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True crime. Casually done.

A Crime to Remember: The Case of Nicole Gordon

Memory can be a fickle thing. A lapse of the hippocampus is a minor annoyance whenever you misplace your car keys, but the stakes are little higher when it comes to crime and punishment. When so many convictions rely on the testimony of victims and witnesses, we’d like to think that their recollections are accurate enough to decide the big questions of justice and freedom — life and death. 

However, neuroscience and psychology continue to prove that the mushy meat computers in our heads are actually prone to severely distorting the past, and even cooking up fake memories from scratch. That raises a few awkward questions that the legal system has yet to find a satisfying answer for. 

Thankfully nowadays, the hard science of criminal investigation can often compensate. We now have more cold hard facts at our disposal, to pick up the slack where memory fails (at times catastrophically). Today we’ll be looking at a case in which the evidence told the shocking story of crime which the victim had no idea even happened. 

Yes, it was firmly embedded in her mind — just not in the way you might expect…

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In Search of Lost Time

That evening in late May 2017 had been shattered to pieces in the mind of Nicole Gordon. She remembered the argument. She remembered a loud noise. She remembered the smashing of glass, and the impact of the shards against the side of her face. After that, it was all blank.

The 40-year old regained consciousness some time later — she didn’t know how long — to find she was now in the back of her boyfriend’s car. Despite her blurred vision, she could make out his form sitting in the driver’s seat. This was Jerrontae Cain, himself in his late 30s. After a few seconds, she faded out of consciousness again.

The next time Nicole awoke, she was at Cain’s mother’s house, propped up in the spare bed with pillows at her back. She asked what happened, and Mrs Cain explained that Nicole had crashed the car while she and her son were locked in a shouting match. The impact had knocked her out, and sent shards of the driver’s side window flying into the side of her head. 

While she slept, Mrs Cain had cleaned up a pretty serious glass wound on the left side of her head: a deep cut right above her left eyebrow. Nicole looked down to find her shirt soaked in blood. Over the next few days, the elderly Mrs Cain continued caring for her son’s girlfriend, rather than letting her leave to get professional medical help.

Nicole was used to that sort of arrangement. Over the course of her relationship with Jerrontae, she had learned that going to the hospital simply wasn’t an option. If the nurses were to report her bruises and black eyes to the police, it would only incur further violence. Better to just keep quiet, and let the wounds heal by themselves. 

So that’s just what she did.

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Whenever Nicole tried to piece together the memories of what happened to her that day, she came up short. The fragments were there, but she couldn’t quite piece them together into a coherent timeline. With her memories hazy at best and blank at worst, all she had to go on was the accounts of her boyfriend and his mother. 

And that wasn’t her only problem; the crash had left some lasting issues which only got worse over the following weeks. Her short-term memory and speech were deteriorating, and her days were plagued with unbearable headaches.  

When a friend came to visit her at home around a month after the incident, she was shocked at her condition. Nicole’s slurred speech and trouble following a conversation proved that her problems were beyond the medical powers of an old lady with some chicken soup and rubbing alcohol; she demanded that Nicole come with her to the hospital. 

On June 25th, 2017, she was admitted to the Atlanta Medical Center. What the doctors there found would turn her world upside down. 

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A Ballistic Bombshell 

When the technicians administered a brain scan on Nicole, they found something shocking — a dark mark right at the back of her skull; it appeared to be a small shard of metal. After consulting with multiple doctors and nurses, they had a good idea what it might be. Analysis of the wound above Nicole’s eye confirmed their suspicions: her injury wasn’t caused by a shard of glass at all. 

Bullet for Brains by Fernandezd is licensed under CC-BY

This physical evidence told a very different story to the one which Nicole had been led to believe. Yes, she and Jerrontae had been arguing in the car, but there was no crash. During the argument, he had pulled out a handgun, and shot her in the face. The black mark on the scan was the bullet, still lodged deep in her brain.

Realizing that he hadn’t managed to kill her, the abusive boyfriend panicked, and ran to his mummy for help. He bundled the grievously injured Nicole into his own car, while cooking up a story to explain the incident if she ever woke up. He could only pray that she wouldn’t remember the gun in her peripheral vision, or the sound of it firing right next to her head.

Unfortunately, the bullet had done enough damage to Nicole’s brain that she couldn’t challenge her attacker’s story. Jerrontae thought he had caught a lucky break, and resolved to let her go on living the rest of her life none the wiser after she left his mother’s house. As a result, Nicole wrote off her deteriorating mental condition as the result of a concussion.

That’s why she was so dumbfounded when the Atlanta PD detectives arrived to quiz her on the bullet in her head — she was as stumped as they were! Surely there had been some kind of mistake. Nicole told them about the argument and crash, but it took a while longer before she could come to terms with the real story, as reflected on her medical charts.

The cops then went to speak to the suspected gunman, who admitted that he was there at the time of the incident, but stuck to his original story. He elaborated that Nicole was a “hysterical alcoholic” who went into a frenzy during the argument, scraping her car against a gate, another car, and eventually ploughing into a tree. He even asserted that she refused to go to the hospital, against his advice. 

But again, the physical evidence told a different tale: there was no proof of a crash occurring in the way he described, and Nicole’s injuries were inconsistent with the account. For one, she had no whiplash or seatbelt injuries. And wasn’t it strange that a shard of glass had fired out with enough force to lodge above her eye that deep?

What her injuries did suggest, however, was a single gunshot to the head. That kind of thing is generally quite bad for your health, although not always as fatal as movies and video games have led us to believe. 

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Arrest and Trial

At this point it was a case of ‘he said, she said’: he said she crashed the car, she said “I have a [fucking/literal] bullet in my head.” Obviously, the authorities sided with Nicole, and issued a warrant for Jerrontae’s arrest in July 2017. He unfortunately managed to give them the slip, and went on the run for the next year and a half. 

 It wasn’t until an anonymous tip came in through Crime Stoppers that the cops were able to track down the fugitive: he was hiding out at a house in the College Park area of Atlanta. In January 2019, the Atlanta Metro Major Offender task force — a joint venture between local police and the FBI— descended upon the suburban neighborhood. Jerrontae refused to go quietly, and initiated a two-hour standoff with the SWAT team. 

The Boyfriend of the Year was savvy enough to avoid a bullet to the head for himself, and eventually surrendered to the police. Officers entered to find him hiding in the attic.

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Jerrontae was charged with aggravated battery, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and the possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. 

That’s a lot to add to an already hefty criminal record, as it was revealed he already had 13 prior arrests to his name. One of those arrests back in 2010 led to a conviction for sexual battery. Quite the gentleman he’s turning out to be. 

When the case went to trial later that year, a guilty verdict was pretty much inevitable. Cain’s poor beleaguered defense lawyer Ed Adams gave it his best shot nonetheless. His argument was basically that since the fragment in Nicole’s brain was too deeply embedded to be examined, there was no proving what it really was. He later told an online news site, “They just did an X-ray and it looked like a bullet but there was no certain proof it was a bullet.”

Oh yeah, of course. There’s every chance that bullet-shaped piece of metal was already in there before the incident — that makes total sense. After all, the cops never even managed to find any bullet casings at the scene, or the gun itself, so why should we even believe a shooting took place that day, when not a single person involved reported one?

Well, once again: bullet in the brain. People don’t just get bits of metal lodged in their heads by accident. But also, Nicole revealed that her own 25 caliber pistol had been stolen shortly before the incident, and Jerrontae knew where she kept it. It was also revealed that, during a call with a relative talking about what he had done, he shouted down the line, “It was her gun though!”

That sounds like a case closed to me. 

The jury agreed. In September 2019, the serial abuser was convicted on all counts and slapped with a 30-year sentence: 25 years behind bars, with the final 5 to be served on probation. A pretty satisfying conclusion to an otherwise awful story. 

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Wrap-up

In summing up this outlandish case to the press, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard Jr tried to impress upon them how depressingly commonplace it actually was. He was quoted as saying: 

“This case serves as a horrifying example of the kinds of incidents we investigate and prosecute on a daily basis. […Domestic violence] victims do not deserve to endure the pain and the suffering that results from these violent incidents, that in some cases lead to senseless and tragic deaths.”

Thankfully death wasn’t the outcome for Nicole, but it’s depressing that it even got to this stage at all. Plenty of friends came forward during the trial to testify to the black eyes and bruises they’d seen her with over the years, and the violent temper of the abusive boyfriend. So you have to ask: why did she have to end up with a bullet through the skull before she got the help she needed? 

Too often, victims of abuse don’t have their stories explored in courts until after their abuser claims their lives, or attempts to. As a result, Nicole will continue suffering from Jerrontae’s abuse for the rest of her life: the bullet is lodged too deep for surgeons to remove it without a high risk of killing her. That little fragment of metal will remain where it is, a grimly ironic reminder of an attack which is still absent from her memory. 

Jerrontae, on the other hand, will have plenty of time to reflect long and hard on the events of that day, over and over and over. By the time he’s released, here’s hoping the rest of the world has forgotten he ever existed.

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