LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Robert William Ellis Jr. sat in the interrogation room, wearing dirty jeans and a black Hooters T-shirt. He panted and shook and mumbled so fast his words blended together.
"I don't know why they came after me!" he told Rossville Police Detective Dave Scroggins and Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Daniel Nicholson.
Earlier that day, on March 8, 2017, Ellis shot Jeremy Little in the backyard at 408 State Line Road. He had screamed to a woman at the house that he was sorry, then left. Police later found him at a friend's house, in the Homeplace manufactured home community off Wilson Road.
He agreed to talk to investigators without an attorney, according to a video played during Ellis' trial in Walker County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon. But Ellis talked so fast, the officers had to stop him. Scroggins asked Ellis to stop, just for a second, so he could read him his rights to remain silent and have an attorney present.
"We've got a problem here," Scroggins said, "because Jeremy is shot. And he's not with us anymore. He is dead."
"I never had a problem with Jeremy," Ellis responded.
Then why, the officers tried to ask, did Ellis kill him? They tried to introduce a narrative they had received from Little's girlfriend. The day before, Ellis was in the parking lot outside the Dollar Tree in Rossville with a female friend. Little's girlfriend approached them because she knew the other woman. Apparently startled, Ellis threatened the girlfriend with a gun.
Word got back to Little. The two men exchanged words online. This all spilled over to a fight.
But no, Ellis explained during his interrogation. That wasn't it all. He claimed he didn't know Little's girlfriend, had never even seen the woman in his life. For some reason — some reason he couldn't wrap his mind around — Little had shown up to his house the night before and smashed the windshield of his Mustang. At least, he believed it was Little because his neighbor mentioned seeing a red truck, which would match the description of Little's Chevrolet Silverado.
And then later, Ellis told the investigators, he was riding his bicycle through town at 2:30 in the morning to pick up cigarettes when he saw the same red truck, following him. And by the way, Ellis said, someone stole his bicycle once before. And also a man named Charlie robbed him around Thanksgiving. And he believed a woman he used to live with robbed him. So did another woman. And someone shot through his house. And someone else shot at his car.
"I'm a little confused," Scroggins said, at least three different times during the interview.
Ellis pressed on. He said he bought a .45 pistol from an acquaintance the next morning and showed up at Little's girlfriend's house, on State Line Road. He said he threw an object through a window and shouted for Little to show himself. He kicked the backdoor and shot a hole just below the knob. At some point, he also smashed the windows of Little's truck with a baseball bat. Little didn't come outside. He left.
A couple hours later, around 1:15 p.m. that day, he returned. He said he shouted for Little again.
He said he had been friends with Little for about 13 years. They drank beer together. But after he banged on the backdoor, he said he backed up. He thought Little might emerge with his own gun, maybe a shotgun.
"I know that he plays dirty anyway," Ellis said.
He told the investigators Little walked out with a knife. He said Little challenged him, said Ellis would never fire the gun.
"The look in his eyes," he said. "I'd never seen that look. He looked like a different man."
Ellis said he tried to swing his pistol at Little to hit him in the face. Instead, he fired through Little's left cheek. (GBI Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Colin Hébert testified Tuesday that the soot and hot searing marks that surround the bullet wound imply the shot was from inches away.)
A woman walked outside and screamed. Ellis yelled that he was sorry and walked away. He said he fired a couple more rounds into the street, to empty the gun before taking off.
At the end of the interrogation, Scroggins asked Ellis what he thought should happen as a result of the shooting. He reminded Ellis that he wasn't on his own property, that he pursued Little before he shot him.
"It's got to be self defense," Ellis said. " ... I didn't mean to do it. ... I was scared and trying to figure out what was going on. I wanted answers. ... If I thought I was guilty, I never would have turned myself in."
The department charged him with malice murder, felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, criminal damage to property, possession of a firearm in the commission of a crime, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and two counts of criminal trespass.
Ellis began to cry. He mentioned something about having children. He stood up, pressed his forehead against the wall, put his hands behind his back, crossed at the wrists. He would not talk anymore.
"You're not twisting my [expletive] words," he said.
Ellis' trial will resume at 9 a.m. today, with Assistant District Attorney Lynsey Chapman playing a neighbor's surveillance video that allegedly captured the shooting.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.