Execution Date Set for Travis Clinton Hittson, Convicted of Murder

February 2, 2016

An execution date for Travis Clinton Hittson has been set for February 17, 2016. Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens offers the following information in the case against Travis Clinton Hittson for the 1992 murder of Conway Utterbeck.

Scheduled Execution

Travis Clinton Hittson’s direct appeal proceedings and his state and federal habeas corpus proceedings have been concluded. Accordingly, on February 1, 2016, the Superior Court of Houston County issued an order setting a seven-day period of time during which the execution of Travis Clinton Hittson may take place. The period of time ordered by the Superior Court will last from noon on February 17, 2016, to noon on February 24, 2016. The execution has been set for Wednesday evening, February 17, 2016.

Hittson’s Crime (April 4, 1992)

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals summarized the facts of the crime as follows:

In the spring of 1992, Travis Hittson, Edward Vollmer, and Conway Utterbeck were stationed aboard the USS Forrestal, an aircraft carrier that was based in Pensacola, Florida, at the time. They were all assigned to the electrical division of the engineering department. Vollmer and Hittson were on the same work detail, and Vollmer was Hittson’s Leading Petty Officer. Utterbeck had a different assignment but worked in a similar capacity in the same area of the ship.

On Friday, April 3, 1992, Vollmer invited Hittson and Utterbeck to come with him to his parents’ house in Warner Robins, Georgia, for the weekend. His parents were out of town. Apparently neither Hittson nor Utterbeck was aware that the other had also been invited until shortly before they left Pensacola. The three men arrived at Vollmer’s parents’ house late Friday evening, but they did not have a key, so they spent the night in a storage shed behind the house. On Saturday, April 4, a friend of Vollmer’s parents came by to check on the house; finding Vollmer and the two others there, he gave them a key. The three sailors spent most of the day on Saturday hanging around the house, but sometime Saturday evening, Hittson and Vollmer went out drinking. They left Utterbeck at the house.

Early in the morning of Sunday, April 5, after several hours of drinking, Hittson and Vollmer headed back to the Vollmer residence. According to the statement later given by Hittson to law enforcement, he was very drunk by that time. On the drive back, Vollmer worked Hittson up by telling him that Utterbeck was “going to get us”—that Utterbeck was plotting to kill the two of them—so “we’ve got to get him” by killing him first. At some point—though it is not clear when—Vollmer told Hittson that Utterbeck had a hit list with Hittson’s and Vollmer’s names on it. When they pulled into the driveway, Vollmer put on a bulletproof vest and a long trench coat and grabbed a sawed-off shotgun and a .22 caliber handgun from his car. He gave Hittson an aluminum bat that was also in the car and told Hittson that Utterbeck was waiting for them inside the house and was planning to shoot them. Vollmer instructed Hittson to go in first and “get him” and then “get him in the kitchen”—so they would not make a mess on the carpet.

When Hittson entered the house, he found Utterbeck asleep in a recliner in the living room. Hittson sneaked up on him and hit him in the head with the bat. Utterbeck woke up and jumped up out of the chair. Hittson hit him in the head again, knocking him to the floor. Utterbeck raised a hand to defend himself, so Hittson hit his hand with the bat and then hit him in the head a third time. The third hit was apparently enough to subdue Utterbeck. Hittson dragged him by his hands into the kitchen, where Vollmer was waiting. Utterbeck was still conscious and asked Hittson, “what did I ever do to you?” Vollmer gave Hittson the .22 pistol and stood on Utterbeck’s hand to keep him from struggling. Utterbeck screamed “no, no,” and begged for his life, but Hittson shot him point blank in the forehead. In his own words, “I had no emotion or nothing on my face. I know I didn’t. I was cold and Vollmer steps on his hand and . . . handed me the gun, I shot him.”

Hittson and Vollmer stripped Utterbeck’s body, taking the $62 they found in his pockets. They left the body in the kitchen and went to a nearby Waffle House to get something to eat. Upon their return, Vollmer told Hittson that they had to dismember the body and clean up the house to conceal the crime. They initially tried to cut up the body with a serrated steak knife from the kitchen, but then switched to a hacksaw from the tool shed out back. They also found a piece of slate in the shed, which they placed under the body to avoid scratching up the kitchen floor. Following Vollmer’s directions, Hittson sawed off one of Utterbeck’s hands and began working on sawing off his head, but got sick and had to stop. Vollmer finished sawing off the head, the other hand, and both feet. Vollmer also skinned part of Utterbeck’s arm and chest with a knife and a pair of pliers. The autopsy later showed that Utterbeck’s [genitalia was mutilated]. Hittson denied performing the sexual mutilation and stated that he had not seen Vollmer do it either.

After finishing their grisly task, Hittson and Vollmer wrapped Utterbeck’s torso and severed body parts in plastic bags and left them in the kitchen while they drove to a nearby wooded area to dig a shallow grave. As they were returning to Vollmer’s parents’ house—around 10:30 on Sunday morning—they happened to pull onto the highway in front of a local woman who was traveling in the same direction. The woman took notice of Vollmer’s car, which had an out-of-state license plate and was pulling off of a lightly traveled dirt road that led to an undeveloped tract of land owned by a friend. Suspicious, she wrote down the license plate number and a description of the car, which she later turned over to the Houston County Sheriff’s Office after Utterbeck’s torso was discovered on the property two months later.

Hittson and Vollmer returned to Vollmer’s parents’ house and began cleaning the blood off the kitchen floor and the living room carpet. Vollmer’s sister-in-law (who lived nearby) came by around noon on Sunday, while they were still cleaning. Vollmer left with her to go grab a bite to eat, without ever letting her inside the house. While they were gone, Hittson kept cleaning. When Vollmer returned, he and Hittson drove back out to the grave to bury Utterbeck’s torso and then went back to the house to finish cleaning. The family friend who had given them the key came by Sunday evening to check on the house again. Hittson had to quickly hide Utterbeck’s clothes and throw a blanket over a lingering blood spot in the living room. When the family friend asked where the third guy was, Vollmer told him that Utterbeck was asleep in the back room.

Hittson and Vollmer finally finished cleaning up the house sometime Sunday evening, and so they packed up and set out for Pensacola.

They put Utterbeck’s severed hands, head, and feet in the trunk of Vollmer’s car, along with a few other pieces of evidence, including Utterbeck’s clothing, his identification card, and the .22 shell casing. They threw Utterbeck’s clothing and ID card in a dumpster close to Vollmer’s parents’ house. Before leaving Warner Robins, they stopped at Vollmer’s sister-in-law’s for about an hour to say goodbye. As they drove back to Pensacola, Vollmer tried to find a good place to dump the remaining body parts, but apparently did not find a spot to his liking.

They made it back to Pensacola around 6 a.m. on Monday, April 6. With Utterbeck’s body parts still in Vollmer’s trunk, they drove onto the Navy base and reported for duty aboard the Forrestal. When they got off work that day, they drove to a wooded area outside of Pensacola and buried the body parts in several shallow holes. On their drive back into town, they scattered some remaining pieces of evidence in a few dumpsters.

While Vollmer’s parents did have guns in their house, it has never been established whether Vollmer (whom Hittson described as “very paranoid”) actually believed that Utterbeck was planning to kill them that night, or if Vollmer just told Hittson as much to get him to kill Utterbeck. There is no evidence in the record to indicate that Utterbeck harbored any particular ill will towards either Hittson or Vollmer, or that Utterbeck had any intention to do them harm that night. And, other than the crime itself, there is no evidence in the record to indicate that Vollmer or Hittson had a reason to kill Utterbeck.

When Utterbeck failed to report for roll call on Monday, April 6, the Navy took note of his unauthorized absence but did not further investigate until later that month, when Utterbeck’s mother called his division commander to tell him that she had not heard from her son since the first weekend in April—when he had traveled to Warner Robins with two shipmates. Inquiries aboard the Forrestal led Navy personnel to Hittson and Vollmer. When questioned about Utterbeck’s whereabouts, they confirmed that they had gone to Vollmer’s parents’ house over the April 3 weekend with Utterbeck, but they claimed that they dropped him off at a bar in Pensacola sometime in early morning hours of Monday, April 6. On April 27, 1992, the Naval Investigative Service issued a missing persons alert for Utterbeck, and on May 5 he was declared a Navy deserter.

On June 16, 1992, Utterbeck’s torso was discovered by loggers who were clearing the wooded property near Vollmer’s parents’ house. The loggers called the Houston County Sheriff’s Office, who unearthed the torso and sent it to the state crime lab in Atlanta. The autopsy did not reveal the victim’s identity. Upon hearing about the dead body, the local woman, who had months earlier written down Vollmer’s license plate, called the sheriff's office. The plate number she had written down was off by one digit, so the Houston County officials were not able to immediately trace the car to Vollmer.

On June 23, 1992, after receiving no new leads on Utterbeck’s whereabouts, Navy investigators broadcast a request to other law enforcement agencies for information regarding any unidentified bodies matching Utterbeck’s general description. The Houston County Sheriff's Office responded the same day, informing the Navy that they had unearthed the remains of a white male matching Utterbeck’s characteristics approximately two miles from Vollmer’s parents’ house, with a time of death estimated sometime in early April.

Investigators from Houston County and the Navy interviewed Hittson on June 25, 1992. Hittson initially stuck to his story—that he and Vollmer had dropped Utterbeck off at a bar sometime early Monday morning—but after being confronted with the investigators’ suspicions that they had found Utterbeck’s dismembered body, Hittson confessed that he and Vollmer had murdered Utterbeck and buried him there. In a taped statement given to the investigators—which was later played for the jury—Hittson described the murder, dismemberment, and disposal of the body parts in detail. After confessing, Hittson led investigators to the spot outside Pensacola where the remaining body parts were buried. He also told the investigators where to find the baseball bat, which he and Vollmer had stashed in the rafters of the shed at Vollmer’s parents’ house. Hittson was then taken into custody by the Houston County Sheriff’s Office. That same day, Vollmer was arrested in Houston County, at his parents’ house.

The next day, investigators executed search warrants for Vollmer’s car and his parents’ house. They found traces of blood and .22 caliber ammunition in the trunk of Vollmer’s car. They recovered the .22 pistol, the aluminum bat, the hacksaw, the piece of slate Hittson and Vollmer used during the dismembering, and other various pieces of evidence from the house, and they found traces of blood on the kitchen floor and baseboard.

Hittson v. GDCP Warden, 759 F.3d 1210, 1218-1221 (2014).

The Trial and Direct Appeal (1992-1995)

On February 27, 1993, following a jury trial, Hittson was convicted of murder, theft by taking as a lesser included offense of armed robbery, aggravated assault, and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. The jury’s recommendation of a death sentence was returned on March 2, 1993. The Georgia Supreme Court affirmed Hittson’s convictions and death sentence on October 31, 1994. Hittson v. State, 264 Ga. 682 (1994). The United States Supreme Court denied Hittson’s request to appeal on May 22, 1995. Hittson v. Georgia, 514 U.S. 1129 (1995).

First State Habeas Corpus Proceedings (1995-2001)

Hittson filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Superior Court of Butts County, Georgia on December 31, 1995. An evidentiary hearing was held on October 6-7, 1997. On July 13, 1998, the state habeas corpus court entered an order denying Hittson state habeas relief. The Georgia Supreme Court denied Hittson’s appeal on September 29, 2000. The United States Supreme Court denied Hittson’s request to appeal on May 29, 2001. Hittson v. Turpin, 532 U.S. 1052 (2001).

Federal Habeas Corpus and Second State Habeas Proceedings (2002-2015)

Hittson filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia on January 4, 2002. On August 30, 2004, the district court issued a stay, directing Hittson to return to the state courts to exhaust two specific prosecutorial misconduct claims.

Hittson filed his second habeas corpus petition in the Superior Court of Butts County on July 20, 2005. An evidentiary hearing was held on November 29-30, 2007. On January 30, 2009, the state habeas corpus court entered an order denying Hittson state habeas relief. The Georgia Supreme Court denied Hittson’s appeal on October 18, 2010. The United States Supreme Court denied Hittson’s request to appeal on June 20, 2011. Hittson v. Humphrey, 131 S. Ct. 3038 (2011).

Thereafter, the stay in Hittson’s federal habeas proceeding was lifted and Hittson filed an amended federal habeas corpus petition on July 11, 2011. On November 13, 2012, the district court granted relief as to Hittson’s death sentence. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s grant of relief on July 9, 2014. Hittson v. GDCP Warden, 759 F.3d 1210 (11th Cir. 2014). The United States Supreme Court denied Hittson’s request for certiorari review on June 15, 2015. Hittson v. Chatman, 135 S. Ct. 2126 (2015).