COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Last July, a young Columbus woman went missing. Nancy Eldridge, known to many as Renee, was found murdered less than a week after her troubling disappearance.
WTVM investigations found Eldridge had been assaulted months before, and police had arrested an Army soldier for the attack.
Turns out they had the wrong man.
For most, July 4th celebrates life and liberty; for Renee Eldridge's family, the day is stained with sorrow and loss. It was the last day they saw Renee Eldridge alive.
"There was clearly a struggle in her room, her keys, her cell phone, everything was left here, she's the only thing missing," said family members when Eldridge went missing.
Her mysterious disappearance sent loved ones and investigators into an urgent search for answers. Fear prompted some to zero in on a Fort Benning Sergeant First Class, who we are calling Joe to protect his identity.
"They were after me," said Joe.
Joe had been charged with raping Eldrige in December 2014, months before her disappearance.
"I didn't think I'd be the one going to jail for something I didn't do," said Joe.
Eldridge's body was found on July 7, 2015 in Valley's Osanippa Cree. She was naked and bound, tied to a cement block.
After a massive manhunt Stacey Gray, a close friend of Eldridge and her mom, was arrested on July 14 for the gruesome crime.
Gray denied killing the young woman but investigators say blood evidence, witness testimony, and a piece of Eldridge's purse found inside a burn barrel on his property were incriminating. Gray was charged with murder.
Later in July, Alabama prosecutors upgraded that to capital murder and rape, around the same time Georgia officials issued a warrant for Gray, and just as Joe was cleared as a suspect in the December rape of Eldridge.
"I feel like the person that raped her back in December was the same person that came back, and to me I thought that if that person came back a second time, I think this time she probably realized and probably put up a fight and that's what cost her her life," said Joe.
Months before the murder, Eldridge would file a rape report and investigators would collect DNA evidence. So how was it Joe, a distinguished, combat veteran with more than a decade of service to the Army end up blamed?
"I think for the first time in Columbus I actually met a really cool person, I just wanted to hang out again," said Joe.
Joe and Eldridge dated before the December assault. Eager to see her again, Joe says these are the text messages the two exchanged the night of the rape.
"Hey, well I still wanted to see you, can I come over?" said Joe.
"I might be a little bit drunk and my room's a mess," Joe said when describing Eldidge's response.
"I texted her I could be over there in 10 minutes if you want me to, and she never responded to me. I tried calling her a few times and after that I was like she probably went to bed."
The late night exchange was enough for investigators, and Joe was arrested.
"We have enough probable cause, I was like what kind of probable cause? She was like well according to the victim and the text message, that's more than enough probable cause," said Joe when describing the night investigators took him into custody.
Attorney Kyle Fischer says he asked officials to pull his client's cell phone records to pin his location, as well as camera footage of his client's neighborhood. All were allegedly dismissed.
"Her room had black out curtains, meaning that the room was pitch black, there was no light, she couldn't see who was actually doing this to her," said Fischer, "There are so many parts of this case where the investigation fell apart and allowed a rapist to walk the streets of Columbus, and that ought to concern the citizens of Columbus."
Joe sat in jail for 10 weeks, two of which were after this DNA result from the Georgia Bureau of investigations came back stating "The DNA obtained could not have been contributed by" Joe.
Joe was finally released after the DNA results made their way to the District Attorney's office where officials worked to release Joe immediately.
"Finance wise, I pretty much exhausted my entire bank account keeping my mortgage and car and everything afloat while I was not getting paid. Career wise, I actually had the plans to try and go to flight school," said Joe.
We have worked diligently to find out on the record whose DNA matched Eldridge's rape kit, if it was indeed Stacey Gray who is in custody for her murder.
Gray has previous felony charges, which means his DNA should be logged in an FBI database and should have been available to investigators before Eldridge's murder if a search was conducted during the time of her rape.
Columbus Police will not confirm on the record if they believe Gray raped Eldridge in December, saying it's an open investigation they won't discuss.
"To say that they system failed my client in this case is an understatement. and here's the troubling part, it failed Renee. It failed her," said Fischer.
We reached out the the open records department with the District Attorney for probable cause information on Stacey Gray's arrest warrant. They had no information for us, and directed us back to Columbus Police.
Officials from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said they had no shareable information and also directed us back to Columbus Police. Regional and national officials with the Federal Bureau Investigation said the same story.
Perhaps more information will be forcibly revealed to the public when Gray stands trial.
Join the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #WronglyAccused.