Family and friends are mourning the brutal killing of a new BYU-Idaho graduate and former missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, remembering him for his wit, potential, talents and what one friend called radical kindness.
Aaron William Davis, 21, of Cumming, Georgia, was stabbed approximately 20 times, Floyd County Deputy Coroner Chris Giles told the Deseret News. His body was found buried under a few inches of dirt beneath a fallen oak tree in a remote area of Rome, Georgia, on Saturday, Giles said.
“Most of you have heard by now that our son Aaron was savagely taken from us,” his father, Randy Davis, wrote on Facebook.
Rome Police arrested a friend of Davis on suspicion of his murder.
“We’re heartbroken and we feel betrayed because it’s a friend who’s been accused,” Randy Davis told the Deseret News.
Police arrested Brandon Christopher Risner, 21, on Saturday and booked him on suspicion of murder and concealing the death, according to police records. Formal charges have not been filed.
Davis and Risner had been members of the same Latter-day Saint congregation as teenagers before the Risner family moved to Rome. Risner had stayed in the Davis home many times. Risner also attended BYU-Idaho for a semester in fall 2021, according to a university spokesman.
“He was like our son as well,” Randy Davis said. “We don’t understand what happened.”
Police did not release information about a possible motive, but a police report and warrants provided additional details about what happened.
Who was Aaron William Davis?
Davis was born in Rhode Island and raised in nearby Massachusetts before his family moved to Georgia in 2011. He graduated from North Forsyth High School, where he was known for his friendliness.
“You can see how many lives he touched by the Facebook posts,” Randy Davis said. “He had the ability to be a friend to those that maybe didn’t always have a friend. He was never Mr. Popularity. He was Mr. Everyman, and he was able to relate to so many people.”
“I am not sure where to even begin… Where do you find the words to start to cope with such a horrific loss?” his friend JJ (Jenna) Castañeda Álvarez wrote on Facebook.
“Aaron was such a light,” she added. “He was the funniest person in any room, always trying to make people laugh (and usually succeeding). He was also one of the smartest — though, he was humble and wouldn’t let you remind him of it very often. He was so radically kind and always a gentleman. He always tried his best and inspired me to do the same. He was a philosopher and an artist and hopeless romantic.”
Davis was a Renaissance man who loved science fiction, fantasy and theater as well as Dostoevsky, was a movie critic and enjoyed academic pursuits, his father said. He served as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ in the Nevada Las Vegas West Mission.
Davis walked during BYU-Idaho’s commencement exercises in April, his father said. He formally completed his degree in political science in July, BYU-Idaho spokesman Brett Crandall said, after Davis completed a legal internship in North Carolina.
On Thursday morning, he aced the GACE, the Georgia test that graduate school admission, Randy Davis said. Aaron Davis planned to enroll at Middle Georgia State University to earn a master’s degree so he could teach high school civics. He also planned to pursue a Ph.D. so he could become a political science professor.
“The hardest thing is that it felt like Aaron was just coming to a point where he was ready to take off into adulthood,” Randy Davis said.
The police investigation
Rome is halfway between Cumming, Georgia, where Aaron Davis lived with his family, and Gadsden, Alabama, where his girlfriend lived. Randy Davis said the Davis family last saw and spoke with Aaron Davis on Thursday afternoon, when he left for a trip to see his girlfriend.
He planned to drive about 60 miles to Rome and stay Thursday night with his friend, Brandon Risner. Then he would drive another 60 miles on Friday morning to see his girlfriend, Randy Davis said.
On Friday, Aaron’s girlfriend tried to reach him, but his cell phone was off. Risner texted her to say Aaron’s phone was dead and that his plans had changed; he would stay with Risner on Friday, then drive to Alabama on Saturday, according to Randy Davis.
The Davis family had no cause for concern until Saturday morning, after Rome Police received a report of an abandoned vehicle. They called Randy Davis to ask about Aaron’s car, which they had found in a ditch in neutral, as if it had been rolled into the ditch purposefully, Randy Davis said.
Aaron’s mother, Sara Rennick Davis, posted a plea on Facebook.
“Help,” she wrote. “We cannot get ahold of our son, Aaron Davis. The police in Rome, Georgia, just called my husband saying that his car was found in a ditch in Rome, Georgia. He was supposed to be (Gadsden), Alabama. If you know anything, please let us know.”
Aaron Davis’ body would be found later in woods near a lightly developed cul-de-sac in the Old East Rome area of the city, said Giles, the deputy coroner.
Investigators positively identified Davis at the scene by his BYU-Idaho ID, according to the police report. The county coroner performed an autopsy on Monday, Giles said. The official cause of death was not yet available.
Why did police arrest Brandon Risner?
After the car was found, Randy Davis reported Aaron missing and the Davises called area hospitals. Police also began a search in the Old East Rome area of Rome and asked for information about where Aaron had stayed the night.
“Signs of foul play were discovered at the location Mr. Davis was last known to have been,” according to the police report. “Criminal investigators arrived and collected crime scene evidence. Witnesses on the scene were cooperative with investigators and provided information that led them to identify the suspect.”
Rome Police went to interview Risner, but during the interview, Risner fled, Randy Davis said he was told by police.
“The accused committed the act of obstruction of law enforcement when he ran from officers during an investigation of a missing person and disobeyed all commands to stop,” according to a police warrant.
The police report said Risner later turned himself in.
“As the investigation continued and leads were followed, the deceased body of Mr. Davis was discovered off Tumlin Drive,” the police report said.
Aaron Davis’ body was found in a six-to-eight-foot hole left by a massive, uprooted and fallen oak tree, concealed under 6 to 12 inches of dirt, Giles said.
Risner was booked into jail on suspicion of murder, aggravated assault, concealing the death of another and willful obstruction of law enforcement officers. Floyd County Magistrate Court Judge John E. McClellan initially denied bond for Risner.
Randy and Sara Davis have six children. They lost an eight-month-old boy in an accidental drowning 15 years ago, so the family has been relying on its Latter-day Saint beliefs about the afterlife for years.
“We know that one day we’ll be reunited,” Randy Davis said. “We’re so happy that he was born in the covenant and will be with us forever. As much as we want him to be here with us now, we know he’ll be protected and loved and doing great things in the spirit world and someday we’ll be together.”
“It’s hard,” he added, “but I think it would be harder if we didn’t have faith and trust through the atonement of Jesus Christ and our Savior’s plan that we will see him again and he will always be part of our eternal family.”