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Inmate found with makeshift knife in Putnam jail

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Donnie Rowe was transferred from state facilities

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When state inmate Donnie Rowe was transferred to Putnam County jail on May 24, a makeshift knife was found in his belongings, according to Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. The discovery was discussed during a pretrial hearing on July 14.

The 47-year-old Rowe has been incarcerated with the Georgia Department of Corrections since 2002 when he was first convicted in Bibb County for aggravated assault and armed robbery, according to GDC records. He is actively serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In Putnam County, Rowe also is facing capital punishment pending the outcome of a trial in Putnam County Superior Court, which is scheduled to begin the day after Labor Day. Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit District Attorney T. Wright Barksdale III is seeking the death penalty on Rowe and co-defendant Ricky Dubose, who are accused in the shooting deaths of two GDC officers.

The two reportedly shot and killed Sgt. Chris Monica and Sgt. Curtis Billue with the officers’ handguns on June 13, 2017, while traveling through Putnam County on a GDC transport bus from the Hancock and Baldwin County state facilities to the prison in Jackson. The shooting murders took place along Sparta Highway near the Long Shoals Country Store. Rowe and Dubose escaped the bus and led authorities on a manhunt for several days before they surrendered in Tennessee. The two are being tried separately, and Dubose’s trial is scheduled for May 2022.

At a pretrial hearing this spring, Rowe’s attorneys Adam S. Levin and Erin Wallace of the Northeast Georgia Regional Capital Defender Council in Athens, and Frank Hogue of Hogue and Hogue LLP in Macon, told Chief Judge Brenda H. Trammell that they needed extra time to prepare for trial because they were having a hard time visiting their client in the state prison. To ease the delay, Trammell ordered Rowe to be transferred to the jail at the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, where he will remain until his trial.

When GDC authorities first delivered Rowe to the Putnam jail, Deputy Paul Bernichon inspected Rowe’s belongings and discovered the makeshift knife tucked in the pages of a King James version Bible near the binder.

“If you had taken that Bible and flipped through the pages, you wouldn’t have noticed it, but the deputy was very thorough,” Sills said. “I asked Rowe why he had it, and he said it was a bookmarker.”

The “bookmarker” was a 1 ½-inch piece of metal with a sharp, pointed end, according to Sills, who noted it looked like it was made from a piece of stainless-steel flatware such as the stem of a spoon or fork.

The sheriff said he suspects the improvised weapon was created to be used to either make a handcuff key or to inflict self-injury for the purpose of being taken out of the jail cell for medical treatment and thus creating an opportunity for escape. He said it also could be used as a weapon against a jailer, but he opined that it was too small to be effective in that aspect.

While housed at the Putnam jail awaiting trial in September, Rowe is being held in an individual cell away from other inmates, is constantly monitored via video camera and his jail cell door is not to be opened unless a jail officer and deputy sheriff are both present, Sills said. When Rowe goes out for recreational breaks, he is completely by himself, has no contact with other inmates, and is watched by the deputy jailer while other deputies are outside the building with long guns.

“Would I rather him be in Jackson?” Sills asked in comment to The Messenger. “Sure I would, but I want to go ahead and get him tried. So far, he has caused no trouble since he’s been here. Now that doesn’t mean I’m going to make him a trustee or anything, but so far, he’s been no trouble.”