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McRAE, Ga. – Elrey "Bud" Runion and his wife, June, took their charitable efforts all over the South: from storm-damaged Alabama towns and impoverished pockets of West Virginia to a donation center run from their backyard in suburban Atlanta.
"He said, 'You can't take money with you when you're gone," said the couple's daughter, Brittany Patterson. "You might as well spend and enjoy it."
This week, the couple's bodies were found, each shot in the head, in a small farming town in South Georgia. Bud Runion, 69, had driven nearly three hours from his Marietta home seeking to buy a piece of his youth, a replica of the 1966 Ford Mustang convertible he bought after returning from the Vietnam War decades ago.
A potential seller responding to his Craigslist ad drew him to McRae on Thursday. On Monday, authorities found the couple's SUV, with their bodies nearby.
Ronnie Adrian "Jay" Towns, 28, of McRae, was charged Tuesday with malice murder and armed robbery. A judge denied bond for Towns in his first, brief court appearance. Asked whether he understood what he had been charged with, Towns replied: "I understand." His attorney, public defender Ashley McLaughlin, declined to comment afterward.
Telfair County Sheriff Chris Steverson said robbery appears to be the motive for the couple's killings, but he would not say whether the Runions were carrying cash or disclose other details about the case. On Monday, he said investigators had found no evidence that Towns owned the sort of classic car Runion was seeking.
While the family was unsure Tuesday morning what transpired in McRae, Patterson had her own assumptions. Her father served in Army's 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam, though he never talked to her about the experience in detail.
"He's a survivor and fighter, and I know he wouldn't have gone out without fighting and trying to protect my mother," she said.
Years ago, driving through Marietta before Christmas Eve, Runion saw two young girls sorting through a Dumpster, his daughter said. He fixed up two bicycles belonging to his own girls and delivered them as gifts.
It was the beginning of "Bud's Bicycles," a charity run loosely out of Mount Paran Church of God in Marietta. Runion met his wife, a teacher, at the church in the 1970s.
Neighbors said the Runions built a shed in their backyard to house the bikes. Their donations eventually expanded to include food, household and school supplies, coats, blankets — even Thanksgiving turkeys.
"Basically, he had a food pantry in the basement of their house," Patterson said.
Charity came in ways big and small. Patterson remembered as a child going to a doughnut shop with her father on Saturdays. They would often be joined by a man she did not know, and her father would pay the tab. Later in life she realized the man was homeless.
In front of the couple's home Tuesday, someone tied flowers to a child's bicycle and left it standing below a flag flying at half-staff.
"If someone lives their life like this and this happens, it really tests your faith," said their neighbor, Tom Murphy.
In McRae, The Runions' slaying shocked residents. In the tiny city about 80 miles southeast of Macon, a public mural in the downtown square proclaims it's the "6th Safest City in Georgia."
The suspect, Towns, grew up on a farm down a long dirt road where his father raised pine trees and grew soybeans, corn and peanuts. Now 28, he had a family of his own — a wife and a young daughter — in neighboring Wheeler County. Towns supported them by working construction jobs for a local homebuilder, said his uncle, Buddy Towns.
"He's a good kid and very smart," said the uncle, who sometimes hired his nephew to help install carpet and flooring customers had purchased from Buddy Towns' business in McRae.
Buddy Towns said it had been six months or so since he needed his nephew's help on a job, but he saw the younger Towns' truck pass his storefront almost daily as he headed to work. He said his nephew remained close to his father, Ronnie Towns Sr., and they often went fishing and hunting together.
Towns' family helped persuade him to turn himself in to authorities Monday. Buddy Towns said they were stunned that he would be charged in connection with the Runions' disappearance.
"It just doesn't make any sense why this would even go down," Towns' uncle said. "It's hard for his parents. They're not understanding."
Henry reported from Marietta, Georgia.