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

Kelley James McDonald Jr., 39, of Tampa, killed his ex-wife and her sister and wounded two children in Georgia then killed himself, according to authorities and local news reports. This booking photo is from a 2012 felony theft arrest in Hillsborough County. [Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office]

TAMPA — After more than a year of harassment culminating in a violent attack, Kelly Jean Garrison sought help from the court system.

On Dec. 30, Garrison arrived at her Tampa apartment to find ex-husband Kelley McDonald inside, according to a petition for protection she would file in Hillsborough County a few days later. McDonald hit Garrison, forced her to the ground, wrapped his arm around her neck and put his hand over 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."

A neighbor intervened and McDonald fled, the petition says, and records show a judge granted the injunction.

But on Thursday, authorities say, McDonald tracked down his 35-year-old ex-wife at her sister’s home in Georgia and in a few horrific moments, fatally shot both women and then himself, orphaning their 2-year-old daughter.

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

An eight-page document attached to the petition the woman filed in Hillsborough County chronicles months of threats and harassment before and after their divorce in October.

Garrison and McDonald met in 2009 and married in 2011. By the spring of 2016, McDonald’s behavior was alarming his wife.

McDonald accused Garrison of cheating on him, threatened to "take care" of a male acquaintance 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 to placing it there, the petition says.

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

"She said it was very unhealthy to be in such an abusive relationship," Garrison wrote in the court petition. "She said Kelley 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."

Last April, McDonald told Garrison that if she went through with a pending divorce, their daughter "won’t have any parents," she wrote. Garrison asked what he meant.

"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. You just wait."

The divorce was finalized Oct. 27. McDonald would continue to harass and threaten Garrison for the next two months, the petition says. Then, on Dec. 30, she came home to her apartment in the Landings on West Linebaugh Avenue to find her ex-husband inside. After the attack, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office secured a warrant for his arrest on charges of breaking and entering and assault, records show.

He was still wanted on that warrant when 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. "That’s when he went in and took the lives of (the women)."

After entering the house about 8:30 a.m., McDonald shot Garrison’s sister, 38-year-old Tracy Lynne Runnels, and then continued through the house and shot a 16-year-old girl, the Sheriff’s Office said. He then fatally shot his wife and himself, the Sheriff’s Office said. A 13-year-old girl escaped uninjured through a back door and called 911.

McDonald’s daughter and the 16-year-old girl were taken to a local hospital. The daughter was not injured, but the teen was taken to another center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Egleston Hospital, where she underwent a number of surgeries and was recovering Friday, the Sheriff’s Office said.

Garrison was in her second stint teaching primary school grades at Corbett Preparatory School in Carrollwood, said Headmaster Joyce Burick Swarzman. Seven weeks ago, she asked to go on leave so she could go 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 from family members and media reports late Thursday night. Burick Swarzman said school 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 her students and highly regarded at the school, Burick Swarzman said.

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

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

In September 2012, McDonald was arrested in Hillsborough County on a charge of grand theft that was later dropped after he completed a pre-trial intervention program, records show.

Staff writer Christopher O’Donnell contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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