Lita McClinton was murdered in her Atlanta townhome in 1987. Someone posing as a flower delivery man rang the doorbell and shot Lita when she opened the door. Lita’s family, Atlanta PD and the FBI agreed on the prime suspect but it would take nearly 20 years to build a case against him.
Lita LaVaughn McClinton was born in Atlanta in 1952. She was the eldest child of one of the most prominent Black families in Atlanta. Jo Ann and Emory McClinton. Jo Ann McClinton was a politician, serving in the Georgia House of Representatives from 1993 to 2006. Emory McClinton was a high-ranking official with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Lita McClinton was petite and known for her beautiful smile, bright eyes and trusting soul. Elegant in every way, she loved fashion and dressing up for parties and cotillions. Lita attended Spelman College where she majored in political science. Following graduation in 1975, Lita’s love of fashion led her to work at an upscale boutique in Atlanta. Here, the 23 year old met a customer named Jim Sullivan.
Lita was smitten by this charismatic man who was 11 years older but her friends and her parents were immediately concerned about the match.
Jim Sullivan came from a working class family in Macon, Georgia. He did have money when he met Lita but that money was part of an inheritance from his uncle’s beverage company in Macon.
Money can’t buy you class and Lita’s parents described Jim as arrogant and a little off putting from the moment they met him.
They also questioned whether he was too old for their daughter and there was the fear the couple would not be accepted socially because Lita was Black and Jim white.
It was 1975 and in Georgia, interracial marriage had only been legal for three years. Lita said she loved Jim and was determined to make the relationship work. When he proposed she said yes.
The couple married on December 29,1976. They spent the first eight years of their marriage in Macon before Jim sold the family business for $5 million dollars. Jim decided they would move to an exclusive community in Palm Beach Florida. The move was hard for Lita. The predominately white wealthy social set in Palm Beach in the early 80s did not welcome them.
Their oceanfront mansion couldn’t make people tolerant and accepting of them as a couple. Lita struggled away from family in Georgia and Jim’s actions didn’t help the situation.
He was desperate to gain acceptance among the social club scene but struggled to be accepted because his arrogance and off putting manner. Jim started blaming Lita for their lack of acceptance and a heartbroken Lita shared with her best friend Poppy that she knew Jim was cheating on her. She had found another woman’s lingerie in the bed she shared with her husband.
To make matters worse for Lita, Jim controlled every cent of their wealth and would cut off Lita’s access to their finances.
Lita tried to make the marriage work. She didn’t want to give up on Jim but it felt like he was giving up on her. When she learned he was picking up sex workers, the then 33 year old Lita knew she had to end her misery.
She decided it was time to leave Jim and file for divorce. She was young and told friends and family that once the divorce was final she hoped to meet a man who would love her the way she loved him and hoped to have children.
Lita waited for Jim to leave on a business trip, packed up her Mercedes Benz and left Palm Springs. She moved back to Atlanta and threw herself into the charity work she loved and enjoyed being free from Jim’s constant emotional and financial control over her.
She settled into a townhome the couple owned in Buckhead. When she filed for divorce in 1985, Lita requested half of Jim Sullivan’s $5 million dollar estate including the townhouse, her Mercedes Benz and many of the fine furnishings they had acquired during the marriage.
Lita and Jim’s divorce would be a bitter one. Lita had suffered emotional and financial abuse in the marriage and Jim had not hidden that he was a womanizer. Jim countered accusing Lita of adultery, and drug abuse. Those accusations could never be substantiated.
As the divorce dragged on, Jim Sullivan found himself in considerable financial trouble. The court ordered him to pay Lita a temporary alimony settlement and cover the mortgages for the couple’s homes in Palm Beach and Atlanta. Sullivan was running out of money and facing financial ruin if Lita got what she asked for in the divorce.
On January 15, 1987, Lita’s best friend Poppy spent the night at the townhome. Poppy’s three year old daughter was with her. The friends talked late into the night about Lita’s post divorce plans.
A judge would be finalizing the divorce the next day and Lita was looking forward to a fresh start.
Early the next morning, as rain fell in Atlanta, Lita heard the doorbell and looked out the window to see a delivery man holding a box of roses.
When she opened the door, the man asked if she was Lita McClinton. She said yes, and the man pulled out a 9mm gun that was hidden within the roses.
He fired several times, striking Lita once in the head.
Poppy heard the shots and immediately grabbed her daughter and ran into a closet where they hid until police arrived and assured them they were safe.
Lita was transported to the hospital where she died.
When investigators broke the news to Lita’s parents and her best friend that she had been murdered, they immediately told detectives Jim Sullivan killed Lita.
Authorities agreed he was a prime suspect due to the contentious divorce and financial stress. The first obstacle in their case was that Jim Sullivan could prove he was in Palm Beach the morning Lita was murdered. Police theorized Jim had hired someone to murder his wife but they needed solid proof.
It would take nearly a decade before Atlanta PD and the FBI would get a major break in the case. Belinda Trahan called Atlanta police with a tip. She claimed her ex boyfriend was the man Jim Sullivan hired to murder Lita McClinton.
47 year old Anthony Harwood was a truck driver from North Carolina who had dated Trahan but after they broke up he continued to harass her. She explained Harwood was violent and had made several threats on her life because she knew he had been hired to kill Lita McClinton.
Belinda Trahan told authorities she was with Anthony Harwood when he met with Jim Sullivan in Atlanta two weeks before Lita’s murder. During the meeting Trahan claimed Sullivan gave Anthony Harwood an envelope filled with $12,500. Half of the $25,000 cash Sullivan promised to pay Harwood to murder Lita.
Police learned Anthony Harwood and Jim Sullivan met when Harwood moved some furniture for Sullivan in November 1986.
When questioned by Atlanta detectives, Harwood confirmed most of Brenda Trahan’s story. He admitted he had taken money from Sullivan and knew it was payment for a hit on Lita McClinton. He revealed that when he called Sullivan from a payphone hours after Lita had been killed, he said to him: “Merry Christmas Mr. Sullivan, your problem has been taken care of”.
The one thing Anthony Harwood denied was being the gun man. Harwood said he was the getaway driver for the gunman who went by the alias of “John the Barber.”
Authorities didn’t believe John the Barber existed but they needed Harwood’s cooperation to make a case against Jim Sullivan. The DA cut a deal with Harwood allowing him to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter with the condition Harwood testify against Jim Sullivan.
Just as authorities were closing in on Jim Sullivan…he fled.
Hear all the twists and turns of the case and how authorities finally got justice for Lita McClinton in the new episode of Southern Mysteries.
Case of slain socialite has twists right out of the movies. Northwest Florida Daily News.. May 17, 1992
Palm Beach millionaire on trial in murder-for-hire conspiracy. Northwest Florida Daily News.. November 2, 1992
Wife tells of murder confession. Northwest Florida Daily News. November 17, 1992
Sullivan’s Former In Laws Take Stand. South Florida Sun-Sentinel. February23, 1994
Millionaire wanted for 1987 slaying. Lawrence Journal World. April 25, 1998
Millionaire charged with arranging wife’s 1987 slaying. Galveston Daily News. April 26, 1998
Thai police arrest man wanted by the FBI. Hays Daily News. July 03, 2002
Thai court orders American extradited. Bluefield Daily Telegraph. February 15, 2003
One of America’s most wanted now awaiting trial for ordering hit on wife. Ottumwa Courier. June 08, 2004
Lita LaVaughn McClinton. Find A Grave. August 20, 2004
Shooter’s former girlfriend testifies in slaying trial. Access WDUN. March 3, 2006
Millionaire Convicted of Murder in Wife’s Death. The Washington Post. March 11, 2006
Flower delivery turned murder. NBC News. March 25, 2006
Millionaire sentenced to life for wife’s murder. Corbin Times Tribune. March 15, 2006
Sullivan v. The State. Justia US Law
Triggerman in socialite Lita Sullivan’s murder released from prison. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. May 27, 2018
Hunt for Sullivan’s riches goes on 28 years after he had wife killed. Palm Beach Post. May 29, 2018Lita McClinton: A Deadly Flower Delivery. The True Crime Edition. August 1, 2020
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