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Last defendant in 1975 cold case homicide pleads guilty to reduced charges

The guilt of not telling what he knew about a homicide was worse than war, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and POW escapee told a judge Thursday.

For the man who had saved so many lives during his tours of duty, Charles Chavous was tortured because he did not try to save Bronzi Leon Peppers on Feb. 3, 1975, said Chavous’ attorney, Scott Connell.

Who killed Peppers with a gunshot to his head remained a mystery until late 2009, when a prison inmate wrote to a former district attorney and current Superior Court judge, Daniel J. Craig, with information on the cold case, said Assistant District Attorney John Markwalter.

Mark Dobbins, a Richmond County sheriff’s investigator, had to build a new case file on Peppers’ homicide because the original was destroyed by flooding in the old sheriff’s office, Markwalter said. He located one of the men present the night Peppers was killed, and from there he tracked down the others, including Chavous.

Chavous was with Tony Ouzts, Mark Hill and William Coffey III when the other men hatched a plan to kidnap Peppers. Ouzts believed that Peppers had cheated him in a marijuana deal, and he wanted to exchange Peppers’ freedom for the marijuana, Markwalter said.

When Ouzts and Coffey tried to grab Peppers in the front yard of his Meadowbrook subdivision home, they didn’t realize Peppers was highly skilled in martial arts. All information indicates Ouzts was the one who shot Peppers, Markwalter said.

The men fled after the shooting and never contacted law enforcement. Ouzts was killed in a vehicle crash about 10 years later, the prosecutor said.

Chavous, 63, Hill, 58, and Coffey, 62, were indicted on murder charges in 2010.

Chavous’ attorney told the judge Thursday that Chavous was hospitalized for several years after Peppers’ killing, and for some time in the 1990s he was declared mentally incompetent to handle his own affairs.

Now competent, Chavous is treated with medication for post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression, Connell said. He is disabled because of the wounds he suffered in Vietnam.

Chavous served in the Marines as a “tunnel rat,” one of the men who went alone into extensive systems of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong. He was wounded five times, Connell said. He was captured and held captive, but escaped and carried another prisoner out, too, his attorney said.

Chavous is one of the highest-decorated veterans of the Vietnam War, Connell told the court. His medals include two Bronze Stars and the Navy Cross, Connell said.

The night Peppers was killed, Chavous froze, Connell said. He has been overwhelmed with guilt ever since.

“I’m sorry it happened. Tell the family I’m sorry,” Chavous said Thursday in Richmond County Superior Court when he pleaded guilty to hindering the apprehension of a criminal and concealing the death of another.

Judge Michael N. Annis sentenced Chavous to five years’ probation and imposed a $1,000 fine.

Hill pleaded guilty in October 2012 to voluntary manslaughter and a weapons charge. Annis sentenced Hill to seven years in prison, followed by 18 years on probation. Annis sentenced Coffey in October 2012 to five years in prison, followed by five years’ probation for hindering the apprehension of a criminal and concealing the death of another.

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