JACKSONVILLE, FLa. — They'd had eyes for each other since their high school days in North Charleston, but life pulled them in different directions.
He served in the Navy, took a stab at marriage and landed a job with the railroad. She became a devoted mother and endured an abusive relationship that nearly claimed her life.
Years passed — too many — full of challenge, pain and sacrifice.
Then, a passing encounter in the Lowcountry brought them together again, some 40 years after they parted. A whirlwind courtship led to love, then marriage for Carol and James "Reggie" Sumner.
Just a few months after moving from Ladson to Jacksonville, Fla., in 2005, these high school sweethearts were kidnapped from their home as part of a brutal robbery plot. The couple, both 61 and in a frail health, were later buried alive in a remote swath of southern Georgia.
But those initial facts didn't quite convey the cold-blooded nature of the killings. The revelations came later, this spring, as the first of four suspects in the case went to trial. Police arrested three Ladson residents after finding them in a North Charleston motel with the Sumners' bank cards and personal information shortly after the killings. A fourth man was arrested in Jacksonville.
The details that surfaced in chilling courtroom testimony kept this sprawling riverside city riveted for a week this month before 24-year-old Michael Jackson, the reputed mastermind of the crime, was found guilty of first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping. One prosecutor described the plot as "shockingly evil."
A Jacksonville jury recommended Wednesday that Jackson be put to death. Bruce Nixon, 19, had previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and testified against Jackson. He is to be sentenced in June. Jackson's former girlfriend, Tiffany Cole, 25, and Alan Lyndell Wade, 19, are still awaiting trial and could face the death penalty.
For Carol Sumner's children, the past two years have been a painful odyssey.
"You expect some sort of closure or some sort of good feeling when the verdict is read, but it didn't seem to help much," Sumner's son, Frederick Hallock, said. "I just know they didn't deserve this."
Carol wasn't looking for love. Her first marriage ended in divorce; the second nearly killed her. In February 1987, her abusive second husband shot her several times at their West Ashley home before turning the gun on himself.
Her daughter, Rhonda Alford, just 10 at the time, spent nearly a year helping to nurse her mother back to health. Carol went back to work as soon as she could. She put in more than 25 years as a civil servant at The Citadel and the Charleston Air Force Base. She also worked nights at a Belk department store and other jobs. Whatever it took to make ends meet.
Rhonda couldn't recall her mother having a boyfriend during that time. Not one.
One night in 2000, a chance phone call to a cable television company where Carol was working reunited her with Reggie, her former sweetheart from Garrett High School. They soon became inseparable, like a couple of lovesick teens, walking hand-in-hand, whispering sweet asides to one another. Early in 2001 they wed in a ceremony at Carol's West Ashley home.
"He was just a very gentle, kind and giving spirit," Alford said. "You could not ask for a better friend, husband or stepfather."
They eventually moved to Jacksonville, where Reggie had bought a house during his days working for CSX Railroad. A brittle diabetic in frail health, Reggie felt he would be more comfortable in Florida. Carol agreed.
"She only went down there to honor her husband," Alford said.
Before moving, the Sumners sold a Chevrolet Lumina to the stepdaughter of a friend who lived down the street. Tiffany Cole agreed to make monthly payments and would often do so by driving to Jacksonville with friends.
Cole and Jackson befriended the older couple and stayed the night at their home. From the furnishings and talk of selling Carol's condo, Jackson sensed they had money. He began to hatch a plot to rob the couple and drain their bank accounts, authorities said. He recruited Wade and Nixon to help, investigators said.
On a warm July evening, Jackson and Cole waited outside the Sumners' home in a rented car while Nixon and Wade went to the door and asked to use the phone, prosecutors said. Once inside, the intruders bound the terrified couple with duct tape and stuffed them into the trunk of their Lincoln Town Car, prosecutors said. Reggie was dressed in his pajamas and wearing an ankle brace. Carol was thin and weak from treatments for liver cancer, Plotkin said.
The kidnappers drove off in separate cars, with plans for Jackson and Cole to purposely get pulled over for speeding if police got too close to the Lincoln, chief assistant state attorney Jay Plotkin said.
They ended up 35 miles away, at a remote spot in south Georgia where the kidnappers had dug a 6-foot grave two days earlier, Plotkin said. When they opened the Lincoln's trunk, Nixon told jurors, they saw that the Sumners had slipped free of the duct tape. Carol and Reggie were hugging each other and praying, he said.
After forcing the Sumners to reveal the personal identification numbers to their bank accounts, Jackson and Wade buried the couple alive, prosecutors said. Soon after, money began disappearing from the Sumners' bank accounts.
Alford filed a missing person report with Jacksonville police after her mother failed to check in for days. That just wasn't like her. Plus, their car was missing, their beloved dog left alone, and the remnants of a fried chicken dinner were still on the stove.
When Jackson learned authorities were looking into the Sumners' disappearance, he called Jacksonville police and pretended to be Reggie Sumner, Plotkin said. He claimed he and his wife were in Delaware and complained about having difficulty with his bank card, Plotkin said.
"He was basically just fishing for information and he had concerns about his accessing his account," he said. "Of course, the police were more than willing to leave the accounts open."
The bank activity and other information eventually led authorities to North Charleston, where police found Jackson, Cole and Wade sequestered in a motel. The Lumina the Sumners had sold Cole was parked outside. Soon after, Jacksonville police arrested Nixon, who told investigators about the killings and led them to the Sumners' bodies.
Nixon agreed to testify against Jackson, who insisted that Nixon was the ringleader. Jackson claimed no direct involvement in the killings. "The jury didn't buy that," Plotkin said.
When Nixon stepped down from the witness stand, Alford sensed his testimony had sealed Jackson's fate and possibly that of the others. Nixon faces 54 years to life in prison when he is sentenced in June.
"I just wanted to hug him," Alford said. "He is a murderer, but in the end, he did the right thing."
The verdict against Jackson brought some closure, but it hasn't dampened the sense of loss. When the phone rings some days, Alford often hopes her mother is on the line. Then, reality sinks in. She is sad her two young boys will grow up without their grandmother. And she aches for Carol and Reggie, who finally found love, if only for a sweet sliver of time.
"It's sad," she said, her voice trailing off. "It took them so long to find each other."
Their ashes sit in an urn in Rhonda Alford's Dorchester County home, their mortal remains mixed and blending together.
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