I need to begin, I suppose, by stating my belief that criminal defendants should be legally “innocent until proven guilty” by a jury, even when I strongly suspect they are guilty as hell. With one exception: a well-known Atlanta murder for hire that occurred 24 years ago.
There was a day, a location, and a moment, when I KNEW, without a doubt that James Vincent Sullivan, a once cocky, coldblooded and self absorbed Palm Beach millionaire, was responsible for the killing of his estranged wife, socialite Lita McClinton Sullivan, at her Buckhead townhouse by a hired gunman.
Jim Sullivan might as well have confessed his guilt to me personally when I was an AJC reporter (now retired).
The case, agonizingly frustrating to the victim’s parents, Jo Ann and Emory McClinton, as well as Atlanta police homicide, dragged on for another 19 years, in good part due to Sullivan’s wealth, the key to covering his tracks — and to his hiring one of the best (and most expensive) defense law firms in Georgia and perhaps the country.
The facts of the murder are well known: On Jan 16, 1987, Lita Sullivan, 35, answered the doorbell of her townhouse near West Paces Ferry Road, a short distance from the governor’s mansion, to a seedy looking white guy with a pistol and a box of pink roses. He shot her twice in the head, tossed the rose box next to her body, and sprinted away.
The city desk sent me to the scene, where I first learned from neighbors (those who would talk, and many wouldn’t, or didn’t want to be quoted) about Lita, who they called beautiful, vibrant, an efficient and likeable organizer for charities, and Jim, described as bright and opinionated, with a narcissistic streak. “He has little energy or patience for anyone who won’t do something for him, ” one said. She didn’t want to be quoted.
A Boston native whose first job was as a $24,000 a year accountant, Jim Sullivan came into millions with the sale of an uncle’s liquor distributorship in south Georgia. He was living in Macon with wife Lita at the time, and bought a 13-room, $3 million oceanfront mansion. I’m sure that was a mammoth ego boost for the son of a Boston newspaper printer to live on a street where neighbors have names like Kennedy, Rockefeller, and Trump.
Before the couple moved to Palm Beach, I learned, Jim bought the Atlanta townhouse as a second home at his wife’s urging. Lita moved back there permanently the summer before her murder, leaving Sullivan and suing him for divorce.
I spent the afternoon at the Fulton County Courthouse reading the suit, which described a marriage that had fallen apart. Lita had never wanted to live in Palm Beach, and Jim had become abusive, increasingly stingy and openly unfaithful, it stated. She demanded the Atlanta townhouse, worth $450,000, and alimony.
“Mr. Sullivan has worked hard all his life for what he has and feels his wife does not deserve anything,” his divorce lawyers countered
Finding Sullivan’s home number listed in the Palm Beach phone book, I called him that evening for the first time. I was somewhat surprised that he answered. “I have no comment, sir. Thank you for calling.” Dial tone.
Most of my time over the next week was spent digging in Atlanta and Macon for a Sunday piece. I saved Palm Beach for last, and didn’t tell Sullivan I was coming.
I had learned that he was on the commission that oversaw preservation of the ritzy town’s “historic mansions,” courtesy of the mayor at the time. He had contributed money to her election campaign. By Palm Beach standards, Jim Sullivan’s mammoth 1928- vintage brick and coquina abode qualified as “historic”; forget that St. Augustine has been around since 1590-something.
The commission meeting was on the top floor of the three-story Palm Beach Town Hall, and had already begun. I quietly took a seat among the modest number of citizens attending, speaking to no one, and listened.
Sullivan spoke frequently, and came across as he’d been described: suave, knowledgeable, opinionated, even cocky. When the meeting ended, I approached as he talked with other commission members and citizens and heard one say “I’m sorry about your wife.” “Thank you,” Sullivan answered somberly.
I stepped forward and said, “Mr. Sullivan?”, and he turned, hand out, with a broad smile. I identified myself, and asked if we could talk about Lita. The smile froze. “I doubt I have the time,” he replied, turning his back and heading briskly for the hall, still shaking hands as he left.
“Will you at least take my phone number?” I called to his back, and followed. He said not a word as he went down the hall, his pace quickening. It was a pretty long hallway, as I recall, and Sullivan was almost at a trot, with the elevator in sight, when he abruptly turned right, opened a door and hurried down three flights of narrow stairs.
Having outgrown foot chases at age 12, and being rather spastic, with lousy balance, I spoiled any chance of a Pulitzer, or broken bones, and headed for the elevator. But as I heard the fading sound of Sullivan rapid steps, I said: “My God, the SOB really did it!” Well, had it done.
It’s sad and more than a little frustrating that it took nearly two decades, including an aborted federal court trial for contract murder and an intercontinental flight , to bring Sullivan, now 70, to a Georgia prison cell for the rest of his life without parole.
But that’s another story.