Rhonda Sue Coleman went out with some of her classmates on the evening of Thursday, May 17, 1990. The 18-year-old, a senior at Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst, Georgia, joined a group of friends who were working on decorations for their upcoming graduation. They finished up around 10:00 pm, and one of Rhonda’s friends dropped her off at a nearby convenience store where she had left her car. From there, Rhonda had a six-mile drive back to her family home. She promised her parents she would be home by her 10:30 pm curfew, but she never made it to her house.

Less than an hour later, one of Rhonda’s friends was driving on Bell Telephone Road, the same road that Rhonda took to get to her home. She was surprised to see Rhonda’s Chevrolet Cavalier parked on a dirt road that intersected Bell Telephone Road. The car’s headlights were on and the engine was running, but the driver’s door was open as if Rhonda had stepped out of the vehicle. Her purse was sitting on the passenger seat but there was no sign of the teenager. Concerned, Rhonda’s friend drove to the nearest gas station and called police.

Rhonda’s parents, Milton and Gayle Coleman, had dozed off while waiting for their daughter to come home. Milton woke up around 11:30 pm and immediately noticed that Rhonda still wasn’t back. Fearing she might have had car trouble, he decided to drive around to look for her. Minutes later, he spotted Rhonda’s car, which was being inspected by several sheriff’s deputies. They told the concerned father that they weren’t sure what had happened to the teenager.

Rhonda was Milton and Gayle’s only child. They normally didn’t let her stay out so late on a school night but had agreed to extend her curfew that night so she could help with the graduation decorations. Rhonda, a good student who planned on going to nursing school, had always obeyed her curfew in the past.

Rhonda was scheduled to graduate from high school on June 2, 1990. The week after that, she planned to go on the senior class cruise, an event she had been looking forward to for months. Richard Dixon, the principal of Jeff Davis High School, said that everyone was concerned for the teenager’s safety. “Rhonda is just not the type to run away. She is a good student, very active in Future Farmers of America. The students are very concerned and scared of what might have happened to her…most of them have known Rhonda since kindergarten.”

Rhonda’s best friend, Trice Thompson, said that Rhonda had driven along Bell Telephone Road dozens of times. “It’s not a dangerous road, but it’s dark. She knew not to stop. She would not have stopped for anybody on that road…I’m worried. I just can’t understand what’s happened to her.”

Deputies scoured Rhonda’s car and the area around it for any sign of the missing teenager. They discovered footprints leading away from her driver’s door in the direction of a set of tire tracks; officials believed that Rhonda had gotten into another vehicle at this point. There was nothing to indicate a struggle had taken place, leading them to believe that she had most likely known the person in the second vehicle.

As they searched along the road, investigators ran into a raccoon hunter exiting the woods about two miles away from where Rhonda’s car was found. The hunter recalled seeing a dark-colored pickup truck with a short bed drive past him around the time Rhonda disappeared; the man heard a woman’s voice yelling but thought it was just a couple of teenagers joking around.

Many of Rhonda’s classmates skipped school on Friday so they could join the search for her. More than 300 volunteers spent hours combing through the area surrounding where her car had been abandoned but found no clues to Rhonda’s whereabouts.

Jeff Davis County Sheriff Mark Hall said that he believed Rhonda had been abducted. “The car wasn’t hidden. It wasn’t turned off the paved road. It looked like someone she knew or thought she knew motioned for her to stop. I believe she got out of the car expecting to get right back in.” After interviewing Rhonda’s parents and friends, detectives determined she had no problems at home and didn’t fit the profile of a typical runaway. “We suspect foul play.”

Investigators spent Friday and Saturday following up on tips they received, but none of them led to Rhonda. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office stated, “We’ve checked out several leads from Savannah to Montezuma, but we don’t have anything concrete yet.” Investigators from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Hazlehurst Police Department were assisting the sheriff’s office in the search.

Around 2:30 pm Sunday, a man appraising timber in a wooded area of Montgomery County found Rhonda’s body. It was located about three miles away from the Jeff Davis County line and about 15 miles away from where Rhonda’s car had been found. Montgomery County Coroner Lewis Palmer confirmed that the body belonged to the missing teenager; the missing person case was officially a homicide investigation.

Rhonda’s de*ath had been brutal. The coroner determined that the teenager had been strangled, then her k*iller had doused her head and hands with gasoline and lit her on fire. Her badly burned body was still fully clothed when she was found and she didn’t appear to have been s*exually assaulted. The area where her body had been left was quite secluded, leading detectives to believe that her ki*ller was someone familiar with the area.

The mu*rder stunned the 13,000 residents of Jeff Davis County. Sheriff Hall admitted that their fears were justified. “A pretty, sweet, little girl like that who’d never done anything to anybody and some maniac — I don’t know what in the hell else you’d call him — can do a thing like that to her.” He said although they had questioned multiple people, they hadn’t made any arrests.

All of Rhonda’s classmates who had been with her in the hours leading up to her mu*rder were interviewed by detectives. They noted that Rhonda had been in a good mood when they gathered at senior Mickey Beecher’s home to make a banner for their graduating class. Now, classmate Russ Creamer admitted that the graduation festivities wouldn’t be the same without Rhonda. “We’ve waited 12 years to graduate…now we don’t even want to. They can just send my diploma in the mail.”

Detectives also spoke with all of Rhonda’s co-workers at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket in Hazlehurst, where she had worked as a cashier. Ronnie Sill, the store manager, stated, “Everyone feels like our hearts have been ripped out. Everyone here feels the loss.” He described Rhonda as a friendly young woman who lived her life to the fullest and dreamed of being a pediatric nurse. No one could imagine who might have wanted to harm her.

Milton said his daughter was a warm and loving teenager; like everyone else, he couldn’t understand why anyone would have wanted to hurt her. She loved spending time with her friends and her family. “Rhonda liked to just be with us…I’ll never regret a minute I spent with her.”

By Tuesday, black bows could be found on the doors of nearly every business in Hazlehurst, including the courthouse. They were a silent memorial to a vivacious teenager whose life had been taken far too soon. Detectives continued their quest for the k*iller, but admitted that the man they had considered the prime suspect had been cleared after he passed a polygraph examination.

Officials announced that there was a $9,500 reward being offered for information leading to Rhonda’s ki*ller. They hoped that this would bring in some new tips that could help them identify the mur*derer. While they still believed that Rhonda had known the person she got into a vehicle with, they had been unable to identify any solid suspects.

Rhonda’s funeral was held on Wednesday, May 23, 1990. Many of the businesses in Hazlehurst, including the Piggly Wiggly where she had worked, closed for the day so their employees could attend the service. More than 1,000 people flooded into Southside Baptist Church to pay their respects to the slain teenager.

While mourners were inside the church, investigators combed through the parking lot, searching for any sign of a dark-colored pickup truck with a short bed like the one described by the raccoon hunter. They believed that Rhonda’s k*iller had driven such a truck, and thought it was possible he might attend her funeral.

An unidentified man called detectives and told them he thought he had seen the k*iller’s truck on the night Rhonda went missing, and he was able to provide them with a partial license plate number. He said the truck had been dark blue and white, and the license plate included the number “8374.” The driver had been male and was wearing a striped shirt. Sheriff Hall noted that there were 84 counties in Georgia that issued license plates with the sequence of numbers reported by the witness. “We’ll check them all beginning with the counties closest to home.”

By June 1, 1990, the reward for information in Rhonda’s case was up to $15,000. GBI Agent Martin Moses said that investigators were still combing through DMV records in an attempt to identify the owner of the truck seen near Rhonda’s car but didn’t have any new information to share. “We’re still going full speed. We’re going to stay with it as long as it takes.”

Investigators spent two weeks combing through license plate records trying to find the plate referred to by the anonymous tipster. They asked for the person to call back with additional information, promising him he could remain anonymous, but the man never called back and detectives eventually determined his tip had been nothing more than a hoax.

Months went by and the case started to stall. Although detectives desperately wanted to find the person responsible for Rhonda’s d*eath, tips stopped coming in and they had exhausted all available leads. Sheriff Hall was optimistic that the case would eventually be solved, but admitted they needed help from the public. Anyone with any information, no matter how insignificant it seemed, was urged to call investigators.

A year after Rhonda was ki*lled, her loved ones were still waiting for her k*iller to be caught. Milton admitted, “If we could ever get answers, maybe we could start putting more of it behind us. Yes, I’m angry…who wouldn’t be? You can never go back to the same life you had.” He said that he and Gayle had left Rhonda’s room untouched; it looked exactly as it had when she left for the last time a year earlier.

Sheriff Hall had Rhonda’s picture on every wall of his office. In his 23 years as sheriff, this was the first violent crime in the county he had been unable to solve. “Any other case I’ve had, I could come up with a reason almost immediately, and probably a good suspect. This time I haven’t come up with either — but I will.”

Sadly, Sheriff Hall was never able to find Rhonda’s k*iller. On June 21, 1992, the 61-year-old was ki*lled in a shootout with a suspect he had considered a friend. The man was also ki*lled in the confrontation. It was another devastating blow to the community, which had been so safe that many of the law enforcement officers — including Sheriff Hall — rarely carried guns when they went out on calls.

In January 1993, Jimmy Boatwright became the sheriff of Jeff Davis County. He told reporters that his number one priority was to solve Rhonda’s mu*rder. He stated that investigators had a suspect in mind but didn’t have any solid evidence linking him to the crime. They continued to hope someone would come forward with the vital information they needed to make an arrest, but no one did.

By 1998, Rhonda had been dead for eight years and the case, though still being actively investigated, hadn’t had any major development for almost as long. The reward for information, which was up to $35,000, remained unclaimed. GBI Agent Pamela Rushton noted, “This case is a complicated jigsaw puzzle with a couple of crucial pieces missing. We’re hoping the person or persons responsible have told somebody about it and that guilt or greed will help those with knowledge overcome whatever loyalty they feel to the k*iller.”

Decades went by and the identity of Rhonda’s ki*ller remained a mystery. Nearly 30 years after the mur*der, her parents hired a private investigator to assist in their search for answers. Jody Ponsell, a retired GBI agent, wouldn’t discuss what he learned but said he was hopeful that the case would finally be solved. “I’m no different from any of the other officers who have worked on the case. It’s very near and dear to all of us.”

Over the years, there have been many rumors about the case but few facts have been made public. Family members were initially suspicious of Rhonda’s ex-boyfriend, as they had broken up because he was too controlling. He had an alibi for the time of the crime, however, and was never publicly named a suspect.

There have been whispers that the case is still unsolved because law enforcement was attempting to cover up for one of their own — some even speculated that the son of former Sheriff Hall was involved. With little solid evidence, many believe that Rhonda’s family will never obtain justice.

In April 2023, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed the Coleman-Baker Act into law. Named for Rhonda and another mur*der victim, this act allows families to request cold cases be reinvestigated using new technology and allows them to view the case file if six or more years have passed since the crime.

Rhonda Sue Coleman was just 18 years old when she was brutally mur*dered in Hazlehurst, Georgia in May 1990. Rhonda was only a few weeks away from her high school graduation and had plans to go to nursing school. An only child, she was very close with her parents and was popular at school with no known enemies. Detectives have never publicly named any suspects in her mu*rder and the case has been cold for decades, but her parents continue to hope they will one day find out who ki*lled their daughter. If you have any information about Rhonda’s mu*rder, please contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation at 912–389–4103. There is a $35,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Rhonda’s k*iller.

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