It was a Sunday in early August 1958 when two Douglasville officers — J.C. Hix and John Self — noticed a strange car parked at the Lucky Star Café, a known landmark at that time between downtown Douglasville and the old cotton mill.
As the officers pulled into the gravel parking lot they noticed the occupants of the car crouched low in their seats. One man was behind the steering wheel while another was in the back seat.
The officers pulled alongside the 1958 Ford after noticing a homemade tag that contained a misspelled word. The handwriting on the cardboard read “Tag orderd Georgia Tag.” Officer Hix later stated, “We kept looking at the paper tag, and we noticed the two men kept watching us as much as we were watching them.”
As the officers approached the car, the two men popped up with cocked pistols.
Officer Hix snatched the gun from the hand of the man who had been behind the steering wheel later identified as Donald Anderson Phillips. The other man who had been in the back seat and later identified as Ralph Robert Cozzolino crawled out from the other side of the vehicle. Cozzolino told Officer Self to be still and not make a move, but before he could get all of the words out Officer Self had reached him smashing his service revolver down on Cozzolino’s arm knocking the pistol to the ground.
Hix continued to handcuff Phillips while Officer Self bent over to pick up Cozzolino’s revolver. Cozzolino then attacked Officer Self with a small can opener and his fists. During the brief but dramatic scuffle Self was knocked down giving Cozzolino the chance to run.
Officer Self managed to get a shot off that was thought to hit the fleeing man in the hip because Cozzolino fell, rolled over, and yelled, “Don’t shoot no more …”
But as Officer Self approached Cozzolino, the desperado jumped up and ran behind the Lucky Star building and fled down an alley into the Glendale Mill Village, which is what the cotton mill village was called at that time.
A posse of local officers, state troopers, and blood hounds from the Carroll County Prison Camp was organized. Officers from Doraville and DeKalb County arrived as well because Phillips and Cozzolino were suspects on the run involving the armed robbery of a Big Apple grocery store in Doraville. After placing the manager and an employee in the freezer, the bandits had walked out of the store with $18,000 in cash. A little over $4,000 was found in the Ford auto.
Ralph Robert Cozzolino was no run-of-the-mill armed bandit either. He was none other than “the galloping ghost” of the Southeastern underworld who had escaped on July 17th from Alabama’s Kilby Prison in Montgomery where he was serving a sentence for armed robbery. It was his second escape from the prison following two breaks from Tennessee jails.
By the next day it was being reported Cozzolino was hemmed in somewhere around Douglasville’s cotton mill village, but rumors were rampant all over town. At one point it was reported Cozzolino had visited the Douglas County Hospital that was on Fairburn Road at that time. Whoever the man was, the stranger had run off before law enforcement could arrive.
The baying of the bloodhounds could be heard as they combed the woods and fields around town. A man in the Mt. Carmel area of the county reported seeing a stranger “lurking about.” The bloodhounds searched the area. The trail seemed to grow hotter as the chase progressed southward, and then suddenly it grew cold giving thought that Cozzolino had hidden among some cattle to mask his scent.
For the rest of the week Douglas County residents were on edge not knowing where the escaped prisoner had ended up. It was a long week, but by Friday word came Cozzolino had been captured in Anniston, Alabama, taken in by a highway patrolman without a fight. It was determined at that time Officer Self did not hit Cozzolino with his bullet.
When questioned, Cozzolino admitted he had help getting out of Douglasville, but never told authorities how he did it or who assisted. He did advise he managed to get to Tallapoosa, then Knoxville, Tennessee where he bought another car, and then to Anniston.
Collozino began his life of incarceration at age 11 when he was sentenced to reform school. From that point there was only one five year period that he spent as a legally free man. He continually told authorities he wasn’t violent and said, “There ain’t no killing in me…,” but that would prove to be wrong.
On into the 1960s and 1970s he continued to escape prison and commit robberies. He landed on the FBI’s most wanted list in 1978 when he murdered an off duty Chattanooga policeman by shooting him in the face and the neck.
As far as I can tell in 1980 authorities finally found the jail cell that would hold him in, or perhaps, Cozzolino got tired of trying to escape. He would be 94 today. Through my research I was unable to find him currently serving in any prison across the South, and found no obituary either.
I’d have to say that on that August morning in 1958, it wasn’t Cozzolino who dodged a bullet, it was our Douglasville officers.
Lisa Cooper writes the amazing stories of Douglas County each Sunday. You can find her new book “Every Now and Then: The Amazing Stories of Douglas County” online at Amazon, print and Kindle versions. Locally, her book can be found at the Douglas County Museum of History and Art and the Douglasville Welcome Center located at O’Neal Plaza in the former Douglasville Banking Company building.