Judge finds probable cause in murder case

Published 2:33 pm Tuesday, May 19, 2009

PELL CITY – A judge on Tuesday found probable cause to pursue a capital murder charge against Randy O’Neal Davidson, the 28-year-old Sterrett man accused of strangling 62-year-old caretaker Diane Donahoo Rice to death.

St. Clair County District Judge Phil Seay heard testimony from Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Shelby O’Connor. Rice, also of Sterrett, was reported missing after leaving her house in the 16000 block of Highway 55 in Sterrett April 3. She was the live-in caretaker of a 90-year-old man named Buddy Churchwell, O’Connor said.

Rice’s body was found April 7 in a wooded area off Camp Winnataska Road in St. Clair County. She had been strangled with a nylon cord that was found a few feet from her body.

O’Connor testified a man complaining of car trouble spent the day at Rice and Churchwell’s home April 3.

“The individual was in their residence at 6:30 Friday morning and stayed the entire day,” O’Connor said. “The individual had wrecked a vehicle and was waiting for someone to come get it.”

When investigators showed Churchwell photos of people who were in the neighborhood that day, he identified Davidson as the man who was in his house, O’Connor said.

Investigators believe Rice and Davidson left the house in Rice’s car between 7:30 p.m. April 3 and 4 a.m. April 4. Because the final autopsy report has not yet been released, Rice’s exact time of death is unknown.

Davidson was arrested April 6 at a Jefferson County truck stop by plain clothed Shelby County sheriff’s deputies. Davidson was apprehended as he approached Rice’s car, a 2003 white Ford Taurus.

In a videotaped statement, Davidson admitted to having Rice’s car, and originally told investigators Rice gave him the car.

“He admitted to being high on drugs at the time,” O’Connor said. “He said if he had done anything to Ms. Rice she would be in one of three places – an area called The Lookout in Shelby County, an area along the power lines on Camp Winnataska Road in St. Clair County or an area called Turkey Creek in Jefferson County.”

O’Connor added, “He couldn’t believe he could’ve done something like that. He said he had been high on methamphetamines and hadn’t slept for eight or nine days. He didn’t have a gun and he didn’t like stabbing or the sight of blood. We asked if it were possible he had strangled (Rice), and he said yes.”

Seay bound the case over the St. Clair County grand jury following O’Connor’s testimony.

Davidson is being held in the St. Clair County Jail without bond. He also faces previous charges of burglary and theft of property in Shelby County. The alleged burglary occurred five miles south of Rice’s house on April 2.