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Person of interest arrested in Bender investigation
jerry harper
Jerry Harper.

Lumpkin County Sheriff Stacy Jarrard confirmed Friday afternoon that a suspect in the Hannah Bender murder case has been apprehended in Dawson County.

According to Jarrard, 78 year-old Jerry Harper was arrested in Dawson County after a motorist spotted a white Ford Explorer matching the description of the BOLO issued by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.

Case timeline (scrollable)
  • Sept. 25, 2019: Authorities discover Lumpkin County 21-year-old Hannah Bender's body.
  • Sept. 26, 2019: Community remembers Hannah Bender.
  • Sept. 27, 2019: Jerry Harper is arrested as a person of interest in the Dawson County murder case.
  • Oct. 1, 2019: Isaac Huff, Dylan Reid, Bailey Williams and Elizabeth Donaldson have been arrested.
  • Oct. 2, 2019: Austin Stryker is arrested in Pennsylvania.
  • Apr. 7, 2021: Huff and Reid plead guilty to their charges tied to the murder cover-up.
  • Oct. 8, 2021: Evidence of Stryker's alleged motive is allowed into his upcoming criminal trial.
  • Oct. 29, 2021: Harper pleads guilty on three charges tied to Bender's murder. His plea was made public after Stryker's trial.
  • Nov. 1, 2021: Stryker goes to trial for his Dawson County murder charges.
  • Nov. 4, 2021: A possible mistrial looms after jurors for Stryker's trial are dismissed due to COVID-19 exposure concerns.
  • Nov. 10, 2021: Stryker is convicted on all 24 counts tied to the murder of Hannah Bender.
  • Dec. 14, 2021: Harper is sentenced to 20 years in prison for his role in the murder and cover-up.
  • Dec. 15, 2021: Stryker is sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for his role in Bender's murder.
  • April 2022: Harper is indicted in Forsyth County for his role in the murder cover-up there.
  • June 2022: Huff and Williams are formally accused along with Stryker in a 2019 Lumpkin County armed robbery that's been linked to the motive for Hannah Bender's 2019 murder in Dawson County.
  • July 29, 2022: Stryker's wife, Elizabeth Donaldson, pleads guilty to charges for her role in the murder cover-up.
  • Feb. 8, 2023: Williams pleads guilty as a first offender for her role in the Lumpkin County robbery case tied to Bender's murder.
  • March 14, 2023: After his lawyers asked for a new trial, the judge for Stryker's murder case reserves a final ruling to review concerns about defense arguments allowed during the 2021 trial.
  • May 18, 2023: Huff pleads guilty in the Lumpkin County robbery case. The prosecution there decides not to continue proceedings against Stryker, who is already serving a life sentence for the Dawson County murder.
  • June 30, 2023: Stryker's motion for a new trial in the Dawson County murder case is denied.
  • July 12, 2023: Stryker seeks to have his criminal case appealed to the state's highest court, the Georgia Supreme Court.
  • April 16, 2024: While sentences were vacated for two lesser counts, Austin Stryker’s murder conviction and life sentence were ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Dawson County deputies conducted a traffic stop and took Harper into custody.

The GBI stated on Thursday that the agency had taken warrants out for Harper for “concealment of a dead body” and “tampering with evidence” in Forsyth County. The charges stem from the investigation of Bender’s death.

Harper is currently in custody at the Dawson County Detention Center. Investigators from Dawson County and Lumpkin County sheriff’s offices and the Georgia Bureau of Investigations are currently interviewing Harper as a person of interest in the murder of 21 year-old Hannah Bender.

Dawson County authorities could not be reached for comment on how Harper was located or what he has been charged with.

Bender was reported missing in Lumpkin County by her mother on Sept. 19 and shortly after bloody clothing was found in nearby Dawson County.

During a press conference in Dahlonega Sept. 26, Jarrard confirmed remains were found in north Forsyth and initial markings and tattoos led investigators to believe the body is Bender.

A full identification will be made by a Georgia Bureau of Investigation autopsy.

It is believed that Bender was killed at a campsite in Lumpkin County, according to Jarrard.

Following Bender’s disappearance, the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office issued murder warrants for Austin Todd Stryker, who is considered a prime suspect in the case.

Stryker, who has been accused of murdering Bender, is still on the run from authorities. On Thursday the U.S. Marshals Service announced that it would be offering a $5,000 reward for any information leading to Stryker’s capture.

Authorities say that Stryker and Harper were last seen in Clay County, West Virginia driving a white 2000 Ford Explorer with Georgia tag number PZH4402, and Stryker may have altered his appearance to avoid detection.

Stryker is considered armed and dangerous, according to authorities.

Stryker’s wife, Elizabeth Donaldson, 21, has been arrested by the GBI in connection with Bender’s death, Jarrard said. She was charged with tampering with evidence and is being held in the Dawson County Detention Center.

Anyone with information in this case has been asked to contact the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office by calling 706-974-6824.

Forsyth County News reporter Alex Popp contributed to this report.