The owner of a Georgia bakery is found dead in his home. Was it a business transaction gone wrong? A burglar caught by surprise? Or was it something more sinister?
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Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime! This week I am bringing you a case of a friendship and business partnership that turned sour. This story does involve some graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.
Forty-four year old Ross Byrne had been working at a small bakery in Woodstock, Georgia for fourteen years. He had grown up in a family who loved to cook and bake, and he had trained as a chef since he was a teenager. So when the owners of the bakery decided to sell in July of 2007, he jumped at the chance to run his own shop. He enlisted the help of his friend and roommate, 40 year old Jerry Moore, who agreed to come on as co-owner. The men agreed to split the business 50/50, each of them investing thousands of dollars to get their new bakery off the ground.
They launched the bakery in January 2008 with a new look and a new name – The Best Dang Bakery Around. Over the next few years, Ross handled the day-to-day operations of the bakery while Jerry managed the finances. Jerry had a full-time job as an online reservation specialist for Disney Vacations, as well as a side gig perusing yard sales and thrift stores for items he could sell on eBay. Jerry was more than happy to let Ross be the face of the bakery while he handled the work behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, business was not as booming as the pair had hoped. The economic recession in the United States was difficult for many small businesses and made growth elusive. Then, in September 2009, there was catastrophic flooding in the Atlanta area. When a nearby river overflowed, The Best Dang Bakery sat nearly 4 feet underwater, causing Ross and Jerry to shut down the business for several months. In an interview with a local paper, Ross said that it felt like starting over from scratch. However, they took the opportunity to expand the business, purchasing extra space in the shopping center so they could add a cake decorating room and a seating area for customers. The bakery reopened just in time for the holiday season.
Ross and Jerry continued to work together on the bakery for the next few years. They had a steady stream of loyal customers, but financially they were struggling. Ross had big dreams for growing the business, but Jerry wanted to be more realistic. They weren’t bringing in enough profit to cover Ross’ excessive spending.
By the end of 2013, the bakery was in serious trouble, and Jerry wanted out. The past six years had put a strain on his friendship with Ross; there had been multiple disputes between them about how to run the business. By the first of the year, Ross had moved out of the house. Jerry began to draft documents to dissolve the partnership and have Ross buy out his share of the business for $35,000.
But before any papers could be signed, Jerry was dead.
On the evening of Monday, January 27, 2014, a neighbor noticed that Jerry’s front door had been left open. Jerry routinely walked his dog around the neighborhood multiple times a day, but the neighbor hadn’t seen him in several days and was concerned. When she entered the house to check on Jerry, she found his body on the floor, lying next to a blood-spattered box of Christmas lights. She immediately called police. When investigators arrived, they were struck by how graphic the scene was, later describing it as brutal and malicious. It appeared that Jerry had struggled with his attacker before succumbing to his injuries.
The Cobb County medical examiner ruled Jerry’s death a homicide. He had been stabbed 32 times with a sharp instrument, including twice in the back. The attack had been sudden and violent. Investigators now had the task of finding out who killed Jerry Moore.
The East Cobb neighborhood where Jerry lived was a quiet, friendly area with an active neighborhood watch. Residents generally felt safe there. Jerry even had a security system and a dog – how had his attacker gotten in and committed such an atrocious crime without being seen or heard?
Investigators began taking a look at Jerry’s life. He was an active seller on eBay and met all sorts of people in flea markets and antique shops. Could one of his transactions have gone awry? Investigators also explored the possibility that Jerry had been meeting someone for a sexual encounter that may have turned violent. Sergeant Dana Pierce of the Cobb County Police Department told reporters that they were investigating every lead, both personal and business-related.
Finally, in August 2014, eight months after Jerry’s death, police announced that they had found his killer. Thirty-one year old Jonathan Allen Wheeler was being charged with murder, burglary, and aggravated assault in the death of Jerry Moore. Investigators had tied Wheeler to the crime through his cell phone data… and a witness. Three weeks after this announcement, the witness was also in custody. Cynthia Wheeler, Jonathan’s cousin, was charged with concealing a death, burglary, and tampering with evidence.
So what was the connection between the Wheeler cousins and Jerry Moore? How did he end up the victim of this horrible crime? For that answer, we need to go back a few years.
In September of 2010, Jonathan Wheeler was released from prison after serving nine years for armed robbery and aggravated assault. He eventually found a job working at a small bakery in Woodstock, Georgia. The owner, Ross Byrne, took Jonathan under his wing and mentored him. Even after Jonathan left his job at the bakery, he and Ross maintained a close relationship. So naturally, when Ross’s business partnership began to fail, he knew exactly who to call.
On the night of Saturday, January 25, 2014, Jonathan drove to Jerry’s house and used Ross’s key to enter. There, he attacked Jerry, stabbing him 32 times with a large, fixed-blade knife. When he was done, Jonathan drove directly to Ross’s house. He showered and Ross gave him a clean pair of clothes. The deed was done. Jerry was dead, and Ross would get his share of the business.
But Jonathan and Ross weren’t the only ones who knew what happened that night. Shortly after the attack, Jonathan confessed what he had done to his cousin Cynthia, with whom he was having a sexual relationship. The next morning, Jonathan and Cynthia returned to Jerry’s house. After cleaning up the evidence, they trashed the house and stole Jerry’s television, computer, safe, and the keys to his Jeep.
Cell phone records showed that Jonathan was in constant contact with Ross throughout the entire ordeal. And it didn’t stop after the evidence was cleaned up. In the months following the attack, Ross financially supported Jonathan and Cynthia by paying their bills and buying them vehicles. He even paid for Jonathan and Cynthia to join him on a trip to the Florida Keys.
After Jonathan’s arrest in August 2014, he and Ross continued to communicate through letters and jailhouse phone calls, both of which would later be used as evidence in court. I can’t help but wonder why Ross would maintain contact with Jonathan while he was in jail. You’d think he would want to sever all ties, knowing that Jonathan could implicate him in the murder plot. But maybe he believed that Jonathan would be loyal to him. Maybe he believed he had committed the perfect crime. He got the bakery while Jonathan took the fall. After all, Jonathan was the one who actually murdered Jerry.
But when the trial began, the truth came out. In 2016, Cynthia took a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Jonathan, whose case finally went to trial in August 2018, almost five years after Jerry’s death. There, prosecutors laid out the evidence against Jonathan, relying heavily on Cynthia’s testimony and the cell phone records that tied Jonathan to the crime scene. Chief Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans told the jury, “This was a relentless, sustained, malicious attack by a cold-blooded killer… No human being should ever have this inflicted on them.”
In regards to motive, Evans described a complicated web of greed. He explained that Ross Byrne was an “uncharged co-conspirator” who orchestrated the murder in order to get rid of his business partner and gain control of the bakery. He had used his relationship with Jonathan to carry out his plan.
On August 20, 2018, the jury found Jonathan Wheeler guilty on all counts, including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, armed robbery, and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms without parole.
Jerry Moore’s killer was now in prison, but what about the mastermind behind the murder? Ross Byrne had been living life as usual for the past four and a half years. Where was his measure of justice?
On Tuesday, August 28, 2018, a week after Jonathan’s conviction, police raided The Best Dang Bakery Around. Two days later, Ross Byrne was in custody. A grand jury indicted him on three counts of felony murder, one count of malice murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit a felony and racketeering. He was booked into the Cobb County Jail and held without bond. A year later, in October 2019, Ross was indicted on additional felony charges. He now faces eight charges: one charge of malice murder and three counts of felony murder, as well as one charge each of conspiracy to conceal a death, conspiracy to hinder another person’s apprehension, criminal solicitation to commit murder, and racketeering. In a perhaps not-so-surprising twist, the indictment also alleged that Ross, while in jail, attempted to hire someone to kill Jonathan in March 2019. Clearly his loyalty only stretched so far.
Currently, Jonathan Wheeler is serving out his life sentence at Smith State Prison in southern Georgia. Ross Byrne is at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center awaiting trial.
Jerry Moore was loved by his family and friends. They described him as funny, sweet, and kind. He loved animals and was well-known for his elaborate holiday decorations. He was a loyal friend who didn’t deserve to be betrayed in such a terrible way. We can only hope that the progress that has been made towards justice in this case will continue.