BY KEN LITTLE
Three people charged with first-degree murder in the shooting deaths last month of Cocke Countians Cortney Thompson and Terrence Stewart were bound over to a grand jury Monday at a preliminary hearing in Greene County General Sessions Court.
Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr. set a July 31 Criminal Court date for James Douglas Black, 49; Christopher Allen Jones, 30; and Tabitha N. Whitlock, 32.
Whitlock, Black and Jones are Cocke County residents.
Each are charged with two counts of first-degree murder. Thompson, 20, and Stewart, 21, died late on the night of March 10 or early March 11.
Prosecutors and statements by the accused indicated that the victims were shot as they rode in Thompson's car on the Newport Highway just inside Greene County.
The bodies of Thompson and Stewart were dumped on a dirt road under the Nolichucky River bridge and found the morning of March 11.
Drugs and money are the apparent motivating factors for a robbery that took a violent turn, authorities said.
The victims were former Newport residents who moved back to Cocke County just before their deaths. They knew the defendants, according to statements given to investigators.
The nearly four-hour hearing included evidence presented by two detectives who interviewed the defendants, photographs of the crime scene and car where the shootings took place, defendant statements that included graphic details of the murders, and a hostile witness who claims she was "coerced" into giving signed statements to investigators about the whereabouts of Black, her boyfriend, the night the murders occurred.
Capt. Derrick Woods, of the Cocke County Sheriff's Department, interviewed Jones at the Sheriff's Office on March 16. He read a signed statement Jones gave to investigators implicating Black as the shooter.
In the statement, Jones said he was called by Black the night of March 10 about them having to "find a way" to get money to buy crack cocaine.
Jones described planning a robbery. Thompson and Stewart agreed to drive Black, Jones and Whitlock from Newport to Greeneville so Jones could pick up a check there.
The robbery was to happen along the way and the couple would be stripped of their clothing and left on the side of the road, Jones said in the statement.
The plan took a radically different course when Jones heard "a big boom" and saw Black had shot Stewart in the back of the head with a snub-nose revolver he was carrying, according to the statement.
Stewart's blood "felt like hot water. It spurted all over me," Jones told Capt. Woods.
At that point, Jones stated, Thompson took her foot off the accelerator and turned around.
"She was going to say something and [Black] shot her in the face," according to Jones' statement.
Stewart was still "making noise" and was shot again, Jones said.
Jones said the victims were driven down an access road leading from the Newport Highway (U.S. Route 321) under the bridge.
The bodies were pulled out of the car. Thompson was not dead so she was shot several more times, Jones said in the statement.
Black searched Thompson's clothing and found a large sum of money the defendants knew she was carrying.
"[Black] said, 'We are involved, too,'" Jones said. "I didn't mean to hurt her."
'DID NOT GO AS PLANNED'
The trio disposed of Thompson's blood-stained car and used some of her money to buy drugs back in Cocke County, Jones said in his statement.
"We smoked some crack and did some pills," he said. "It did not go as planned."
The victims' identification and other evidence was disposed of off Jimtown Road in Cocke County, Woods told prosecuting Assistant District Attorney General Cecil Mills Jr.
Under cross-examination by lawyer T. Wood Smith, appointed to represent Whitlock, Capt. Woods said that investigators determined the crime occurred in Greene County, near the border with Cocke County.
"We had a rolling crime scene," the Cocke County officer said. "The bodies were discovered in Greene County."
Family members of Thompson and Stewart were in the courtroom. During the reading of defendants' statements and a display of photographs introduced as evidence, audible gasps and sobs were heard.
Jones' statements to investigators were not taped or recorded, Capt. Woods told Black's lawyer, Public Defender Greg W. Eichelman, under cross-examination. Jones is represented by Greeneville lawyer Douglas Payne, who is also court-appointed.
Detective Sgt. Mike Fincher of the Greene County Sheriff's Department also testified at the preliminary hearing. Fincher described to Mills how the bodies were left under the Nolichucky River bridge.
Stewart was face-down and wearing a shirt with a "large blood stain" on the back, Fincher said.
BLACK MAINTAINS INNOCENCE
Thompson's body was lying nearby. Her pants were removed and her shirt was pulled up, Fincher told Mills. Fincher described an interview with Black on March 16 in Cocke County and read a statement he gave investigators.
Black said he was with his girlfriend, Teresa Miller, all of Saturday night, March 10.
Black said in the statement he earlier obtained a gun for Jones, which Black's father had hidden under a rock.
"My fingerprints will never show up at that Honda of Cortney Thompson's ... my DNA will never show up there," Black said in the statement.
Mills referred to an interview with Whitlock on March 16 in Cocke County, which Fincher read.
Whitlock, who worked in Greene County at one time and has family here, said that she had dated Jones since November 2011 and met Black earlier this year.
She claimed in her statement that Black uses "at least a couple hundred dollars a day in crack" and pays others to go to pain clinics to obtain narcotic prescription medication for him.
Whitlock said in the statement she also has a crack cocaine and pill habit.
Whitlock said Black and Thompson had struck a deal to go to Greeneville to get a quantity of pills.
Thompson, Stewart and the defendants started toward Greeneville,with Thompson driving. Whitlock said she was seated behind Thompson, Black was sitting in the middle and Jones was behind Stewart.
Just before the car got to the bridge in Greene County, "[Black] shot Terrence (Stewart) in the head," according to Whitlock's statement.
Thompson then turned around and was saying something when Black shot her in the face, Whitlock said. He shot Stewart again as Jones grabbed the steering wheel and pulled the car over to the side of the road.
"Courtney was bleeding and making gurgling sounds," Whitlock said in her statement. Black told Jones to drive the car and they drove under the bridge, where both victims were pulled out. Thompson's pants came off in the process, Whitlock said in the statement.
Once on the ground, Black shot Thompson the head "maybe two times" more, Whitlock told Fincher.
MOTIVATED BY FEAR
"I was afraid of [Black] so I did what he said," Whitlock said in the statement.
After the shootings, according to testimony, the trio drove back to Newport and went into Thompson's and Stewart's apartment to look for crack cocaine. Black warned them not to say anything about the crime, Whitlock said in the statement.
"[Black] said we are all in this for life. He said he would kill me and my kid if I said anything," Whitlock said.
Whitlock told Det. Fincher she gave the statement despite Black's alleged threats because she "wanted to do the right thing."
"Cortney and Terrence were my friends and they didn't deserve to be killed like this," she told Fincher.
The defendants, dressed in street clothes but still wearing leg irons, sat next to their lawyers at the same table and did not make eye contact with each other. Bailey continued $500,000 bonds for each defendant.
GIRLFRIEND RELUCTANT WITNESS
After earlier telling detectives that Black was not home the night of the murders, prosecutors may have expected his girlfriend, Teresa Miller, to restate what she attested to in two signed statements.
But Miller told Mills she had given "false statements" when questioned and said she was with Black at home in Cocke County the whole time he allegedly committed the crimes.
"I was scared," she said at the time of the initial questioning.
Miller's contradictory responses prompted Mills to read one of her statements and ask about earlier recollections, line for line.
Bailey warned Miller she could be charged with felony perjury if she was not telling the truth.
Miller continued to refute earlier statements and denied she was told by Black how to respond to questions at the hearing.
"I know he's innocent, sir," Miller told Mills.
Eichelman, the attorney for Black, questioned the logic of putting Miller on the stand.
"It's very unusual the state calls a hostile witness in a probable cause hearing," he said. "It makes no sense."
Mills, the prosecutor, took a different approach to Miller's denial of her earlier statements.
"You were trying to tell the truth that you told to [investigators]," he said. "It was only some time later when you decided it was not true?"
"Yes," Miller responded. "I was scared, sir. I have never been in a predicament like this."
GAG ORDER APPROVED
Bailey granted motions by the Public Defender's Office and Smith requesting a gag order prohibiting law enforcement, prosecutors, defense lawyers and court personnel from discussing the case.
The case "involves an event that has caught the attention of the media," Assistant Public Defender Anita Leger wrote in the motion for a gag order filed last week.
Stewart is related to a retired Newport Police Department captain "which causes the case to have significant interest to the public," the motion said.
"There is a chance that evidence and/or witnesses' statements may be tainted by media coverage," the motion said.