Wanted For Murder, A Man Evades Authorities For
Nearly Two Decades
(Page 1 of 8)Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
(CBS) Lita McClinton was a beautiful young woman who
caught the eye of a successful businessman. She soon
would marry Jim Sullivan and lived an affluent
lifestyle, but the marriage was less than perfect and
fell apart nine years later.
On the same day a judge was supposed to rule whether
Lita could try to make a claim against her husband's
multimillion-dollar fortune, she was gunned down in her
own home by someone delivering a box of roses.
As correspondent Susan Spencer reports, this tale of
love, betrayal, wealth and, eventually, murder would
lead to an international search for justice.
Understanding the remarkable saga of Lita Sullivan
requires turning back the clock to 1975, to the days of
disco, the first year of "Saturday Night Live" and of a
new invention, the VCR.
In those days, Lita was still Lita McClinton, living the
good life of an attractive single 23-year-old, the
daughter of a prominent family in Atlanta.
"She was a very sweet person. She loved entertaining her
family and friends," says Poppy Marable, who was perhaps
Lita’s closest friend.
It was a close-knit family. Lita was the oldest child of
JoAnn and Emory McClinton.
Lita was working in an upscale women’s boutique when one
day Jim Sullivan walked in; Lita was enthralled. "Jim
was quite charming initially," Poppy remembers. "Lita
thought he was a nice person, and a gentleman."
Sullivan was a dashing businessman from Macon, Ga., who
had inherited a business worth millions. He lavished
attention on Lita.
"On first glance, he's a gentleman. He knows how to play
the part. And he played the part very well. He wined her
and he dined her," JoAnn McClinton recalls.
Lita fell in love with Jim, but her parents worried
about how a biracial couple might fare in Macon. They
also had concerns about a different side of Jim they
were beginning to see.
"He's a pathological liar," Emory says.
A man prone, the McClintons say, to omit inconvenient
On the night before their wedding, JoAnn McClinton says
Jim told Lita he had been married before and was the
father of four children.
But the next day, Dec. 29, 1976, Lita McClinton became
Lita Sullivan during a small family wedding.
The newlyweds settled in Macon; Sullivan seemed
delighted but Marable began to worry. "I think Jim
thought he had a Barbie doll with no brains," she
explains. "I was a bit concerned. I didn’t like the way
Jim spoke to Lita — sometimes it was in a belittling
Plus, says Marable, Sullivan was a cheapskate; he once
scolded Lita for spending too much of his money on, of
all things, Girl Scout cookies. "He was quite annoyed
with her that day that she bought too many cookies,"
And then there were the affairs. Marable says she was
aware that Sullivan was cheating on Lita.
Lita hoped he would change when the couple moved to
ritzy Palm Beach, Fla., to an oceanfront mansion, named
"But Jim continued his old ways," Marable says.
"Throughout their marriage he was unfaithful."
Finally, in 1985, after nine years of trying to make the
marriage work, Lita gave up, filed for divorce, packed
up the Mercedes and moved into an Atlanta townhouse the
couple had purchased.
"She had planned this divorce. She didn’t just wake up
one day and say, ‘I’m divorcing Jim Sullivan.’ She made
sure she had copies of his important papers," Marable
|Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
Before long, Sullivan had a new woman in his life, a
local socialite named Suki Rogers, and Lita was getting
ready for a rough court fight.
"She knew he was gonna play dirty. He had played dirty
their entire relationship," says Assistant District
Attorney Sheila Ross.
In January 1987, financially, everything was coming to a
head. "So time is runnin’ out for this man. It really is
runnin’ out," Ross says.
An Atlanta judge was due to decide if Lita could
challenge an agreement they had made about dividing
Sullivan’s roughly $8 million fortune. If Lita lost,
Ross says, she would have gotten around $200,000 total.
But if Lita won, "Then she could get anywhere from zero
to all of his estate."
On the very day the judge was to make his ruling, Lita's
good friend Bob Christenson — who knew all about her
troubled marriage — noticed a stranger in the courtyard
near Lita’s front door. The man was carrying a box of
So Christenson turned and went back into his garage.
Seconds later he heard shots. The second he heard the
shots, Christenson immediately thought of Jim Sullivan.
"I thought, that son of a b--- had it done," he says.
"There was no other earthly reason for something like
Christenson rushed outside, saw the shooter run off and
raced to Lita's side. She had been shot in the head. A
dozen long-stemmed pink roses lay nearby, still in their
Lita's parents say they knew who had done it, suspecting
Jim. They believe their daughter was murdered over
But Sullivan had an alibi. When Lita was shot, he was
600 miles away in Palm Beach.
Despite that, police started taking a hard look at
Sullivan. Suppose, investigators wondered, he had hired
a hit man to do his dirty work. With no murder weapon,
they were left with just one real clue: a suspicious
phone call to Sullivan — made just 40 minutes after Lita
The call came from a rest stop — coincidentally about a
40-minute drive from Lita’s home. The theory: the hit
man called Sullivan to tell him the deed was done.
Emory McClinton thought Sullivan was going to be
arrested, but the call wasn’t enough proof. Not only was
Sullivan not arrested, within months he’d married
Lita's parents were appalled. "He’s taken something that
he had no right to take, and we are here to see to it
that he’s going to pay for this deed," JoAnn says.
Sullivan’s carefree life in Palm Beach seemed unaffected
by Lita’s death. He soon divorced Rogers, his third
wife, and began taking up with other women — lots of
"He exhibits this pattern of targeting women, finding
women and pursuing them aggressively and insistently and
just not taking no for an answer," Ross says.
(Page 3 of 8)Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
But analyzing Sullivan’s social life didn’t get
authorities any closer to proving their theory that he
had hired a hit man to kill Lita. They just didn’t have
enough evidence to charge him with murder. In 1991, five
years after Lita’s murder, her frustrated family sued
him, eventually winning a $4 million judgment.
They didn’t see a dime of it; Sullivan had long since
stashed his millions safely offshore and out of reach,
as was he living the good life in Costa Rica.
The files accumulated and the years passed. But in 1998,
11 years after the murder, in a small town in rural
Texas, fate intervened in the person of one Belinda
Trahan worked as a receptionist for lawyer Ed Lieck, and
out of the blue one day, told him she needed to speak
with him — urgently
Her tale began in back in the late ‘80s, when she was
living in North Carolina with a man named Tony Harwood,
a mover for North American Van Lines.
"We were together about three years, off and on,"
She said she would never forget the bizarre story he
told her after an overnight run to Palm Beach.
"He was like, ‘Well, there’s this rich white man that
wants to have his black wife taken care of,'" Belinda
But Harwood loved to brag, and Belinda says she never
believed his story.
Harwood insisted his story was true, explaining that
there were other people in on the job, too and that it
would come off the next time he went to Georgia.
Trahan was still incredulous.
But Harwood came back, disappointed, saying the intended
victim hadn’t cooperated, refused to answer the door —
whereupon Trahan joked that if you want a woman to come
to the door, take her flowers.
"I wish I’d never said that," she says in hindsight.
Because that’s exactly what happened. When Harwood
returned from a second trip to Atlanta, he said the job
But Trahan still didn't believe her boyfriend.
By now, Harwood was determined to prove he wasn’t making
it up, telling Trahan to get in the car. He drove
overnight, to a roadside diner. She has no idea what it
was called or even what state it was in, but she
remembers clearly what happened there.
"This guy comes in. He looked right at me and then he
looked over at Harwood and he says, 'What is she doing
here?’" Trahan recalls.
Then the man pushed a newspaper across the table, and
Trahan says Harwood pulled the newspaper towards
It wasn’t until they were back in the car that Trahan
realized the newspaper had an envelope in it with lots
of money. In fact, it had half of what Harwood said was
the $25,000 payoff for the murder of Lita Sullivan.
Now, finally, Trahan believed him. She split, moving to
Texas to start over. She eventually got married.
But Harwood never let her forget what she knew or what
would happen if she told. "Yeah. He threatened me pretty
much the whole time," she says.
Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
For 11 years, it worked. Trahan kept her mouth shut. But
by January 1998, she had had it with the threats and
finally challenged him. "I said, ‘Did you kill that
woman or what?’ And he says, 'I don’t wanna discuss that
right now,'" she remembers.
That’s when Trahan decided to go to the cops. But her
boss, the lawyer, knew they would have two big
questions: Why had she kept silent so long, and was she
also involved, since she had suggested those flowers?
But in the end, the authorities were so blown away by
her story they agreed that in return for her testimony,
they would not press charges.
"She provided details that only someone that was
associated with the crime would know," says Georgia
Bureau of Investigation agent John Lang, now retired,
who got the case.
His question: After so long, could she still identify
the man who had paid Harwood off? He showed her a photo
Initially, she pointed at a photo of Sullivan, telling
Lang she was 40 percent sure it was the man from the
But after a few minutes, she again pointed right to the
picture of Sullivan and told Lang she was 100 percent
Once he had her positive ID, Lang set out to verify the
rest of Trahan's story.
"We went to North American Van Lines and just by the
grace of God, were able to find, in an attic, these
records that had not been purged," Lang remembers. "The
first box I opened was the moving invoice with James
Sullivan’s signature on it, Tony Harwood’s signature on
It was a huge breakthrough — the first hard evidence
linking Harwood and Jim Sullivan in the months before
Lita Sullivan was killed.
"Belinda is the only person that saw these two men
together, and she’s the only person that saw the
exchange of money. It was crucial," explains Lieck.
But was it enough to nail Jim Sullivan?
Today, Belinda and her husband Tim Trahan share a
picture-perfect life in rural Texas, a far cry from
1998, when Belinda feared for her life, and literally
For about four months, she retreated in fear into a
crawl space barely four feet big, living deep under her
house with a TV, a bed and a loaded .357 magnum.
She was hiding in terror from Harwood and Jim Sullivan.
"I felt that if he paid $25,000 to kill his wife, what’s
$100,000 to kill the eyewitness that could put him away
for life?" Tim Trahan says.
In the 11 years since Lita’s murder, Jim Sullivan had
been a free man and, even with Belinda's story, police
still didn’t have enough solid evidence to charge him.
They hoped Harwood would provide more, so they told
Belinda to call him and get him talking.
Asked why he didn't just turn Sullivan in, Harwood told
her during the recorded conversation, "I thought about
that, too, but, see, all he can do is testify that I was
Especially incriminating was Harwood’s answer when
Belinda recalls that, at first, she didn’t believe him.
"I didn’t never figure it was really real, you know
that," Belinda said.
"Oh yeah, it was real, I live it every day," Harwood
replied. "Sometimes I cry myself to sleep at night,
thinking about it."
The next day, Lang knocked on Harwood’s door.
"Tony came out," Lang recalls, "and got in the front
seat of the car, and he said 'I've been waiting for you
boys for a long time.'"
Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
To Lang’s delight, Harwood couldn’t shut up. "And he
immediately started telling us about it. He mentioned
Sullivan's name first. I didn't mention his name. I said
'We ‘wanna talk to you about an incident in 1987
involving the murder of somebody.' And he said 'You're
talking about that Sullivan guy.'"
"I said, 'Well, you know, I know somebody who can
probably take care of that for you,'" Harwood told
police in a videotaped interview. "And he said, 'Well,
about how much would it cost?' and I told him
Lieck, Belinda Trahan's boss, assumed that with Harwood
providing the missing link, police now would arrest
Sullivan for his wife’s murder.
"I turned around the I told the gentlemen from the GBI
or the Atlanta Police Department, 'Go get him,'" Lieck
recalls. "And they said 'Well, now we’ve gotta deal with
his defense attorneys they’re gonna bring him in.' I
said ‘Son. This wouldn’t happen in southeast Texas.'"
The Atlanta District Attorney didn’t know where Sullivan
was, but issued a warrant for his arrest. After issuing
the warrant, D.A. Paul Howard privately told Sullivan’s
attorneys he’d be going for the death penalty.
But with unlimited resources, Lieck says, a guy is going
In fact, Sullivan had been sunning himself for some time
in a lovely Costa Rican seaside community, 1,600 miles
And, within a day of his attorneys learning about the
death penalty, he hot-footed it to Panama, in a very big
"He was out of Costa Rica. He left his dog, I mean you
know here’s a person who professes to love his dog Coco
and he leaves it with a neighbor there, OK," Lang says.
But Sullivan’s disappearance didn’t affect the case
against Harwood, the alleged hit man. He eventually cut
a deal, pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter, but
always insisting that he was not the actual shooter.
Who was? Over the years, Harwood has blamed the Mafia, a
stripper named Tracey and some guy nick-named "John the
Despite his changing stories, prosecutors agreed to a
20-year prison sentence for Harwood, in exchange for his
future testimony, whenever Sullivan would eventually
face trial for murder for hire.
Sullivan, meanwhile, was moving — said to have been seen
in exotic locales including Guatemala, Venezuela,
Ireland, and even Malaysia — and finally in an idyllic
beach resort, 100 miles south of Bangkok, Thailand.
Bob Cahill, then the FBI’s legal attaché in Bangkok,
says tips from local viewers of the TV show “America’s
Most Wanted” led right to Sullivan’s hideout.
With both his name and that of his new, fourth wife,
Nana, right on the door, local authorities put him under
surveillance. In July 2002, four years after Harwood’s
arrest they moved in.
Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
Sullivan's new home became a squalid, overcrowded
Bangkok prison. Back in Atlanta, Lita’s parents couldn’t
have been more pleased.
"Jolly good," says Emory McClinton, describing his mood.
"We both had a very good cry," JoAnn McClinton adds.
Sullivan was in no hurry to come home. He fought
extradition fiercely, but two years later, Thailand’s
highest court rejected his last appeal.
In 2004, nearly two decades after Lita’s murder — and
showing the effects of his long stay in prison —
Sullivan was returned to waiting prosecutors in Atlanta,
the city where it all began.
Lita's parents had prayed for this moment: Jim Sullivan
on trial for their daughter’s murder, with the
possibility of getting the death penalty if convicted.
"Jim Sullivan killed his wife and we ask that you find
him guilty and end 19 years of waiting," Ross tells the
jury in previewing her case.
But Sullivan’s lawyers weren’t impressed. "There will
not be a shred of physical evidence that links Jim
Sullivan to this crime," says attorney Don Samuel.
The defense scoffed at the prosecution's star witnesses,
painting Harwood as a con artist and Belinda, as a dupe.
First on the stand for the state is JoAnn McClinton, who
tells prosecutor Kelly Hill that Sullivan never even
went to Lita’s funeral or sent a sympathy card.
"We never heard from him," JoAnn says.
His only communication was a telegram to the funeral
home, giving permission to cremate Lita.
Sullivan listens, expressionless through all this, even
when the state presents its most damning evidence: phone
records of calls to and from his Florida home,
conversations with the alleged hit man, Harwood.
The most important call: one Harwood made from a pay
phone a 40 minute drive from Lita’s house, 40 minutes
after she was shot.
"Jim Sullivan doesn't have a clue what these phone calls
were 19 years ago. He's simply not able to say, 'Oh, I
remember making a phone call 19 years ago. I remember it
like it was yesterday,'" argues Samuel.
But Belinda clearly remembers her own unwitting role in
Lita’s death, and she tells the jury of that casual
remark she made to her then-boyfriend Harwood about
bringing flowers to get a woman to open the door.
Prosecutors set up a mock diner, and Belinda re-enacts
Sullivan’s payoff to Harwood in a newspaper stuffed with
For 11 years, she says, she was too afraid of Harwood to
speak out, until finally she decided she couldn't live
like this anymore.
Asked by the prosecution to identify the man she saw at
the restaurant, Belinda points at Jim Sullivan.
But Sullivan’s other lawyer, Ed Garland, challenges
"Things fade out from your memory, don't they? Is the
answer yes?" Garland asks.
"Yes, they do," she acknowledges.
Garland also ridicules her story of the payoff.
"Did you tell those police officers that after you made
this trip on the road you don't know where, to the state
you don't know where, leaving when you don't know when
you left and returning, when you don't know when you
arrived, that you left the next morning. Did you make
that statement to them?" Garland asks.
"If it’s in the papers, I guess I did say it," she
But Belinda insists to the end she met Sullivan and saw
the payoff at the table in the diner. "But I know what I
saw. And you can't take that from me, no matter what you
do!" she says on the stand.
"That anybody, anybody could remember someone who they
said they saw, you know, for just a sec, she, as she put
it in her notes, for just a second, years and years and
years earlier. I found the whole notion of her
identification testimony lacked credibility," says
But her credibility is stellar compared to that of the
state’s other star witness, Harwood, who cut a deal and
already is serving time for his role in Lita’s murder.
Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
The first problem is that his version of the payoff
differs from Belinda’s: he says he got the cash in the
"Mr. Sullivan and I went into the restroom and he handed
me the money. The other half of the $25,000," he
He said it was on a moving job in 1986, that Sullivan
asked him to “take care of Lita.” Harwood says he
assumed that meant to kill her.
And how, exactly, had Sullivan put it?
"'You know I've got this wife o' mine up in Atlanta and
she is just tryin' to take everything I've got. And I
don't know what to do about it. I need someone to take
care o' my problem. Do you know anybody that possibly
take care of my problem for me 'cause I need some help
here?' That's about the best I can do from what I
remember," Harwood testifies.
More than his testimony adds to the impression that
Harwood is an odd duck —
inexplicably, he returns from one break with his hair
parted on the opposite side. First it was parted left,
then to the right, after the break.
But prosecutors have bigger problems with Harwood than
his hair — they have to acknowledge that he may be lying
when he says he doesn’t know who actually shot Lita.
On the stand, Harwood says he did not murder Lita, but
prosecutors want the jury to believe him when he insists
Sullivan was behind it all.
"First of all, I didn't agree to kill his wife. What I
agreed to do was to find someone to do it," Harwood
Defense lawyers emphasize their contempt for Harwood by
not to even bothering with a cross examination, rolling
the dice that the jury will find this “star witness”
simply not believable.
In closing arguments, prosecutor Clint Rucker pulls out
all the stops.
"The doorbell rings loud. It rings clearly. And in this
case, it rings true," Rucker tells jurors.
He reminds the jury that this case is about a young
woman who opened her door simply for a box of roses.
"It’s the last thing she touched. And she used it as a
shield to try to block the path of the bullet," Rucker
But defense lawyers insist there’s no proof Sullivan had
anything to do with it. Garland mocks Belinda’s story,
saying that was one big payoff for one small envelope —
that the amount of cash wouldn't have fit inside.
Sullivan never takes the stand. The jury is left with
reams of circumstantial evidence and two very unusual
witnesses: Tony Harwood and Belinda Trahan.
Will the words of a convicted felon and his remorseful
ex-girlfriend be enough to convict?
At long last, a jury has Jim Sullivan’s fate in its
hands and the prosecutors, too, are more than ready for
"This is the reason why there is no statue of
limitations on murder. Murder will always go punished,"
But defense attorney Samuel thinks he’s poked major
holes in the prosecution’s case. "I firmly believe the
state doesn't have sufficient evidence to find him
guilty. There is plenty of evidence out there that we
can't explain. And it certainly seems suspicious. But I
don't believe the evidence is sufficient to warrant a
conviction," he explains.
Oct. 7, 2006
Jim Sullivan (CBS)
The jury’s verdict comes back in less than five hours,
finding Jim Sullivan guilty of malice murder.
It’s a bittersweet moment for the McClintons — and a
sweet one for the prosecution.
"There's no way to describe what it felt like to look at
them. I looked over my shoulder and locked eyes with
them. And it was the best feeling in the world," says
Not, of course, for Samuel, who thinks the jury just
couldn’t get past those damning phone calls. "You have
these series of phone calls that are absolutely
inexplicable. I’ve never been able to describe these
phone calls to anybody and have them think anything
other than, ‘He must be guilty,’" he says.
The sentence is still to be decided for Sullivan: life
"If there was something else I could do to Jim or the
state could do to Jim that would be worse than the death
penalty, I would go for that.
Lita’s family is allowed to testify to the suffering
Sullivan has caused.
"I have looked forward to this day for many years.
Should I forgive him? I cannot. Should I forgive him? I
will not," JoAnn McClinton says on the stand.
No one from Sullivan's own family steps forward to
defend him. He has been estranged from his four children
Sullivan's eldest son, James, can hardly contain his
contempt. "He is my father. But he's not my dad, he
tells 48 Hours. "He's not a human, he doesn't have a
Asked if there's something about this person that's
inherently evil, James says, "Yes."
Sullivan’s brother Frank definitely agrees. The best man
at Jim’s first wedding, he’s not in his corner today.
"My brother has this raw, numbing evil that very few
people in society get, fortunately, they have to
confront – and I've met this kind of evil in him," he
Before the sentencing, Jim Sullivan was offered a chance
to say something. He declined.
The jurors did not give him death penalty, instead
imposing a sentence of life in prison without parole.
Without a successful appeal, Jim Sullivan certainly will
die in prison.
Prosecutors give Belinda Trahan a lot of credit for the
verdict. She says she has no regrets about stepping
forward. "There was justice served. And the McClintons
finally got their justice. They’re wonderful people,"
Asked what they said to her, Belinda says, "They said
‘Thank you’ and gave me a hug. They’re just really great
It was a long journey to justice, this quest for a
one-time dashing millionaire undone, finally, at age 64
by his own greed.
"He's taken something that we can't ever get back. There
is no closure when you've lost a child," says JoAnn
McClinton. "You can live with it better, but there is no