JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A 74-year-old woman missing from Jacksonville was found dead Thursday night in Henry County, Georgia, south of Atlanta, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said.
Phillip Jason Smith, the 37-year-old man Janice Walker Fulton was believed to be with, had stopped for gas in the Kia Optima that police were looking for.
Locust Grove police -- who were alerted the car might be in their area when JSO pinged the GPS tracker in the car -- located the vehicle about 10 p.m., found Fulton's body and took Smith into custody without incident.
“Our patrol units located the vehicle at the Murphy Oil gas station and they performed a traffic stop on that vehicle. Through their investigation, the driver was questioned on an unrelated drug charge. He had marijuana in his possession, at which time the officers located a body in the vehicle," said Detective Darryl Shoemaker of the Locust Grove Police Department. "The body was concealed in the interior of the vehicle.”
Police learned about Fulton's disappearance when her grandson called Thursday afternoon to report her missing. According to the police report, she had not been seen since last Saturday and something in the house made officers believe a serious injury had taken place there.
There’s no word on a motive or cause of death, although police in Georgia reported Fulton had multiple blunt-force injuries. Jacksonville police believe Fulton was killed in Jacksonville before Smith headed north.
Police have not said how Fulton and Smith knew each other, but neighbors told News4Jax that Smith was Fulton's nephew and the two lived together.
Smith was being held in connection with Fulton's death and will be returned to Jacksonville to face prosecution. He waived extradition at a hearing Friday afternoon.
"We turned over all evidence to them (JSO), so they took the vehicle and every other piece of evidence collected," Shoemaker said.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith expects there will be a lengthy investigation due to evidence found in two states.
"There’s a lot more information to gather. The forensic evidence that they found in Jacksonville, and what appears in the car. They have to see if he has any of his DNA or marking or anything like that to see if they can tie him to the murder and let the evidence speak for itself," Smith said.
News4Jax checked with the Florida Department of Corrections and discovered Smith was released from prison less than a year ago after serving four years on a conviction for burglary and exploiting an elderly or disabled person.
According to an arrest report, Smith was a part-time caretaker of an 89-year-old man in Bay County in the Florida Panhandle. He was charged with breaking into the man's house, stealing a credit card and using it for his own purposes. The arrest report said Smith made $2,300 in cash withdrawals, paid his utility bill, car insurance bill and cellphone bill, and bought a ring for a woman that cost $471.
Anyone who saw Fulton, Smith or the vehicle is asked to contact investigators at 904-630-0500 as they try to piece together what happened to Fulton.
Fulton's neighbors told News4Jax that Fulton had moved into the home on Blackstone Court, off Normandy Boulevard, a few months ago and they had seen Smith in the neighborhood, but no one thought anything was wrong.
"It's a good neighborhood, but you just never know what's going on inside someone's house," neighbor Erika Smith said. "And to hear that this happened to her is tragic. I feel sorry for the family."
Erika Smith said Fulton’s mail was accidentally delivered to her address, allowing them to meet recently.
"That was my first time and my last time, I guess I could say, seeing her," she said.
Peter Dyer, another neighbor, said Fulton was nice and quiet, like most of his neighbors.
"Nobody bothers nobody around here, so this is just shocking, sad," Dyer said. "We here in the community, we're going to pray as well because this is our community and that shouldn't happen nowhere. Period."
Fulton's family declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation and asked for privacy.