ALBANY, Ga. -- It's been 21 years and counting since Betty Jean Ford lost her oldest daughter ... since Jasper Hunt lost his oldest sister ... since JaWanda Hunt lost her mother.
But the hurt from that loss runs so deep, it's with Kathleen Hunt's family every day. It lingers like a wound that won't heal, and with each new reminder their souls bleed anew.
And they remember.
"There's nary a day that goes by that my Mama doesn't cross my mind," JaWanda Hunt, now 32, says as tears flow freely down her cheeks. "I keep thinking, 'Why did it have to be my Mama?' I keep questioning God ... But I can't get an answer."
Kathleen Hunt's body was found by a Georgia State Patrol Trooper on July 20, 1990, on Jewel Crowe Road in rural Worth County, 14 miles north of Sylvester. The Trooper said in a report that was relayed to The Albany Herald the next day by a GSP spokesperson that he'd observed the 1978 Ford Thunderbird in which Kathleen Hunt was found traveling at speeds in excess of 100 mph.
The spokesperson told The Herald that the Thunderbird had overturned on the dirt road and that contributing factors in Hunt's death were the fact that she was not wearing a safety belt, "loss of driver control and traveling too fast for conditions."
The report concluded that Kathleen Hunt's death was a tragic traffic fatality.
But the family members who mourn Kathleen Hunt's death some two decades later insist the report is inaccurate. They believe she was murdered and left in the car by someone else.
And the years have done nothing to shake that belief.
"In my heart, I believe my sister was killed here in Dougherty County," Jasper Hunt, who has worked in The Albany Herald's business office for 14 years, said. "A Dougherty County police officer said at the time that he saw two cars driving together on U.S. 82, and he chased the one that was going fastest. When the car reached the Worth County line, he stopped.
"The trooper that worked the case said my sister was driving the car at speeds of over 100 mph. Well, in all of my life, my sister never drove a car. She didn't know how to drive. There's no way she would have been driving a car at over 100 mph."
Both Ford and JaWanda Hunt, who was 11 years old when her mother died, said Kathleen Hunt had never driven a vehicle in their presence.
"I worked with her every day at Sunnyland Farms after she got old enough to work," Ford said of her daughter. "I know she didn't ever drive a car. She never even talked about getting a driver's license."
RECORDS LONG GONE
The passage of time has made it all but impossible to find information about the night that Kathleen Hunt died. Sgt. Shawn Urquhart, who is assistant commander at Georgia State Patrol Post 40 in Albany, said reports on automobile crashes are kept for only 10 years before being disposed of. She suggested contacting GSP's public information office in Atlanta, which in turn suggested contacting the state Department of Transportation's accident report office.
Carlethia Johnson in that Atlanta-based office said records of crashes, even those that involve fatalities, are disposed of after 10 years.
"I don't think you'll find that report if there's nothing local," Johnson said. "Ten years is it for our office."
Since Dougherty County police reportedly initiated a chase after the car in which Kathleen Hunt's body would turn up, a search of that agency's records was requested. DCP Assistant Chief Cynthia Battle, who's been with that agency for 30 years, said a check of files from 1989 to 1991 turned up no report related to Hunt.
"There was nothing in our files, and I even checked the detectives' files for anything related to that case," Battle said. "There was nothing. I asked around to see if someone who was with the force at that time remembered anything about it, but I got nothing."
Worth County Sheriff Freddie Tompkins, who has been with that department since 1973, said he did not remember the case.
"We lost records from that time in a courthouse fire, so there's no written account," he said. "And I just can't remember off the top of my head anything about it. If the State Patrol worked the case as an accident, I doubt there was ever a report filed in our office.
"I'm going to think about this and see if anything comes to me, but right now I'm drawing a blank."
Ford, who was called to the morgue in Worth County to identify her daughter's body, said she's bothered still about the lack of investigation into Kathleen Hunt's death.
"They called me down to identify her body, but that was about it," Ford said. "They didn't really ask us any questions, and they never did any follow-up investigation. They just said she was in a wreck.
"I can't believe they didn't look into it that she had never driven before. We all knew that. It was so hard to lose a child like that. I still feel like she's right here with us every day."
A LONG SHOT
Jasper Hunt said on the day of his sister's death, she came to see him while he was getting a haircut.
"She was in a good mood, smiling that beautiful smile she had," he said. "She told me she was going to come see me later, but I didn't think that much about it. We were really close, so I figured I'd see her that night.
"I'd been hanging out with some friends, and when I came back to my place my girlfriend was there crying. I asked her what was wrong and she told me I needed to go to my mother's house. When I got there, I went into the kitchen and Mama told me, 'The police said they found "Cat" dead in Sylvester.' "
Jasper Hunt said his father and uncle, both of whom are now deceased, met with law enforcement officials in Worth County.
"The police told them Cat was driving the car, and we couldn't believe that," he said. "She didn't know how to drive. They said the State Patrol found my sister sitting on the driver's side with both doors open. She had a broken neck.
"Nobody's ever been charged with anything in the case, and as far as I know it's never been looked at as anything but a car accident. But I still believe she was murdered in Albany. I think in a small town like that, they just closed the case."
JaWanda Hunt said she learned of her mother's death from some of her cousins, who came to their home at 1:30 a.m. after receiving a call from law enforcement officials.
"I just couldn't believe it," she said. "My Mama was such a sweet and loving person, and she brought so much joy to people. She'd never let me go anywhere without fixing up my hair, and I always loved it when my Mama took me shopping.
"We always had fun together when we did mother/daughter stuff.
Losing that hurt me so much."
Kathleen Hunt's family said they want to share their story for a number of reasons.
"We want to remember this woman that all of us loved so much," Jasper Hunt said. "And we're hoping that maybe someone who knows what really happened to her will come forward and tell us.
Maybe someone saw her with somebody or heard someone talking about Kathleen. It's a long shot, but we're willing to take it.
"It's been more than 21 years since my sister's death, and my family is still grieving. Hopefully by telling our story, we can finally find some closure."