing me into this world or at least my mother says so," Dale writes. "You may be thinking at this point 'Oh my God he killed his own Dad.' Well, to me it's like this, it's not so much that it's as bad as it sounds."
"I feel a peace within my heart knowing that he will never put another child what he put me through, that he'll never put another woman through the emotional and physical abuse that my mom suffered and many other women he also done that way."
Dale doesn't blame his father for all his misdeeds. At least not the early ones.
"I've made plenty of wrong choices and had to pay for them," he writes. "I learned how to steal cars, about all kinds of things that only made my life worse with the choices I made."
In 1987, he was in the middle of a five-year sentence for theft and burglary. Rabun County Sheriff Don Page recalls that Dale broke loose while he was on work detail. He stole a white pickup, and deputies captured him within a few weeks. Page says that when he arrived at the scene, Dale told him, "Go ahead and shoot me. I don't blame you if you do."
Less than a month after he was captured, Dale noticed that the room where deputies were holding him was unlocked and that the hall door was unlocked as well, according to the sheriff. Dale bolted. Page sent out the bloodhounds, first near the jail and, hours later, near the hospital. Dale later told the sheriff he'd been hiding in the hospital's bushes. He said he saw the bloodhounds and the boots of the sheriff pass him by.
"He was real slick," the sheriff says.
Dale made it to the base of the Appala-chian Trail, where he stole a red Honda, Page says. (Dale denies this.) Dale allegedly used a checkbook in the Honda to buy a red Chevelle, then set the Honda on fire.
Three months after that escape, the sheriff got a call from a man who said he just picked up Dale, who had crashed a motorcycle. The man said he drove Dale to his father's trailer.
A deputy stepped up to the trailer's porch and heard someone snoring inside. The deputy called the sheriff, who went inside and found Dale asleep.
This time, Dale went to the jail in Toccoa, but a month later he escaped again. He was captured within a few days and spent the next three years locked up, awaiting trial on charges of escape, auto theft, arson and forgery. He was found guilty. A judge sentenced him in October 1990 to four years in prison. He got credit for time served and was released in November 1991.
Then, he met his father's second wife, Desirae.
"We start when Roger Hayes comes into my office," says Richard Tunkle, Roger Hayes' attorney. "He comes to see me for a divorce."
This man was not the Roger Hayes described by Dale.
Tunkle, who only knew Roger Hayes during his last few years, describes a man who found God. Tunkle says he was a doting father who died because he wouldn't give up his youngest daughter, Erica.
Tunkle recalls that shortly after Dale got out of prison, he moved in with Roger, Desirae and their toddler, Erica.
"After he's been there a while, Roger starts noticing what looks like Desi and Dale getting together," Tunkle says. "He's getting suspicious about how they're acting. So he comes home one day, and Desi and Dale have taken off with Erica."
Roger Hayes went through with the divorce, got temporary custody of Erica and met a woman named Kathy Vanhook, 16 years younger than he.
"He married Kathy within a year," Tunkle says. "I would see them all the time. They had a real nice clean house and Erica was doing great in school. And it was just like a little happy family thing. He was really into this church thing and Christianity. I've never really picked up on that before."
Tunkle says he saw Kathy and Roger around town, sitting together and nuzzling like lovebirds.
"Apparently they were doing great, and I was gratified," Tunkle says. "The child was in a good home. Daddy loved his little girl and took care of her and was married to a very good woman."
Dale portrays a less idyllic picture. He accuses his father of harassing him and Desi, taking pictures of them, firing a gun in their yard and spinning out in their driveway. And he tells a different story of his own romance with Desi. He writes that he met her after she had separated from his father. (He never mentions having lived with them.) He says he offered Desi, his stepmother, and Erica, his half-sister, a place to stay until they could find decent shelter. But before that happened, an affair began.
"Desi and I never had a step-son, step-mother relationship," Dale writes. "If we would have then I can see where it would look perverted."
Dale and Desi married. In October 1997, a Rabun County judge granted Roger and Kathy Hayes full custody of Erica. The judge allowed Desi only supervised visitation, and Dale could not be in the presence of the child. Tunkle says the judge based his decision partly on evidence that Dale and Desi were caught driving 100 mph the wrong way on the highway with Erica in the backseat. Tunkle says that incident, as well as Dale's criminal history, kept Desi from getting custody of Erica.
Dale writes that the custody order, although temporary, devastated Desi. He told her to hang on, that the judge would see the truth sooner or later. But Dale himself, in the meantime, wasn't hanging on so well.
"It's like this I always tried to put my past behind me, to have a life of my own," Dale writes. "But, Roger Hayes never stopped pushing me, right up to the week before this happened."
Dale would later tell police that on the night of Dec. 9, 1997, he drank a bottle of wine, four beers and three bottles of vodka.
That got him to thinking about the past.
David Andrew "Drew" Parson, Dale's nephew and Roger's grandson, was living with Dale and Desi in a dilapidated trailer on U.S. Highway 76. Parson, who was 16 at the time, was drinking vodka that night, too. Dale and Parson played a knife-throwing game. Dale vomited off his front porch, came inside and said he had to "go hurt somebody and hurt them bad," Parson testified in his own 1999 trial. (He was acquitted of murder but convicted of kidnapping and criminal trespass.)
"And did he say who it was that he was gonna hurt?" Parson's attorney, Brek Barker, asked him.
"Did he say where he was gonna go?"
They took Highway 76, which stretches west from the South Carolina border and bisects Clayton. Dale and Parson, riding in Dale's blue Ford Probe, wound through town and pulled onto Leatherwood Lane, the steep, short road to Roger Hayes' gravel driveway. They parked the Probe between a tin-roofed red barn and two coop-like farm buildings. It was around 5 a.m.
Parson has given police three different versions of what happened in the trailer. In none of them does he claim to have entered the bedroom. Page believes the testimony Parson gave at his trial is closest to the truth.
Parson testified that Dale had two knives when he headed up his father's driveway. Parson ran after him. He tried to keep Dale from going inside, but Dale yanked open the trailer's front door.
"And then little Erica come running out of her room, and I run in and grabbed her, and I told her to go back to her room," Parson told the jury.
He says he heard Roger Hayes say from his bedroom, "Son, I forgive you for what you're doing." He remembers Kathy Hayes saying, "Dear Lord Jesus, help us."
Dale then told his father he was going to die. "Do you want to be cut or shot?" Parson remembers Dale asking his father.
Parson thought he heard Dale quote John 3:16: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life."
Dale writes the last thing he recalled was "puking on the porch" back at his own trailer. His memory improved at least once, a month after he wrote the letter. In March, he told Sheriff Page and a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent he remembered his father "making the sound that dying people make" and Kathy's blood getting on him "when he got down on her to try and pump air into her."
He also told them he was sure Erica, who was 7 at the time, heard him holler because "he flipped out when he saw all the blood."
At 5:50 a.m., the alarm clock in the bedroom went off. Dale and Parson both remember hearing it. By then, Kathy and Roger were dead.
Dale threw Parson the keys to the Probe and told him to take Erica to her mama. Dale would follow him in Roger Hayes' Monte Carlo.
The sun was coming up. Dale and Parson had to move fast. Someone would soon discover the bodies.
Dale's first stop was his mother's house, just a few miles before his own on Highway 76. After he left, she called ahead to his trailer. Parson answered.
"Grandma said the state of mind he's in he'd kill every one of us and wouldn't think twice about it," Parson testified.
Dale stopped at his trailer and then continued on 76, toward South Carolina. Parson followed in the Probe. Just before the bridge over the Chattooga River, Dale threw a bloody knife into the woods. He and Parson drove out to South Carolina and then back into Georgia, to Toccoa. Dale steered the Monte Carlo down a muddy road, doused it with gasoline and lit a match.
They took the Probe back toward Clayton and stopped at a friend's trailer just south of town. The friend, Tamara Bye, agreed to drive them back by Dale's place, so Dale could check to see if Desi and Erica were still there and if the law was after him and Parson. On the way there, Dale climbed into the trunk, just in case.
They pulled into the driveway of the trailer, and Parson ran inside. Desi and Erica had left.
Deputies pulled up next to Bye's car and met Parson on the front porch. They said Parson needed to come with them to the sheriff's office. They ordered Bye to follow them in her car. She parked in the sheriff's lot, and investigators brought her and Parson inside for questioning. Deputies took Parson to juvenile jail.
Bye left, carrying Dale to safety.
Once in jail, Parson broke down and told the deputies his uncle had been in the trunk. The deputies went to Bye's house looking for Dale, but Dale saw them coming. He escaped through the woods. The bloodhounds couldn't catch his scent.
The sheriff would, the following afternoon.
He and a GBI agent showed up at Dale's mother's house. She had left the night before to stay in a hotel. Dale was cowering in the guest bedroom, between the bed and the wall.
He went to jail and stayed three years.
Someone, sometime during his stay at the Stephens County jail, told Dale that workers at Tugalo Construction Co. left trucks unlocked, with the keys inside, on the weekends. Tugalo was within walking distance.
Dale began making plans for his escape. By that time, Desi had filed for divorce. The divorce proceedings had helped her get custody of Erica.
Dale finished the letter and laid it on his bunk. On Feb. 10, 2001, he told deputies he was sick. They took him to the shower and then went to check on a commotion they heard in the yard. When they returned, he had disappeared.
Dale drove a Tugalo Construction pickup truck to Montgomery, Ala., where a friend of his lived. He then headed north, to Chicago. A cop pulled him over in Illinois but was called away to a robbery.
Dale met a group of religious people in a Batavia, outside Chicago, and told them about his crimes and his abusive father. The group offered to help him turn himself in to police and promised to stand by him throughout the trial or to travel with him if he fled. But Dale ditched the Tugalo truck instead and took a bus to L.A., alone.
He arrived in California a week after his escape. The same day, "America's Most Wanted," a Fox TV crime-busting show, broadcast Dale's picture and story. He had planned to blend in with the homeless people, but the violence -- and the fact that men and women lived in garbage cans -- bothered him. So he paid a man $7 to share his hotel room. He moved to another room the next day. The day after that, the L.A. police knocked on his door.
Within a month, Dale was returned to the Stephens County jail. He told Sheriff Page that he knew all along he would be caught and returned. He only wanted to have a taste of freedom, to appreciate freedom one last time.
On May 7, Dale's attorneys waived their client's right to a jury trial, opting for Rabun County Superior Court Judge Ernest H. Woods III to hear the case and decide Dale's fate. The move is an unusual one. Defense attorneys generally prefer that 12 jurors, rather than one judge, decide the punishment. But Dale's lawyers are concerned there are not 12 impartial jurors among Rabun County's 14,000 people.
None of the attorneys or witnesses are allowed to comment on the case, according to a gag order issued by the judge two years ago.
"When you have a big murder in a small town, I don't know if you're able to pick a fair jury," says Tunkle, who is not directly involved in the trial. "I think it will be difficult because so many people have heard about it, read about it. It was several years ago. But I don't know. It seems kind of unforgettable."
After Judge Woods allowed the defense to waive a jury trial, Rabun County District Attorney Michael Crawford filed a motion to disqualify Woods, alleging that he's biased against the prosecution. As of press time, Woods hasn't ruled on that motion; the trial is scheduled to begin May 9.
"I feel like going in there and telling the D.A. to sit down and shut up, to listen to what I've got to say and by the time I'm through I'll probably convict myself," Dale writes. "I know I'll fight ... much harder and longer than anyone else would fight for me."
He also writes that "if I could give my life this very second and bring Cathy [sic] Hayes back to life, I would."
He does not say the same about his father.
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