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Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The James Sullivan Murder-For-Hire Case

     In 1977 James Sullivan, a 34-year-old owner of a liquor distributorship in Atlanta married Lita McClinton, a debutante from one of the city's socially prominent families. She was black and he was white, and her parents, Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, were not pleased with the marriage. Sullivan was a flashy self-made millionaire who had grown up poor on the mean streets of Boston. Ten years older than his bride, he had been married before. Having learned from experience how costly a divorce could be, Sullivan had talked Lita into signing a prenuptial agreement that limited her, in the event of a divorce, to a three-year annual stipend of $90,000. The contract allowed her to keep all of the jewelry she had acquired during the marriage.

     The newlyweds moved into an opulent townhouse in an Atlanta subdivision called Buckhead. Sullivan purchased a second house four years later in Palm Beach, Florida. While in Florida vacationing without his wife at his new oceanfront property, Mr. Sullivan met Hyo-Sook-Choi Rogers, a young woman from South Korea who went by the name Suki. In August 1985, fed up with her husband's infidelity, Lita kicked him out of the Atlanta townhouse. She also filed for divorce and announced that that she was contesting the enforceability of the prenuptial agreement.

    Shortly after the breakup a domestic court judge granted Lita $7,000 a month in temporary alimony. The cash strapped Sullivan, burdened with four car payments, a $900,000 balloon mortgage on the Palm Beach mansion and a girlfriend to impress and keep happy, sold his Atlanta liquor distributorship. Although he had convinced the judge to lower the alimony payments to $2,500 a month, Sullivan had not paid Lita any money. His refusal to pay forced her back into court. Sullivan also pressed the judge to enforce the prenuptial contract. Through her attorney Lita demanded, in addition to the monthly alimony payments, the townhouse, one of the Mercedes and $200,000 in cash. At this point James Sullivan had already spent $100,000 in lawyer fees and saw no end to the outflow of money. The divorce was bleeding him dry.

     At eight-thirty in the morning of January 16, 1987, a resident of the Buckhead condominium complex saw a man approach Lita Sullivan's front door carrying flowers. The door opened and the man disappeared inside. A few seconds later the neighbor heard two gunshots in rapid succession. The man who had delivered the flowers ran out of the house, climbed into a car and drove off. The witness found Lita Sullivan in the foyer lying on her back with her face covered in blood. A dozen pink long-stemmed roses lay on the floor next to her body. The neighbor called 911 and tried to stop the bleeding by pressing a towel against Lita's face. She died in the ambulance as it raced to the hospital.

     The autopsy revealed that Lita had been shot in the face at close range by a .9mm pistol. Investigators at the scene recovered the shell casing and determined that the shooting had not been motivated by robbery. As a result detectives suspected that the murder was a contract killing orchestrated by the victim's husband. At the time of Lita's murder her estranged husband was in Palm Beach, Florida. There was no question that Lita's death would save James Sullivan a lot of money.

     A month after Lita's murder James Sullivan married Suki Rogers. Detectives still hadn't identified the triggerman, located the murder weapon or acquired solid evidence linking Sullivan to the homicide. Nevertheless, in September 1987, a Fulton County Grand Jury sitting in Atlanta indicted him for the contract murder of his wife. A few months later a judge set aside the indictment on the grounds it was based entirely on motive.

     With the murder investigation dead in the water, the FBI took over the case. (Criminal homicide is not a federal offense unless it is committed under special circumstances such as in the course of a kidnapping, bombing, bank robbery, organized crime activity or pursuant to an interstate conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Under Title 18 United States Code Section 1958, a single interstate telephone call in furtherance of a murder plot gives the FBI jurisdiction. FBI agents investigate about a hundred murder-for-hire cases a year.)

     Three days before Lita Sullivan's murder someone from a Howard Johnson Motel in Atlanta made a collect call to the phone in James Sullivan's house in Palm Beach, Florida. The call had been placed from room 518 which had been registered to a Johnny Furr. Forty minutes after the murder, someone using a pay phone at a highway rest stop just outside of Atlanta had called James Sullivan's house. That conversation lasted less than a minute. FBI agents, unable to identify Johnny Furr assumed the name was an alias. The federal investigation stalled, and for the second time, the Sullivan case went dormant.

     In 1990 James Sullivan became embroiled in yet another fight to save his assets from a wife who was divorcing him. This time it was Suki. The investigation into Lita Sullivan's murder sprang back to life when Suki, testifying in a divorce proceeding, claimed that Sullivan had threatened to have her killed by the man he had paid to murder Lita. Questioned by the FBI, Suki said that Sullivan never mentioned the hit man by name. The federal prosecutor went ahead with the case anyway, and in November 1992, James Sullivan went on trial for paying an unidentified man to murder his estranged wife Lita. Following Suki's testimony, which comprised the principal evidence against the defendant, the judge, ruling that the government had failed to present enough proof to establish a prima facie case, directed a verdict of not guilty. James Sullivan walked out of the federal court house that day a free man.

     Emory and Jo Ann McClinton, convinced that James Sullivan had paid to have their daughter Lita murdered, filed a wrongful death suit against their former son-in-law. The plaintiff's case, filed in Atlanta, hinged on the testimony of Suki Rogers and the phone calls between Atlanta and Sullivan's Palm Beach home just before and after the fatal shooting. The identity of the triggerman, however, remained a mystery. The jury, applying the lesser burden of proof that applies to civil trials, found in favor of the McClintons, awarding the plaintiffs $4 million in damages.

     In late 1997, more than ten years after Lita Sullivan's murder, a woman from Beaumont, Texas named Belinda Trahan gave the Atlanta police the missing piece of the Sullivan case puzzle. She identified Johnny Furr as her ex-boyfriend Anthony Harwood, a forty-seven-year-old truck driver from Albemarle, North Carolina. After they had broken up, Harwood continued to visit her in Texas. Belinda described Harwood as a violent, abusive man who had repeatedly threatened to kill her if she told the police that he was the man who had delivered the roses and shot James Sullivan's wife.

     According to Belinda Trahan, two weeks before Lita Sullivan's murder, she and Harwood had conferred with James Sullivan in an Atlanta restaurant where Sullivan handed Harwood an envelope stuffed with $12, 500 in cash. The men had first met in November 1986 when Harwood hauled Sullivan's household goods from Georgia to Florida. Sullivan told the truck driver that he wanted his gold-digging wife murdered and offered him $25,000 to do the job.

     Interrogated by Atlanta detectives in January 1998, Harwood admitted that he had taken the hit money and that he was the Johnny Furr who had called Sullivan from the motel before and after Lita Sullivan's murder. Shortly after the shooting Harwood called Sullivan in Palm Beach and said, "Merry Christmas Mr. Sullivan, your problem has been taken care of." Harwood refused to admit, however, that he was the man who had delivered the flowers and shot Lita McClinton in the face. He claimed that he had just been the getaway driver for the triggerman, a guy he only knew as "John the Barber." Although detectives didn't believe that "John the Barber" existed, the prosecutor allowed Harwood to plead guilty to the lesser homicide offense of voluntary manslaughter. In return, Harwood promised to testify against the prosecutor's main interest in the case, James Sullivan. Harwood's refusal to take responsibility for being the hit man did not, in any way, weaken the murder-for-hire case against the mastermind.

     A Fulton County Grand Jury, for the second time, indicted James Sullivan for the murder of Lita McClinton. (Double jeopardy didn't apply because Sullivan had been first tried for this crime in federal court.) On April 24, 1998, before the police took him into custody, Sullivan fled to Costa Rica. From there he traveled to Panama, Venezuela and Malaysia before settling in Thailand where he purchased a luxurious beachside condominium. Under his true name he opened a bank account, acquired a driver's license and lived with a Thai woman who assumed the role of housekeeper and wife. As fugitive from American justice, James Sullivan was living the good life in a tropical paradise.

     Five years after fleeing the country to avoid prosecution, James Sullivan, on the FBI's most wanted list, still resided in Thailand. The Royal Thai police arrested Sullivan in 2002 after the television series "American's Most Wanted" featured his case. A viewer who knew of Sullivan's whereabouts called the FBI. Sullivan fought extradition and lost. In March 2004 the FBI brought him out of Thailand and placed him in the Fulton County Jail. Still a man of means, he prepared for his upcoming trial by hiring a team of first-rate defense attorneys. True to his working-class Irish roots he was not going down without a fight.

     The murder-for-hire trial, shown on Court TV, got underway on February 27, 2006. If the jury found the defendant guilty of the 19-year-old murder the jurors could sentence him to death or put him away for life. Either way the 64-year-old convict would die in prison. For Mr. Sullivan the stakes were high.

     The heart of the prosecution's case involved the testimony of Belinda Trahan and her former boyfriend, Anthony Harwood. Trahan, a slender 41-year-old with long blond hair and a sophisticated demeanor, told the jury that she may have given Harwood the idea of posing as a deliveryman. Three days before the murder, when he expressed concern that Lita Sullivan might not open her door to a stranger, she said, "Anyone knows if you want to get a woman to answer the door all you have to do is take her flowers." When Harwood returned to North Carolina after the murder he said to her, "The job is done."

     Anthony Harwood, already convicted of voluntary manslaughter and serving a twenty-year sentence, took the stand to repeat his "John the Barber" story. His testimony against James Sullivan, however, was devastating. The prosecutor asked the 55-year-old witness if he felt remorse for his involvement in Lita McClinton's murder. The witness replied, "I guess I do, by what you may call proxy. I believe we're all accountable for our acts, but I guess if you get down to the brass tacks of it, it all began with Mr. Sullivan."

     On the advice of his attorneys the defendant did not take the stand on his own behalf. With only two witnesses the defense presented its case in less than an hour. On March 13, 2006, following the two-week trial, the jury, after deliberating less than an hour, found James Sullivan guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to life without the chance of parole. For Lita McClinton's parents, after a nineteen-year ordeal, justice had been done. But it had come at a high price. Anthony Harwood, the man they believed had killed their daughter, in return for his testimony against the mastermind, had been given a relatively light sentence. If Harwood's girlfriend had called the police instead of recommending that he deliver her flowers, their daughter may not have been murdered.


  1. They got the right man. Hope he lives to be 100. Everyday he's in prison is a day he has to think of what he's done. He had it made. Enough money to live nice the rest of his life. He could have split everything in half with her and still live like a king. Now look where he's at. Can't spend any of his money in prison. Can't live like a king.

  2. There is an important inaccuracy in this story. To refer to Sullivan as a flashy self-made millionaire is to do a grave injustice to his late uncle who was in fact the self-made millionaire and not Sullivan.

    In the mid 70s, Jim Sullivan's elderly uncle invited Jim, his nephew, to join the business, a liquor distributorship in another state (sorry, I have forgotten the name of the state along with some other details) with the understanding that Jim would eventually inherit the business on the eventual death of the uncle. However, things did not go according to plan and after some months the uncle, dissatisfied with Sullivan, let him know that he was opting out of the arrangement, would pay Sullivan well for the months he had worked for him and there would be no hard feelings between them.

    The night before a scheduled meeting between the uncle and his lawyer at which the will was to be altered, the uncle was found murdered and Sullivan, being the sole beneficiary of the existing will, inherited the business which at the time was worth $5 million. This background casts a very different light on the events that followed.

    Some other reader of this Blog may correct me on some of the detail, but in general this is an accurate background to Sullivan's wealth. He really was/is a very bad egg.

    1. Thank you, Helena. Why hasn't the media publicized the background story? It strongly suggests Jim Sullivan was involved in his uncle's murder.

      Prayers and condolences to Lita McClinton's family. They are still seeking payment of the 1994 $4 million dollar wrongful death judgment against Jim Sullivan (now $13 million with interest and penalties). They could use the money to enhance the Lita McClinton Book Scholarship Fund of the Black Women's Coalition of Atlanta, founded by her father to honor his lovely daughter.

    2. Belinda Trahan should be charged with something

    3. Belinda should be charged with what?Obvious that her reason for aiding the police in canning Sullivan was not so much a noble act to appease Lita's murder, but was to get her boyfriend put away,because he told her that he was going to kill.But still she committed no crime,her only act in this was to report to the police all that she knew of Lita's murder,and assist in canning Sullivan. So why do you say that she should be charged with something?

    4. Where did God say that all humans are evil to one degree or another?

    5. Romans 3:23: For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God...

    6. That's paul, not Jesus. Sure, we all sin but we are not all evil. Jesus regularly talked about the Righteous and the Wicked. I know this is not a religious blog, but please don't confuse saul of Tarsus with Jesus - two very different gospels.

  3. I wonder if he ever got tried for the murder of his uncle.

  4. No. But he is in prison for the rest of his life.

  5. Please help us capture John Lee Paul Sr. wanted for the disappearance of Colleen Wood and he is suspected to of gotten rid of his wife Chalice Paul in 1981. He was living in Thailand too and remarried a yound Thai woman.

  6. Unfortunately, Anthony Harwood was my uncle & is to be released in 2017..

    1. Hi I'm a producer on a BET True crime series, I would love to interview you about your uncle could you please email me back..thomas.gibson2@gmail.com

  7. Bet he is suffering plenty in a Georgia prison.