Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Lita McClinton Sullivan Murder Case

Gathering Evidence

Following Lita's murder, Sullivan became one of the primary suspects in the police investigation. It made sense: Lita threatened Sullivan's financial situation and the money he hoped would propel him to the social heights he so eagerly sought. Even though the motive was apparent, proving Sullivan was indeed responsible for her death was another matter.

Composite of one of the three men described by witnesses
Composite of one of the three men described by witnesses

Early on in the investigation, witnesses came forward with the description of three men seen racing from the crime scene, none of whose composites matched Sullivan. It was suspected that the men had been hired by Sullivan to kill Lita. Investigators hoped to learn the identity of the men and discover if they were in some way linked to Sullivan.

During the investigation, police discovered that the descriptions of the three men witnessed at or near the crime scene strongly resembled those of men seen at a local flower shop less than a mile from Lita's residence. The men had purchased pink roses there the morning of the murder. Witnesses also claimed to have seen three men matching the composites at a local Howard Johnson's hotel, into which they had allegedly checked just a few days before the murder. Investigation determined that they had checked in using false names. More significantly, three phones calls had been made from the men's hotel room, all of which were to James Sullivan.

Investigators questioned Sullivan about the phone calls but he vehemently denied having anything to do with the alleged culprits or Lita's murder. He claimed that the murder was likely connected to a drug deal gone bad, suggesting that Lita had used drugs recreationally. Many following the case were shocked by Sullivan's story but bought into it nonetheless, finding it easier to accept than the prospect that he was capable of something so horrendous. Those who knew Lita intimately knew Sullivan was lying.

The police were also not so easily persuaded by Sullivan's story. They subpoenaed his phone records and made an interesting discovery. Someone had called Sullivan from a rest stop outside of Atlanta, Ga., just 40 minutes after Lita had been shot. The police believed the phone call was a signal from the murderer or murderers to Sullivan that Lita had been killed, although their suspicion could not be substantiated. It was clear that more evidence was needed to link Sullivan to the crime. Just weeks later, they got another big break in the case upon reviewing wiretap transcripts from Sullivan's phone.

In February 1987, Sullivan called a friend in Georgia and discussed Lita's murder and the ongoing investigation. During that call, Sullivan mentioned that Lita had been murdered with a 9 mm weapon. The caliber of the gun was information that the police had deliberately withheld in the hopes the true killer might slip up and reveal the information, which seemed to be exactly what had happened.

Even though the break in the case was big, it was unfortunately not enough to indict Sullivan. The evidence collected after Lita's death was largely circumstantial and there was no direct link established between Sullivan and her murder. Moreover, none of the three men linked to the crime were ever found. Based on the lack of evidence, Atlanta's district attorney decided not to bring charges. Consequently, Sullivan remained free, and the case remained unsolved, at least for the time being.

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