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Tampa woman slain in Georgia had sought protection from ex-husband

Kelly Jean Garrison, 35, was fatally shot by her ex-husband Kelly James McDonald on Thursday after he tracked her down at her sister's home in Dahlonega, Ga, authorities say. [Courtesy of Corbett Preparatory School]
Published Apr. 6, 2018

TAMPA — John Wise always said "hello" to neighbor Kelly Garrison, but it wasn't until they shared some strawberry daiquiris that he ever got to know her.

Barely two minutes after she left his Carrollwood apartment that night, Dec. 30, he heard a scream "like nothing I've ever heard before."

It was coming from Garrison's front door. Wise, 54, kicked it in.

It was dark, but he saw a man wearing a hoodie and a headlamp pinning Garrison down. Her gasps for air sounded like her last.

He kicked the assailant in the head and lifted him off her. The two struggled for several minutes before the attacker fled.

"I was fighting for my life," Wise said.

But Wise wasn't there Thursday morning when Kelley James McDonald tracked Garrison, his 35-year-old ex-wife, to her sister's home in Georgia.

In a few horrific moments, McDonald fatally shot both women then himself, orphaning the 2-year-old daughter the couple had together, authorities said.

McDonald, 39, also shot a 16-year-old girl in the home, seriously injuring her, according to the Lumpkin County Sheriff's Office.

Garrison, who taught elementary grades at Corbett Preparatory School in Carrollwood, was harassed and threatened by her ex-husband for more than two years, according to a petition for protection she filed in Hillsborough County a few days after the Dec. 30 attack.

That led the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office to secure a warrant for McDonald's arrest on charges of breaking and entering and assault, sheriff's records show. Deputies trying to find him heard from one family member that he was hiding out, the records show.

An injunction granted by the court ordered McDonald to stay at least 300 feet away from Garrison and to surrender any firearms to the Sheriff's Office.

Four months later, however, McDonald was still at large. On Thursday, he arrived in Dahlonega, Ga., about an hour north of Atlanta, and found his daughter and ex-wife at her sister's house, Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

"They had left the Florida area to come here and hide for safety and the suspect found them at this location," Jarrad said.

After entering the house about 8:30 a.m., McDonald shot Garrison's sister, 38-year-old Tracy Lynne Runnels, then continued through the house and shot the 16-year-old girl, the Sheriff's Office said. Then he fatally shot Garrison before turning his gun on himself. Another girl, 13, escaped through a back door and called 911.

McDonald's daughter was not injured, but the 16-year-old girl underwent a number of surgeries and was recovering Friday, the Sheriff's Office said.

• • •

Garrison and McDonald met in 2009 and married in 2011. By the spring of 2016, McDonald's behavior was alarming his wife, her petition in Hillsborough County states. It included an eight-page attachment chronicling months of threats and harassment before and after their divorce in October.

McDonald accused Garrison of cheating on him, threatened to "take care" of a male acquaintance of hers, hacked her email account and refused to let her go to the beach "because he said guys would hit on me and try to sleep with me," she wrote in the petition. In August 2016, she found an audio recorder in her purse, and her husband admitted placing it there, the petition says.

The following month, a family counselor urged Garrison to file for divorce.

"She said (McDonald) needed help from a psychiatrist for his serious psychiatric problems and that he has all the signs of a violent person who could lose control at any time," Garrison wrote.

Last April, McDonald told Garrison that if she went through with a pending divorce, their daughter "won't have any parents," she wrote. Garrison was puzzled.

"He said it again but louder, 'She will not have ANY parents,'" she wrote in the court filing.

The following month, Garrison moved out of the townhome the couple shared. On moving day, according to the petition, McDonald told her, "I'll get you back for this when you least expect it."

The divorce was finalized Oct. 27, but McDonald continued to harass and threaten Garrison for the next two months, the petition says.

Records show McDonald had two prior arrests in Florida. He entered a pretrial diversion program after a 2009 arrest on charges of resisting an officer without violence on the Florida State University campus.

In September 2012, he was arrested in Hillsborough County on a charge of grand theft, later dropped after he completed pre-trial diversion.

Donna McDonald, who said she was McDonald's stepmother, declined to comment Friday.

"We're still in shock," she said.

• • •

The petition Garrison filed also details the Dec. 30 attack.

McDonald was waiting for Garrison in her apartment. He forced her to the ground, wrapped his arm around her neck and covered her mouth, the petition says.

"He was forcing my head down with such force that it felt like my neck was going to snap," Garrison wrote. "I couldn't breathe. .?.?. I was praying for God not to let me die this way and leave my daughter without a mother."

Wise, the neighbor who intervened, said he hurt this shoulder in the fight. McDonald is 6-foot-2 and weighed 185 pounds when he was arrested in 2012.

A former mixed martial arts fighter, Wise works as a property manager.

After McDonald fled, Wise went back to his apartment to get his gun. When he returned, the lights were on in Garrison's apartment and he saw blood and strawberry daiquiri spilled on the floor.

Garrison, able to stand, told Wise, "That's my ex-husband."

Some of Wise's family asked him why he got involved at all:

"When it's a child or a woman, I can't stick my head in the sand."

• • •

In the following weeks, Wise became something of a guardian for Garrison. He would text her coming back from his 4:30 a.m. daily trip to the gym and she would leave for work after he made sure all was clear. He worried McDonald might attack him.

About seven weeks ago, Wise stopped hearing from Garrison. He thought she was in protective custody. He was shocked and shed tears when a reporter told him Friday she had been killed.

"I can't believe it's been four months and they hadn't caught that guy," Wise said.

The Sheriff's Office used every tool it had to find McDonald, including help from the local U.S. Marshals' task force, sheriff's spokesman Danny Alvarez said.

"This is a tragic incident," Alvarez said. "You can fathom how frustrating it is to be looking for him at this level and not find him."

Garrison was in her second stint teaching primary school grades at Corbett Prep, said headmaster Joyce Burick Swarzman. Seven weeks ago, Garrison went on leave so she could head to Georgia.

"She knew what she needed to do," Burick Swarzman told the Tampa Bay Times on Friday.

The school learned of Garrison's death Thursday night. Burick Swarzman said staffers planned to tell children Friday.

"This is one of these senseless things that are unthinkable, unimaginable, and horrific and so unfair," she said. "We are all mourning her loss."

Garrison was beloved by the students, well-liked at school.

"Her dream was for her baby to grow up here at Corbett Prep. Everyone will miss her light."

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Christopher O'Donnell at (813) 226-3446 or codonnell@tampabay.com. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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