— By Jane Stone
Dateline NBC Producer
Rome, Georgia, may only be a 90-minute drive northwest from Atlanta, but it is indeed a different world. Long gone is the bustle and anonymity of the big city. In its place is Rome, the archetypal small town, a town that seems to have managed to remain more tightly knit than most in this mobile age. Everyone really seems to know everyone else. That's why the murder of Thad Reynolds, one of Rome's own, put the entire community into something resembling a collective depression.
Thad was a popular manager at the Frito Lay company. He was also a deacon at the Hollywood Baptist Church. In a town where they brag there are only two seasons - "football season" and "almost football season" - Thad was the ultimate insider. He played for the team at Coosa High. His wife Michelle was the homecoming queen at Pepperell, the cross-town rival. It was like a match made in high-school heaven, Thad's sister Beverly told me. "He was the football player, she was the cheerleader. They had it all."
I started covering this unlikely small-town murder almost six years ago, not long after Thad's brutal killing. That took place just before dawn at his office at the Frito Lay warehouse on July 5, 2004. By the time I arrived in Rome, the District Attorney had charged Thad's best friend, Richard (Scotty) Harper, and Thad's wife, Michelle, with his murder. The DA was seeking the death penalty for both of them.
For Rome it was shock after shock. The murder of a hometown boy followed by the accusation that the killers were his wife and best friend.
The first report I did on the case aired on Dateline in July 2006, and no one I talked to could make sense of the crime as I prepared that initial story. I had long conversations with the friends of Michelle and Scotty. Those long conversations could be boiled down to this: the friends' bewilderment about what had taken place.
The two couples - Thad and Michelle and Scotty and his wife - were the closest of friends. They celebrated their birthdays, attended sports events and, of course, worshiped together every Sunday morning at the same Baptist church. Their children - seven little girls between the two families - were also the best of friends.
Michelle, for her part, seemed to be happily home-schooling her four little girls while running teen groups at Hollywood Baptist. While she and Thad had married, divorced and then remarried, their story had been celebrated in the local newspaper as a triumph over relationship adversity.
Scotty helped run the computer system at the local hospital, served as the volunteer family pastor at Hollywood Baptist, and was married with three little girls. He, like Thad and Michelle, lived in a house right next door to his parents. He was a well-liked local guy who served in the Air Force before returning to Rome to settle down and raise a family. What could possibly prompt him to drive to the Frito Lay warehouse before dawn and stab his best friend 19 times?
As the facts emerged the most salient seemed to be this: the initiation of a torrid, extra-marital affair between Scotty and Michelle a few weeks before Thad's murder.
Sad, but nothing extraordinary, even in a small town. Extra-marital affairs often lead to divorce, but not very often to brutal murders. That was what people couldn't understand.
In our latest Dateline story on the murder, we get the answers through lengthy and separate interviews with Scotty and Michelle in their high security prisons. For the first time in the 16 years I have been doing legal affairs reporting for Dateline, I had two people tell me in excruciating detail how a violent crime came to pass and their roles in it.
It was a murder that fractured two seemingly all-American families and appears to have had a lasting impact on every citizen in Rome, Georgia, the small town where everyone knows each other and this kind of thing isn't supposed to happen.
"Secrets of the Homecoming Queen" aired Dateline Friday, May 21 at 9pm/8 C. The
full video of the two-hour Dateline report will not be available on
Dateline.msnbc.com. Click here to read a transcript.
After being divorced five years, Michelle and Thad Reynolds reconciled
and remarried on Aug 3, 1997--almost a decade after their first
exchange of wedding vows. The same day they were remarried at Hollywood
Baptist Church, the Rome News-Tribune ran a feature about their journey
back to one another. Click to read more from the Rome News-Tribune.
Faith, Fatherhood, Friendship: Thad Reynolds Remembered.
past January--at the conclusion of the criminal cases of Scott Harper
and Michelle Reynolds--the Rome News-Tribune published a tribute to
Thad Reynolds and the impact he had on his family and the Rome, GA
community. Also included, is a slideshow of images.
Click here to read more from the Rome News-Tribune.