WAYCROSS, Ga. – Two days after a man and woman were found dead in their home in the Waycross area, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced Wednesday that the son of the woman and the son’s wife were arrested and each charged with two counts of felony murder.
The GBI said in a news release Wednesday morning that Bernard Rittenhouse, 55, of Waycross, is charged in connection with the deaths of his mother, Virginia Thomas, 73, and her partner of 10 years, Charles Barnett, 75, whose bodies were discovered Monday in their bed at their home on South Lakeview Drive.
Rittenhouse is also charged with one count of burglary.
Later Wednesday, the GBI said that Rittenhouse’s wife, Janet Rittenhouse, 53, of Waycross, was also arrested. She faces an additional count of party to the crime of burglary.
Thomas and Barnett were found by a family member around 8:30 a.m., the GBI said. According to the GBI, they had suffered apparent gunshot wounds.
“This is a truly sad and heinous crime that was committed on Mr. Barnett and Ms. Thomas,” Ware County Sheriff Carl James said in a Facebook post. “I would like to thank the GBI agents, as well as our Detectives and Deputies that have worked so tirelessly to ensure that justice can be done.”
Rittenhouse was taken to the Ware County Jail on Tuesday, GBI said.
That same day, GBI agents could be seen going door to door to talk with neighbors. Neighbors who News4JAX spoke with said they never heard any gunshots. Several neighbors said they saw a large police presence outside the house but didn’t know what happened to the couple until the GBI announced it was taking over the investigation into a double homicide.
The same day the GBI announced Rittenhouse’s arrest, News4JAX spoke with Thomas’ sister, Hazel Wade, who had expected to reunite with Thomas on Monday — the same day Thomas and Barnett were found dead. Wade said that for months, she had planned a trip from Albany to Waycross to visit her sister, who she hadn’t seen a year and a half.
“We talked a week before this happened, and she was so happy,” Wade recalled.
She said she wants Thomas to be remembered “as a loving, Christian woman, a good woman that never, never deserved what she got.”
She also talked with News4JAX about the conversations she had with her nephew before and after the deaths of the couple.
She said that she talked with Thomas’ son, who they call “Ritt,” on Saturday and that he said he was helping get things ready for Wade’s arrival. Two days later, Wade said, Rittenhouse told his aunt that his mother and his mother’s partner were dead.
“He called me between 8 and 9 Monday morning, and I answered the phone, and I was asleep, and he said, ‘Mom and pop is dead.’ I jumped up, and I said, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘Mom and pop is dead.’ He wasn’t actually crying or anything, and I thought that was kind of strange,” Wade recounted. “I said, ‘Really? How did they die?’ ‘I don’t know.’”
Wade continued questioning her nephew.
“He said, ‘I walked in, I seen them, I knew they were dead and called 911,’” she said. “I said, ‘Ritt, did they break in?’ He said, ‘No, the door was just wide open.’”
She said she pushed him a little more.
“I said, ‘Ritt, how did you know they were dead? Was they shot? What?’ ‘No, no, no, I don’t know,’” Wade said. “He was so wishy-washy.”
Wade said Rittenhouse would often take care of the couple, both of whom suffered from medical issues.
“He had a key because he told me a few months back they had taken his key and changed the locks, but he had made him a key, and I had told my sister, but they couldn’t afford new locks,” Wade said.
Wade said the couple changed their locks because they often found their pain pills missing.
The GBI hasn’t said which day the two were believed to be killed.
Thomas’ brother, Dewey Griffin, said he saw Barnett at church on Sunday morning.
“He was just as jolly as you could expect,” he said, adding that he had no idea it would be the last time he saw him.
Wade is asking for prayers for both Thomas’ and Barnett’s families during this difficult time. They said they are waiting for an autopsy report, and the GBI said the case is still an active and ongoing investigation.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call the GBI Douglas Field Office at 912-389-4103 or the Ware County Sheriff’s Office at 912-287-4327. Anonymous tips can also be submitted by calling 1-800-597-TIPS (8477), online at https://gbi.georgia.gov/submit-tips-online, or by downloading the See Something, Send Something mobile app.