Ex-con accused of killing teacher in Panama Park home

24-year-old ex-con tells friend he killed woman during burglary, police say

By Ashley Spicer - Reporter, anchor, Scott Johnson - Reporter, Kent Justice - Anchor/reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A 24-year-old ex-convict was arrested Sunday in the random "horrific home invasion murder" of a longtime elementary school music teacher late last month, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said.

Adam Lawson Jr. is charged with murder, burglary, car theft and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon in the death of 62-year-old Deborah Liles, the Sheriff's Office announced Monday. 

Liles -- a mother of five children and a grandmother -- was beaten to death March 23 in her home on East 59th Street in the Panama Park neighborhood, police said. Her husband found her dead in the kitchen of their ransacked home. Her car was also taken.

"He went and preyed on a small little lady, just taking care of her house, for a couple TVs. He took this man's best friend, and our mother," said Rachel Sirmans, Liles' eldest child. "He wrecked our lives."

Two days after it was stolen, Liles' gold 2010 Buick Lacrosse was found on Notter Avenue, just off Golfair Boulevard. Police obtained surveillance footage from the day of the murder of the car going into a mobile home park near the intersection of Main and 40th streets -- only a couple of miles from Liles' home. 

Detectives also learned that Lawson had admitted to a woman friend that he had killed someone while burglarizing a house, according to the Sheriff's Office. 

Police questioned Lawson on Sunday night and searched his home in the Long Branch Mobile Home Park, finding a pair of shoes with blood on them. The shoes were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's lab.

Lawson was arrested and charged with murder, auto theft, burglary and possession of a handgun by a convicted felon.

Police said the gun was not used in the killing, which was the result of blunt force trauma.  

On Monday, News4Jax stopped by the Northside mobile home park where Lawson was living. Neighbors said they saw detectives outside Lawson's trailer, but had no idea they were there as part of a murder investigation. 

"Probably four detectives, they were talking about, like, electronics being stolen or something. Nobody said anything about a murder," said a neighbor named Mark. "They let all types of people in here, so that's not surprising."

Another neighbor said Lawson didn't appear to be violent. 

"I know him personally. But I don't think he was capable of that," said Deborah Martinez, who lives in the mobile home park. "I didn't know about any murder."

Lawson, who got out of state prison about a year ago after serving a six-year sentence on a burglary charge out of Polk County, was booked into the Duval County Jail just after midnight Monday. 

Music teacher's family faces accused killer in court

Adam Lawson appears in court

Deborah Liles' family was in Duval County court Monday when a judge denied Adam Lawson bond on the murder charge. 

"It’s good to see him within the justice system. I have to say, I am a little overwhelmed. I’ve had a monster in my mind, and he’s just a small-framed someone that didn’t recognize the value of human life, and that part is very difficult for me," said Michael Liles, the victim's husband. "We're confident they've got the right person. But this is the beginning, not the end."

WATCH: Victim's family reacts to seeing accused killer in court

Members of Liles' family who were in the courtroom for the first appearance hearing told News4Jax that they were angry Lawson never turned around to face them. 

"He kept looking forward the entire time and we really wanted to see his face and we wanted him to see ours -- the family of the woman whose life he took," said her son Gerald Liles. "We have to continue to grieve and say goodbye to my mom and we have to come to terms with what justice means and how slow the wheels turn."

The family struggled to stay positive as they explained their anguish over the man accused of murder -- a man they didn't get to see face to face.

Liles family at court hearing

"I hope he never sees the light of day again. He's a monster and a little, cowardly monster," Sirmans said. "He couldn't even turn around and look at us."

After the hearing, Liles' husband and children spoke to News4Jax about her love and her place in the community. 

"We think of all the things we'll have to live through without her. She was physically fit and active, and I thought my mom would be in my life until she was 90. So we're devastated. But we do appreciate your help in the community. I mean, we were terrified when he was at large," Sirmans said. 

The family also expressed their appreciation for police finding a suspect as quickly as they did. 

"(We have such a) profound sense of gratitude for the detectives and sense of love at her service. It was so amazing," said Michelle, Liles' daughter. "But today, experiencing what we had to, I realized just how deep the sense of loss is going to be for the rest of my life."

Liles' five children have set up a memorial fund that will go to the music program at San Jose Elementary School, where Liles taught, to keep it going strong even though their mother is no longer there. To donate, click here.

"There are hundreds of children at San Jose Elementary today who should just be having another day in music. And they're not going to have that because he stole from a community and he's stolen from Jacksonville," said Dana Standridge, Liles' daughter.

Lawson, who is being represented by the public defender's office, will face a judge again at 9 a.m. on April 25.

Not first attack on teacher

Liles' children remember an incident that happened decades ago, in which their mother survived a brutal attack at the same house when she was about five months pregnant. 

Her attacker, Curtis Head, was a career felon with 33 arrests before he went to Liles' home looking to do yardwork. When she turned him down, he broke in through her back door, tied her up, beat her and robbed her.

1993 sentencing hearing in Deborah Liles attack |
Sentencing in 1993 Deborah Liles attack |
Liles family celebrates Thanksgiving after 1993 attack

Head had been out of prison just 47 days when he committed the home invasion, and is now spending life in prison for the attack.

“I think the best thing for his life at this point would be to eliminate the possibility of him ever doing anything like this to anyone ever again,” Deborah Liles said during the trial.

News4Jax covered the story extensively in 1993 as Deborah Liles took the witness stand to stare down the man who brutally beat her.

“Once he put his hand around the back of my neck, excuse me, I faced death. I laid there on the couch, and I thought, 'I love being a mother of four children. I don't want it to end,'” she testified. “I have hospital bills. I have scar tissue on the inside of my mouth that may be there, but that's minimal. The impact is it has changed my perspective of life. I love life, but I had an event happen to me that should have only happened in the movies.”

After the attack in 1993, Deborah Liles and her husband fought to strengthen laws. When the family celebrated their first Thanksgiving after the attack, Deborah Liles spoke about the gift of life.

“With a lot of things in life, you have to come near losing it or almost lose it to appreciate it, and life is one thing that I almost lost,” she said.

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