Justice served?

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 16, 2006

By all accounts, Michael Mora was a good kid who everybody loved. He made good grades, had lots of friends and a bright future ahead of him.

The towheaded Greenville High senior was looking forward to graduation so he could follow his dream of joining the Marine Corps and serving his country. It was something many of his friends had decided to do and something his parents, Mike and Terry, were excited about.

A young man who understood work ethic and responsibility, he loved his job at the local Winn Dixie where he worked as a bag boy and stock clerk, a job he'd held since he was old enough to drive.

He also loved his car, a 1987 Mercury Cougar that he had just installed new stereo equipment in thanks to an income tax refund.

&#8220That car was his pride and joy,” said his father, Mike Mora. &#8220School and work were important to him. He was always real responsible. The week he got his job he opened a checking account all on his own, but that's the way he was.”

Indeed, Michael Mora had the whole world at his fingertips, but that was all about to change.

Through his beloved job at Winn Dixie, Mora met Frederick Lamont Peagler, 21, whose brother worked at Winn Dixie, and Joseph &#8220Junior” Gause, 18. That relationship led to Mora's body being discovered at the bottom of a ravine in rural Lowndes County, Peagler dead and Gause serving a 20-year stretch for murder. His first parole hearing is scheduled for Feb. 21.

&#8220When he didn't show up for workŠ I knew something was wrong.”

Tuesday, April 28, 1998, was like most days in the Mora household with one exception, it was the senior Mora's birthday.

&#8220Michael was very prompt about coming home on time, we were pretty strict about that,” his father said. &#8220If he was going to be late he would call before he was supposed to be home. Since it was my birthday, I waited up on him until about 10:30 and went to bed. My wife woke me up about 2 o'clock and told me he wasn't home so I went to where he worked. I wasn't really looking for a problem. It was two weeks before high school graduation so I just figured we'd settle the problem later.”

The next day Mora's father took off at lunch and went looking for his only son, who still hadn't been heard from.

&#8220I went to the school and didn't see his car and when he didn't show up for work that day, I knew something was wrong,” Mike Mora said.

When the Moras reported their son missing, they were told not to worry, that he'd probably turn up sooner than later.

&#8220I was just praying that he would come home, that he'd decided to be silly in his senior year and go do something at the beach,” said his mother, Terry Mora. &#8220You know your child and he was open with us and we knew his life. We weren't suspicious with him because he didn't have any suspicious actions. There was nothing we could do but sit at home and wait.”

&#8220When I saw the sheriff and the chief on the front porch I wasn't expecting it to be good.”

While authorities ramped up their search for Michael Mora, his friends and family mobilized as well, pasting flyers with a photo of the grinning young man all over Butler County.

&#8220Right now we are just continuing the search, following every lead we get,” said Butler County Sheriff Diane Harris at the time.

By Thursday authorities had a break in the case discovering Michael's pride and joy, his Mercury Cougar torched on a lot in Mobile County. His car had been stripped of stereo equipment, doused with gasoline and set on fire.

&#8220I went down to where his car was at in Mobile that Saturday and the tow truck driver told me nobody had even been down to look at it. He told me were he got it from and I went down there and saw where they burned it,” Mike Mora said.

&#8220I chased down a sheriff's car and told them why I was there. Within an hour there where a whole bunch of deputies and dogs. I'm not knocking Greenville police and I don't blame them, I just thought somebody ought to be doing something.”

The next few days passed painfully slow as no word on Michael's whereabouts emerged - that was until the night of May 5, 1998. Because they had company over, Mike Mora was sleeping on the couch in the living room when he heard a knock on the door.

&#8220When I saw the sheriff and the chief on the front porch I wasn't expecting it to be good,” he said. &#8220I think I already knew their words before they came out. I remember they said they had two arrested and one of them had led them to where the body was.”

&#8220The people at the prison said his last words were ‘Only God can help me now.'”

Acting on a tip, police detained Peagler and Gause for questioning in the case. Both subsequently confessed to luring Michael to a house on Highway 185 in Greenville where they murdered him. Evidence showed Gause had supplied the gun to Peagler, who shot Michael in the head three times, including once through the ear. The pair then poured gasoline on his body and set him on fire attempting to cover their crime before dumping his body in Indian Creek near Braggs. They were able to identify Michael's body by the Marine Corps dog tag he proudly wore around his neck.

Harris and Greenville Police Chief Lonzo Ingram held an emotional press conference the next day that several of Mora's classmates attended. Both Ingram and Harris said it was difficult to look into the crowd and see people's hopes crushed.

&#8220In law enforcement we try not to show our inner feelings when we're on the scene, but to see something like that it tears you up,” Harris said. &#8220You had to choke back your tears because you looked out and saw young people and old people, black and white with tears rolling down their faces. It was hard. It got to a lot of people and it was a pretty good while before people got over the fear that it might happen to them.”

After his arrest on murder and kidnapping charges, Peagler was placed in the Butler County Jail. According to published reports, around 11:54 p.m. May 5, a jailer checked on Peagler who requested the lights be turned out. He was found dead in his cell a short while later hanging from a bed sheet.

&#8220The people at the prison said his last words were ‘only God can help me know,'” said Michael Mora's sister, Melanie Hyde, who now lives outside of Birmingham. &#8220It makes me feel better that at least he felt some guilt about it.”

Due to what family members say was questionable police work, Gause was offered a plea bargain and pleaded guilty to murder.

While Peagler may have been remorseful, family members say Gause has never expressed any remorse for his crime to any of them.

&#8220After (he was sentenced) we had to go in the judge's office and confront him directly. My mom looked him in the eyes and asked him why (he did it) and he didn't have anything to say,” Hyde said. &#8220There's something wrong with your morals and your conscience if you're able to do something like that.”

Since this is Gause's first parole hearing, the Mora family said they don't know what to expect, but they do want justice to be served and the man that was partly responsible for their son's death to serve his time.

&#8220I want to make sure they understand it was an extensive crime and not something that happened in the heat of an argument,” Mike Mora said. &#8220I want them to know it was planned and carried out.

Where they disposed of his body was a place they just didn't stumble on, they knew where they were going.”

&#8220He agreed to do 20 years and I can't imagine him walking out the door in any less than that,” Terry Mora added. &#8220When they agree to do 20 years, I don't think they should be allowed to walk out the door in less than 20 years.”

Charlotte Tesmer, who was an assistant district attorney at the time and helped prosecute the case, said that while she would be &#8220very surprised” to see Gause paroled, his hearing is something triggered by the calendar.

&#8220The way that our system is set up any individual who is incarcerated after a certain period of time comes up for a parole hearing,” she said. &#8220It's an automatic calculation based on how much time they were sentenced to and how much they've served, but it's still something the family has to go through.”

Ingram said his office will oppose Gause's parole.

&#8220Life is a matter of choices and (Gause) made a bad choice and now he has to pay for that choice,” Ingram said. &#8220To only serve six years for crime of that magnitude is an insult to society.”

&#8220I would not like to see him back on the street again,” Harris added. &#8220Who's to say if he gets out that won't happen again?”

&#8220I have 100 percent total faith in GodŠ I know if he wanted things to be different they would be different”

In May 1999, the Moras moved to Jemison, partly to get away from the horrible memories of what had happened in Greenville.

&#8220We needed to move away so we could clear our minds,” Mike Mora said. &#8220We left a lot of good friends, but we really needed the air.”

To this day they harbor no hatred toward their son's killers; instead they are resolved to the fact that they will see their beloved son and brother again.

&#8220I'm not bitter about it. I don't have any hatred toward anyone, it makes you appreciate (life) more,” said Hyde, who is now a mother herself and often tells her daughter about Michael. &#8220She knows about him and that he's in heaven. I tell her she does have an uncle but it's hard to explain.”

Terry Mora is convinced she will see her son again in heaven and says his death has brought her closer to God.

&#8220There are some things that we're not going to truly be able to understand,” she said. &#8220I have 100 percent total faith in God, and I know he has all the answers and I know if he wanted things to be different they would be different. But we've always had faith in God and the church and that's become stronger because of this.”

She also said she harbors no hatred of Gause.

&#8220I have no hatred for him, even the day we stood in the little room at the courthouse,” she said. &#8220I've always wondered why I didn't hate him, but as a Christian I cannot hate him because it doesn't make it better; it doesn't change anything. I'm leaving that whole situation for God to take care of and hating him wouldn't make me feel better.”

Mike Mora has replayed the events of April 1998 over and over in his mind and has reached a solemn conclusion.

&#8220You live your life and you think you can protect your family, but when your kids walk out that door, they're on their own,” he said. &#8220You think ‘what did I do wrong,' but it's not your fault. The world's out there and it's pretty ugly.”