After noticing three murders on the Watauga County Superior Court docket for Monday, April 16, the High Country Press interviewed District Attorney Jerry Wilson about violent crime in the High Country and how things have changed over the past 20 years.
Also look below for background info on the three murder trials, and why it takes so long for a murder case to go to trial. Each of the three cases in question are more than one year old.
First Time Three Murder Cases are on Docket in Single Day; ‘Our Little Town has Changed’
By Jesse Wood
April 15, 2012. According to the criminal trial calendar for Watauga Superior Court, three separate murder cases are on the docket for Monday, April 16, which has never happened before. All of the cases are at least one year old.
The three trials in question are the 2009 murder of a Seven Devils woman with which Christopher Meade was charged with killing his wife; the double homicide in Mable around Thanksgiving 2011 with which Jeremy Russom was charged with killing the mother of his two children and another man; and the drug-related murder in 2005 of an ASU student by three individuals, one of whom is alleged to be Neil Sargeant, who successfully appealed his original life-sentence-without-parole conviction in March 2011. (See more detail of each case towards the end of the page.) Of course, one or more of these cases might be continued, therefore all three likely won’t be concluded this Monday.
But now, take into account that recently, John Richard Grey pleaded guilty last month to a three-year-old killing of a Boone pawnshop owner; and two weeks ago a man was charged with murder in Todd; and over the weekend a man was stabbed to death just passed the Watauga County line in the Fleetwood community of Ashe County.
It’s obvious: the High Country is changing.
In 22 years of living in Watauga County, District Attorney Jerry Wilson has noticed this change – a change that might affect the notion of the High Country as a peaceful haven far removed from the deadly turmoil usually associated with urban centers.
“When I started prosecuting in 1983, Watauga County had a murder maybe once a year, and that would have been a lot. It was a big thing,” Wilson said. “But if you’ve watched the goings on in Watauga over the last five to 10 years…they’ve become something of a common thing.”
“Just last week or two, we had a homicide, a serious shooting and one of the drug stores was robbed. That sort of thing you would have seen in one year – 15 years ago, and [now] we have all that [happen] in less than two weeks,” Wilson said. “I think anyone who is observant of what’s going on [sees the change.] No doubt, our little town has changed.”
He added that Boone is starting to inherit the problems that have existed in larger cities for years, and that he’s seen a dramatic increase in homicides, arsons, kidnappings and robberies over the past 10 years. Other than growing pains, Wilson can’t explain why.
“I’ve sat for hours at a time trying to think about what we can do,” he said.
Wilson said that some of the violent and serious crime started about the same time meth became a problem in the area, which was several years ago. Even so, Wilson can’t say for sure if meth and other harder drugs are the reason why the High Country has experienced this relative wave of brutal crime.
“It’s easy to point the finger and say well it’s drugs, but none [of the many possible causes, both drug and non-drug related] are totally able to explain what’s happened other than society is changing,” he said. “Our little rural areas are changing and unfortunately some of the changes are for the worse.”
Sometime before 2000 is when Wilson noticed this shift, and since then, Watauga County’s population has grown nearly 20 percent from 2000 to 2011, from 42,695 to 51,079, according to U.S. Census figures. Each year, Appalachian State University grows bigger – for better or for worse, but Wilson said people unfairly blame the students for this drastic change in Watauga County’s criminal behavior.
“I think that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I’ve found [the students] to be excellent young men and women, who get into a little mischief every now and then. 99 percent of them are good people,” Wilson said. After which he joked, “The only bad thing I see the students do is crowd the hell out of town … [but] that’s just part of being in a college town.”
As district attorney with the 24th Judicial District, Wilson covers Avery, Madison, Mitchell, Watauga and Yancey counties. He added that this change towards more violent behavior hasn’t been confined to the mountains of Watauga County, though he added that Boone is the only urban area in his district.
“Again it’s not confined to [Watauga]; it’s just that finally this sort of thing is coming to our mountains, and I dread to see it,” Wilson said. “We are becoming more and more alike across the state and across the nation instead of having our own culture of getting along and that sort of thing in the mountains.”
Wilson, who is originally from Mitchell County, said he has lived here for about 22 years and doesn’t ever intend to leave the High Country. Not all of the changes have been for the worse, he said, adding that he’s seen so much progress in areas such as preserving our mountain heritage and exuding awareness of our culture, among other things.
“But with that has come a change,” he said.
“When I moved here, I would have walked through any part of Boone and never blinked an eye in the dead of the night. Now, I’m not so sure I would,” Wilson said.
Background Information on the Three Murder Trials
The trials listed below are on the docket of the Watauga Superior Court for Monday, April 16.
Neil Sargeant, along with Matthew Dalrymple and Kyle Triplett, were charged in the suffocation killing of ASU student Stephen William Harrington, 19, whose partially burned body was found in the trunk of an abandoned car in the Sleepy Hollow community of Foscoe on November 8, 2005. Sargeant is charged with first-degree kidnapping, burning personal property, robbery with dangerous weapon, and first-degree murder. This was a drug-related murder in which the Sargeant’s residence was already under surveillance for illegal drugs, which began six days before the murder.
In August 2008, Sargeant was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for those four charges, but that sentence was overturned by the N.C. Supreme Court last March. In his appeal, Sargeant argued that the trial judge didn’t allow a statement by Dalrymple that was given to police and implicated Triplett as the instigator of the crime. Dalrymple did not testify – invoking the Fifth Amendment, the right to silence – according to news outlets in the Triad, the hometown area of the victim.
Jeremy Russom is known for the 2011 Thanksgiving double homicide, in which he is charged with the shooting and murder of the mother of his two children, Heather Jolene Baumgardner, 24, and Barry Wayne Cook, 39, in the Mable community. He is charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
Christopher Meade is charged with murder and financial card theft after his wife, Deana Elizabeth Schermerhorn, was found dead and buried near their home in Seven Devils in December of 2009. Shortly after the incident, the case was aired on America’s Most Wanted. After being on the run for more than a year, Meade was arrested in Mexico in January 2011.
Why does it take so long for the murders to go to trial?
Well, aside from appeals, District Attorney Jerry Wilson said, that it takes at least a year to prepare for a murder trial, adding that discovery laws (in which both defendant and plaintiff can obtain evidence); outside investigators that the state appoints defendants; the many motions to be filed; and other things that must be done before a case goes to trial all contribute to a lengthy process. Not to mention, the emotional burden of the victims’ families.
“First off, you’ve got to the give the family a good while before they are able really to deal with it. They are still in shock. You can’t take someone whose husband has just been murdered and drag them in the office and start preparing for the case,” Wilson said. “They are not mentally ready, and it takes a while for the family to become mentally ready.”
Wilson said that Watauga County is doing pretty good as far as limiting the time frame – from crime to prosecution – of the cases. He added that the county’s time frame for murder cases is inline with other areas, and that his goal is to limit the cases to fewer than two years.