On February 15, 1989, the bodies of 52-year-old Eric Rider and his 91-year-old mother, Dorothy Rider, were found shot to death in their secluded home at Lake Rabun in the mountains of north Georgia.
Based on an analysis of sealed, but unmailed letters and last known contacts, authorities believed they were murdered on January 21, 1989. The house was ransacked and the telephone line leading to the home was cut.
Eric Rider was a recluse who moved to Georgia from Florida after he was left a paraplegic in an industrial accident and won a $2 million settlement. He was fearful that he was the target of surveillance aimed at obtaining his wealth and left behind a trust fund to pay for an investigation if he were to meet a violent end. Rider had lived in the home for four years and was known to collect rare coins and guns. Rider also collected paper currency and had thousands of dollars worth of $50 bills that had been printed in 1934.
Among those that police talked to early in their investigation was 38-year-old Jack Dinning, who had performed some jobs for Rider after Rider moved to Georgia. Dinning said he had no idea who killed Rider and his mother.
In March 1990, more than a year after the murders, a witness told police that Dinning had sold him a gun. Police determined that the gun had formerly belonged to Eric Rider. Dinning was questioned again and said he bought the gun at a flea market. During two interviews, he gave different names of the man who sold him the gun and police became suspicious.
Police examined Dinning’s phone records and found that in late January 1989, Dinning made a call to a man in Florida named Dennis Coton. When police interviewed Coton, he said he knew Dinning, but knew of nothing that would link Dinning to the murders. Investigators left, but returned later and threatened to prosecute Coton for the Rider murders unless he cooperated. Coton was granted immunity from prosecution and then told investigators that Dinning had called him in late January 1989—about the time of the murders—and wanted to buy marijuana.
Coton said he sold Dinning a pound of marijuana for $1,600 and that Dinning paid him with several guns and a 1922 silver dollar. Police then questioned two other Florida men—Charles Piccirillo and Fred Venable—and both said they knew nothing about Dinning. Both were then threatened with prosecution for the Rider murders, both were granted immunity and they said they sold Dinning a pound of marijuana for $1,500. Dinning paid in $50 bills, some of which were printed in 1934.
Police also located a coin dealer who said he had purchased rare gold and silver coins from Dinning in May and July 1989. The dealer said Dinning told him the coins had belonged to his wife. Police recovered the coins and determined the coins had belonged to Rider.
On May 19, 1992, Dinning was arrested and charged with two counts of murder, two counts of armed robbery and one count of burglary.
He went on trial in 1993 in Rabun County Superior Court. No physical evidence or forensic evidence directly linked him to the crime. Coton, Piccirillo and Venable testified to the marijuana transactions and the prosecution presented evidence that Dinning had sold numerous coins and guns that were traced back to Rider.
The prosecution also presented bank records showing that at the time of the murders, Dinning had $2.34 in his checking account, less than $250 in his savings accounts and was earning about $5.25 an hour as a handyman. Based on the records, the prosecution argued that Dinning murdered Rider and his mother to steal the rare coins, the $50 bills and the guns to finance his marijuana deals.
Dinning testified and denied killing the couple. He said that one of the jobs he performed for Rider, who was confined to a wheelchair, was to travel around the country and buy guns. Dinning said that Rider paid him with cash—some of the $50 bills—and guns. He said that Rider had given him the coins to use for a gun sale, but the deal fell through. Dinning said Rider told him to hold onto the coins until the next sale. But there was no next sale, however, because Rider died and so Dinning just kept the coins as payment for his work on the sale.
Dinning admitted that he went to Florida not long after the Riders were killed and that he purchased marijuana. But, he said, he bought one ounce—not two pounds. He admitted that he paid for the marijuana with money he had received from Rider for various jobs, including the gun-buying activities.
On May 13, 1993, a jury convicted Dinning of two counts of murder, two counts of armed robbery and one count of burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison.
After the conviction, Dinning’s attorney filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that he discovered that the trust fund established by Rider to fund an investigation of his death had hired an investigator who prepared a report of his findings. The report identified several likely suspects, some of whom had failed polygraph examinations administered by the trust’s investigator. The list of suspects did not include Dinning. The report had been given to the prosecution, but the prosecution did not disclose the report to Dinning’s defense lawyers, according to the motion.
Moreover, the defense had discovered that Coton, Piccirillo and Venable all had been granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. The prosecution had not disclosed the agreements to the defense. Dinning’s lawyers argued that the immunity agreements could have been used to attack the credibility of the three witnesses.
The motion for a new trial was denied, but in May 1996, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed Dinning’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The court held that the failure to disclose the immunity agreements had resulted in a constitutionally unfair trial for Dinning.
In September 1997, Dinning went on trial for a second time, armed with the new evidence. On September 16, 1997, a jury acquitted Dinning and he was released.
– Maurice Possley