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Thief spared prison after stealing missing grandmother’s pension | 11Alive News Investigates

A thief won’t have to pay back more than $100,000 in a plea deal struck right before the grandmother’s body was identified.

ROSWELL, Ga. — One police department had a body without a name. The other had a name without a body. Two detective units in different states were working on the same case for years and didn’t know it.

Jean Ponders vanished from Roswell in 2012 — the same year a decomposed body was found near the Talladega Speedway in Lincoln, Alabama.

Lincoln Police Captain Shannon Hallmark described the scene as an “abandoned house, no one lives in, and the grass is very high in the front and back, all around it. We went to the back and there was a body that was curled up on its side.”

There was no identification on the body. Forensic teams and the medical examiner were unable to develop any fingerprints from the victim.

Detectives called her Grandma Doe. Even though her death was officially ruled as natural from lung cancer, Lincoln knew it was still a crime.

“Someone had placed her there and left the scene,” Captain Hallmark said, adding that the suspected crime under Alabama law was an abuse of a corpse.

How did the body get there? Investigators first needed to know who she was.

The only real clue was a barely-legible photograph of an engraving on her dentures that detectives thought read 'Powders.'

MISSING MONEY

Jean Ponders was reported missing by her sister Carole in 2015.

Roswell Police discovered someone was still using Ponders' ATM card to withdraw the maximum amount from the missing grandmother’s account for years.

Credit: WXIA

Roswell detectives reviewed ATM surveillance recordings showing a woman wearing a wig and surgical mask repeatedly withdrawing $500 at a time. The mask was odd because these thefts occurred years before COVID.

In all, the thefts added up to more than $100,000 from the missing teacher’s pension.

Roswell Police executed a search warrant at the home of Jean Ponders’ son, but he was never charged with any crime. Instead, police later focused on a former friend of the missing grandmother. 

Her name was Tameka Dionne Jackson.

Detective Iris Scuderi drew up dozens of arrest warrants naming Tameka Dionne Jackson as the thief in 2017. We don’t know why Roswell Police waited nine months after a magistrate signed those warrants to arrest Jackson, but we do know the detective had another mystery to solve during those same months.

MISSING THUMB DRIVE

In 2017, Detective Iris Scuderi sent an email with the subject line ‘REWARD $$$$$$$’ to all officers in the Roswell Police Department.

She said she had accidentally left a thumb drive connected to a shared computer Roswell officers used to file electronic warrants.

Credit: WXIA

Detective Scuderi wrote, “PLEASE help me get it back. I have important documents, warrants, and search warrants on there pertaining to the missing elderly female, Ms. Jean Ponders, case I have been working for over a year, not to mention other cases too.”

The detective offered $25, then $75 before a sergeant told her, “don’t send any further emails to [the entire police department] about your missing thumb drive.”

In a reply email, another Roswell officer joked, “you can assign me to the case, and I will detective it for you ha ha ha. All jokes aside, I really hope it gets returned soon!”

11Alive investigators obtained the internal emails through open records. When providing the public records to us in February of this year, Roswell Police Public Information Officer Tim Lupo wrote, “the flash drive referenced in Det. Scuderi’s emails did not contain independent case files or evidence.”

Roswell Police said the missing thumb drive contained copies of the warrants that had already been filed, along with templates “meticulously honed over the course of a career for maximum efficiency.”

Officer Lupo added, “Their loss, however, ultimately represents no barrier to our investigation into Ms. Ponders’ disappearance, which has remained ongoing and unhindered.”

CHARGES DROPPED

Months after the detectives' thumb drive vanished, prosecutors dropped the multi-count indictments against Tameka Dionne Jackson. Fulton County’s assistant district attorney told a judge the indictments were dropped because Roswell Police needed to do more investigating.

It would take another three years of investigating by Roswell Police before Fulton County would re-indict Jackson on just two charges. 

Credit: WXIA

One year ago, in May 2021, Jackson accepted a plea offer from prosecutors. She pleaded guilty to a single count of theft from the still-missing grandmother’s account. 

The negotiated plea included no jail time. Jackson was sentenced to eight years probation, which will be reduced to three years if she completes 500 hours of community service and stays out of trouble during that time.

The plea was entered under Georgia’s First Offender Act, so the conviction will be sealed once she completes probation.

Jackson was not ordered to pay back any of the money she stole.

She and her attorney did not respond to calls, texts, and emails sent by 11Alive investigators.

BODY IN ALABAMA IDENTIFIED

Just months after the plea deal in Georgia, Alabama investigators positively identified the body they had found behind that abandoned house a decade earlier.

It was Jean Ponders.

Credit: WXIA

Lincoln Police never stopped trying to identify Grandma Doe, pushing local media in Birmingham to run a story every year on the anniversary of the body’s discovery.

Ultimately, Lincoln City Council and private donors paid for new DNA techniques through a Texas company called Othram.

Forensic genealogists tracked the familial DNA to Tennessee, where Ponders was born, but the trail went cold. That’s when Carla Davis, a genealogist who had also privately funded much of the DNA research in Ponders’ case, found a Facebook page about Jean Ponders posted by the victim’s sister Carole.

Jean Ponders’ sister and daughter provided their DNA to confirm the identification.

Captain Hallmark said the goal was always to “give her, her name back, and give her back to her family.”

For a decade, Jean Ponders had been buried in an unmarked grave — a grave that will soon have a marker with her name.

OPEN CASE

Both Lincoln Police and Roswell Police tell us the case is still open. Both agencies told us they’re working with the FBI, which would make sense given that Jean Ponders appeared to have been taken across state lines.

Credit: WXIA

Tameka Dionne Jackson is not currently charged with any crimes, and she’s serving her probation for stealing from Jean Ponders' bank account while the missing grandmother was dead in Alabama.

Her case was sealed after all. 

Roswell Police improperly blocked Tameka Jackson’s name from the warrants they gave us through open records. The police department cited a law that automatically restricts records when someone is charged but not prosecuted but Jackson had pleaded guilty.

Officer Tim Lupo said Roswell Police did what it was supposed to do by referring the case for prosecution, but that an "apparent software error” caused the Georgia Crime Information Center to send an erroneous automated notice to seal Tameka Jackson’s file.

We pointed out the error to Roswell Police, which then worked to correct it. The department eventually gave us records with Tameka Jackson’s name visible.

Ponders' daughter, Jennifer Hazelwood, told us Tameka Jackson “can walk away like it never happened. We don’t get that ability. We’re not going to be able to walk away like she never happened.”

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