MARIETTA — Nearly four decades after Wills High School graduate Steve Richardson and a friend died of drug overdoses at a party on Lake Allatoona, his class ring was returned to his family.
Richardson, a 19-year-old carpenter, died along with his friend Steve Byers on Aug. 19, 1978, after the two drank a lethal cocktail of Gatorade and MDA, an amphetamine-based psychedelic, at a house party along Kellogg Creek in Cherokee County, the MDJ reported at the time.
Family members described Richardson as hard-working and playful, a strapping young man who stood about six-foot-five and exceled as a marksman in Wills' ROTC program. But they never found the class ring he always wore, the one engraved with his initials and set with a deep blue stone. Until now.
"I'd completely given up on it," said Donna Smith, Richardson's sister who now lives in Alpharetta. "It's been missing since my brother died."
Circumstances surrounding the 1978 deaths remain murky, but partygoers placed the bodies in the lake before transporting them to a Cherokee hospital under the pretense the young men had drowned, according to courtroom testimony. An autopsy revealed that was not the case as neither had water in their lungs and toxicology results showed both teenagers had ingested the MDA. Two others were hospitalized from drinking the concoction and 11 people from Cobb and Cherokee counties were ultimately charged in connection with the deaths and subsequent cover-up.
Smith said their mother always wondered what happened to Richardson's ring but was told by investigators he wasn't wearing one when his body was dropped off at the hospital that night.
"They gave us his wallet and driver's license but my mother has gone to her grave thinking that ring was stolen," said Smith, who was at a loss for words Thursday as she drove to meet two strangers to retrieve it.
Richardson's cousin, Doug Hammontree, a truck driver living in Lithia Springs, stumbled upon a post on the Wills High School Facebook page Thursday morning stating someone who had found the 1977 class ring wished to return it to its rightful owner. He said he immediately called Smith, who set up the meeting to retrieve her brother's long-lost ring on her lunch hour.
The ring was given to Marietta resident Tripp Greeson by his uncle last year in the hope he could find its owner, Greeson said, but initial attempts proved unsuccessful. With the help of a friend, however, and members of the Wills High School Facebook page who pored through old yearbooks in search of former students with the initials "S.A.R.," — Steve Arnold Richardson — Greeson returned it to the Richardson family.
Greeson, a Campbell High graduate, said he wasn't entirely sure how his uncle came across the class ring, but said he owned a home on the lake just north of Kellogg Creek in the '90s and may have discovered it there.
Smith said she and her mother helped Richardson pick out that ring, which has a sapphire stone.
"My mother insisted that he get his initials engraved inside it and it's a good thing she did because that's how they found us," she said. "They went into the yearbook and looked up everyone with those initials from that year and found his picture."
Robert Allen Watts pleaded guilty in December of 1978 to two reduced charges of involuntary manslaughter in Cherokee County Superior Court in connection with the deaths of the two teens, newspaper archives show. He was given a five-year jail sentence, five years on probation and a $1,000 fine.
Cherokee County Superior Court testimony revealed the teens had been guests at a three-day party on Lake Allatoona where they consumed the psychedelic mixture provided by Watts, the MDJ reported at the time.
Five others pleaded guilty to drug possession charges and tampering with evidence after they were given plea deals dropping additional charges of concealing a death and hindering the apprehension of a criminal. They were given 30-day jail terms and three years on probation.
Smith, who for nearly 40 years thought her brother's class ring was gone forever, said she was elated to finally have it back.
"It's pretty exciting," she said, wearing Richardson's ring on her index finger when she returned to work. "It brought a lot to my Christmas, that's for sure."