By Andria Simmons
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
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Parker convicted in utility worker's death. It took a Gwinnett county jury just 15 minutes of deliberation Wednesday ro find a Dacula man guilty of gunning down a Gwinnett Public Utilities worker and setting his car ablaze.
John Steakley's Note:
James Lee Parker was a murder case I prosecuted along with my fellow prosecutor (and now Chief Magistrate Court Judge) George Hutchinson during my tenure in the Gwinnett County District Attorney's Office. It was Valentine's Day of 2003 when John Schandera left his job at the Gwinnett water department and stopped at the QT on the corner of 316 and Hwy 29. Witnesses had seen James Lee Parker in the store moments before John walked in to buy a flowers for his wife on his way home. That was the last time he was seen alive. As best we can tell, Parker approached Schandera outside the QT and either asked for a ride or brandished a firearm and demanded one. Across from that QT was a gravel road leading east toward Parker's home. Schandera's car was found burning near that road the next morning, and John Schandera's body was found in a ditch nearby. From the wounds, we suspected there was a struggle inside the car, Schandera abandoned the struggle, fled the car, and Parker shot him from behind. Parker was identified when local residents riding ATV's one night noticed a pickup truck parked in the road near where Schandera's body was found. It was Parker's truck, and he was likely returning to the scene to see if he left any shell casings from his handgun behind. (The casings were later found in Schandera's burned car.) Their assistance and a partial license plate was the break police had been hoping for. Parker told several versions of events to police. He also asked his mother to lie to the police for him, which she refused to do. He then testified at his trial. He made a horrible witness and none of his stories made sense. The trial lasted into the second week. When the case finally went to the jury, they returned with a guilty verdict in 15 minutes, which as far as anyone can tell is the quickest murder verdict in Gwinnett County history. I was honored to meet and familiarize myself with both families. Unlike what we often see in the criminal justice system, both men were from stable homes with parents that loved them. Neither man appeared to have in his life the problems that often lead to violent criminal behavior. But it was Valentine's Day. Both men had wives and both men were trying to do something special for their wives that day. John Schandera worked for the money he used to buy those flowers that his young wife never got. James Lee Parker took a different path and decided to steal for his money. What was probably going to be a routine armed robbery turned into a murder and a tragic loss of life and destroyed families.