Investigation Discovery’s ‘Vengeance: Killer Millionaires: Death of a Socialite’ features the gruesome murder of Atlanta, Georgia socialite Lita McClinton in front of her doorstep in mid-January 1987. While the police suspected her former husband from the get-go, he managed to remain elusive for over a decade before he and the hitman were finally apprehended and brought to justice. The episode details the decade-spanning investigation and how the authorities finally managed to catch up with him across international borders.
How Did Lita McClinton Die?
Born on January 7, 1952, in Atlanta in Fulton County, Georgia, Lita LaVaughn McClinton was the eldest of three children of JoAnn and Emory McClinton. She grew up in the warm, promising embrace of one of Atlanta’s most prominent African-American families, with her parents helping to chart the political futures of influential friends. Her mother was a state representative, while her father was a high-ranking official with the Federal Department of Transportation. They lived in a rustic, wealthy section of Atlanta, where she attended Spelman College.
JoAnn and Emory gave their children every advantage, including membership in Jack and Jill — the exclusive African-American family social club — and a life in which elegant parties and cotillions were routine. However, unlike other socialites, Lita did not run after getting married immediately after graduating. Instead, she focused on building a career in fashion with her friend, Aida Flamm, adding, “She loved the retail business and aspired to run her store one day.” However, the busy socialite’s life changed when she met James Vincent Sullivan in 1975.
Pettie and vivacious with hick, shoulder-length tresses framing her face, Lita married James — a white man more than ten years her senior — on December 29, 1976. The couple spent nearly a decade living in Macon, Georgia, and in their mansion in old-money Palm Beach before moving back home to Atlanta just before filing for divorce. However, she never received her divorce settlement as she was fatally shot once in the head at her doorstep with a 9-mm gun on January 16, 1987. The police rushed her to the hospital, where she succumbed to her injuries.
Who Killed Lita McClinton?
Lita’s parents were concerned about her marriage due to worries about how a biracial couple would be perceived in the Deep South when they moved to Macon, Georgia, and their dislike for James. They believed he was a dishonest man who concealed important information, such as his prior marriage and children. Despite her parents’ reservations, the marriage initially appeared to be successful. However, the Sullivans faced significant challenges as their interracial union was met with disapproval from some in the community.
James sold Crown Beverage, Inc — the beer company he had inherited from his uncle — for $5 million in 1983. He and Lita then moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where they purchased Casa Eleda, a stunning Italianate villa overlooking the ocean. They aimed to build their social life in a more accepting community for interracial couples. Upon arriving in Palm Beach, James and Lita aspired to integrate into the city’s social elite. They mingled with wealthy residents but could not achieve the status they had hoped for.
Lita soon realized that race played a subtle yet insidious role in Palm Beach society, and money alone couldn’t buy acceptance. James, known for his extreme arrogance, grew frustrated at his inability to reach the top of Palm Beach society. He became resentful, blaming Lita for his perceived failures, and distanced himself emotionally from her. He engaged in a series of extramarital affairs with women he met at parties and events he attended without Lita. She deeply loved him and suffered upon discovering evidence of his affairs.
Despite numerous attempts to salvage the marriage, their relationship disintegrated. Recognizing that she was an obstacle to her husband’s ambitions, Lita left Palm Beach and returned to her Atlanta townhouse in 1985 fall. She filed for divorce and decided to fight legally for that to which she believed she was entitled — half of James’ $5 million estate. Despite the postnuptial agreement of a $2,500 monthly alimony payment, it appeared that she had a significant chance of being awarded half of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s estate.
The divorce settlement was scheduled for January 16, 1987. The same morning, Lita, still clad in her bathrobe, answered a knock at the door to find a tall white male carrying a box of flowers. The stranger fatally shot her before fleeing the scene. After Lita’s murder, James became a prime suspect due to his financial motives and the pursuit of social status. Early in the investigation, witnesses described three men fleeing the crime scene, not matching James’ appearance. It was suspected James hired these men.
Their descriptions matched individuals seen at a nearby flower shop who had bought roses on the morning of the murder. Witnesses also claimed to have seen them at a hotel where they checked in under false names and made phone calls to James. However, he denied any connection to the men or the murder, offering an alternate theory involving a drug deal gone wrong. The police obtained his phone records, revealing a suspicious call shortly after the hit. Subsequent wiretap transcripts confirmed his knowledge of the murder weapon — information that was not released in the public domain. Despite the circumstantial evidence, he could not be arrested.
James was pulled over by police for a traffic violation and was found to have an expired registration in 1990. He coerced his erstwhile wife — socialite Hyo-Sook “Suki” Choi Rogers — to lie on his behalf. However, a judge sentenced him to one year of house arrest for perjury. He was also sentenced to yet another year and a half house arrest for weapons possession after agents found four guns at his residence. Meanwhile, Suki filed for divorce in November 1990 and alleged he had confessed to organizing a hit on Lita.
James was indicted on federal charges of “violating interstate commerce laws by arranging his wife’s killing over the phone” and was extradited to Atlanta. However, a judge dismissed the case in June 1992 due to lack of evidence. Subsequently, he sold his home and moved to a modest ranch house in Boynton Beach, Florida. Lita’s parents filed a wrongful death civil suit against their former son-in-law and won $3.7 million in February 1994. However, the ruling was later overturned by the District Court of Appeals, citing a statute of limitations issue.
A Texan woman tipped off the police after watching a television show about Lita’s murder in January 1998. She recognized James as the person who had paid $25,000 to her former boyfriend, Phillip Anthony Harwood, a long-distance trucker. Phillip confessed to his role in the murder-for-hire scheme, recalling he met James while moving the latter’s belongings to Palm Beach in November 1986. Phillip was arrested on murder charges in April 1998, and a murder warrant was issued for James’ arrest in May 1998 — 13 years after the killing.
Where Are Phillip Harwood and James Sullivan Now?
However, James evaded arrest as he fled from one country to another before finally being arrested at a resort community just outside of Bangkok in July 2002. He was deported to Atlanta and indicted on new charges, including murder and aggravated assault in 2004. Meanwhile, Phillip escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter and agreeing to testify against James. He was sentenced to 20 years. James’ trial began in February 2006, and he was sentenced to life without parole. While Phillip has since been released in late May 2018, James continues to serve his sentence at the Augusta State Medical Prison.