John Dawson served 26 years through three wars in the U.S. Navy before retiring as a senior petty officer and settling down in a tidy Columbus home on Victoria Drive with his wife.
He was 92 years old on Sept. 24, 2018, when then-27-year-old Darius Jamar Travick walked into his home through an unlocked door, punched Dawson’s wife unconscious and attacked Dawson with a paring knife, stabbing him 21 times in a hand-to-hand battle through three rooms of the house.
Police later found Dawson dead in his living room. Officers discovered his wife in another room, disoriented, with a black eye and a concussion, investigators said.
His family waited five years and five months to see how his killer would be punished for this random, irrational crime.
On Friday, after a week-long bench trial before Muscogee Superior Court Judge Maureen Gottfried, he was found guilty of murder and aggravated assault.
The judge who determined his guilt decided also on his penalty, sentencing him to life in prison plus 20 years.
She declined to give him life without parole, despite the urging of prosecutor Lewis Lamb, who took the case because Columbus District Attorney Stacey Jackson once represented Travick.
Before the sentencing, Dawson’s family described the depth of their loss, and the stress of waiting years for justice.
“There are no words to describe what my family and I have been through for the past five years,” granddaughter Jennifer Osbon told Gottfried at Travick’s sentencing.
The story of Dawson’s life should not be overshadowed by his murder, she said.
“He deserves to be remembered for way more than his death,” she said. “Our grandfather was and will forever be the most incredible God-fearing man on this earth. Everything he did was done in genuine kindness and love.”
He was devoted particularly to his wife, grandson Chris Dawson said after the sentencing.
“She was his love, and he would do anything to protect her,” he said. “He’s not a big man; he’s 5-foot-7, and I’d venture to say by the time I was 13 or 14, he was physically looking up to me. But some 30 years later, I’m not even close to the shadow he cast as a person.”
The superlatives friends and family use to describe his grandfather are no exaggeration, he said.
“It might sound cliche, and everybody says he’s the perfect person, but for us, it’s not a cliche. That’s who he was. He showed us how to love. He showed us what love is. Not through his words, but through who he was and how he lived his life.”
Online tributes say Dawson, a native of Dothan, Alabama, served in the Pacific Theater during World War II, then served again in the Korean War and in Vietnam, retiring in 1966 with several service decorations.
He bought the house on Victoria Drive in 1967, and he had lived there since, with his wife of 72 years.
Then everything changed that sunny day in 2018, when Travick walked away from a relative’s house nearby, cut through some backyards, and chose Dawson’s home to intrude upon.
“It was entirely random.... It was just the house that he ended up at,” Lamb said after the sentencing.
Dawson had come inside from working in the yard, and sat down to have a cup of coffee. Travick walked through a screen door into the kitchen, where Dawson’s wife encountered him.
“What are you doing in my house?” she asked him. “You need to go!”
When Travick knocked her out, her husband rushed to her aid, initiating the struggle that followed.
Travick broke the paring knife, during the fight, leaving it in two pieces as he walked outside and tried to get into Dawson’s car.
That’s when a neighbor yelled at him, and he attacked the neighbor, who was 72, police said. Then another neighbor intervened, dragging Travick away.
Travick’s mother pulled up in a car, and Travick, who was wearing only a pair of shorts, stripped naked. He was in the mother’s car when police arrived and arrested him.
He afterward had psychological evaluations that found him competent to stand trial. His defense was that he was not mentally capable of distinguishing right from wrong, at the time.
The question Gottfried had to decide was whether his mental state was the result of illness or substance abuse. She determined he had substance-abuse psychosis, from smoking marijuana that may have been laced with other drugs.
Lamb said that marijuana can affect someone with a psychosis differently than other users, and that Travick had a similar episode in 2016, when he was hospitalized after harming himself.
His family wept in the courtroom upon hearing his sentence. “He did not deserve that,” one said as she walked out.