Asheville area murder case turns on missteps
Jailed men receive innocence hearing
May 14, 2011
ASHEVILLE — Kenny Kagonyera had been in the county jail for 13 months when he finally gave in.
Prosecutors and investigators interrogated him repeatedly. He faced at least 25 years in prison, they would tell him. Maybe life or even a death sentence.
Each time they claimed to have more evidence of his guilt.
His attorney threatened to abandon him. Even his own family, who had once believed in his innocence, pressured him to make a deal.
“It just kind of wore down on me,” he later told a commission investigating whether the justice system wrongly convicted him of second-degree murder.
Kagonyera was sentenced to 15 years in prison for a crime he claimed for years that he didn't commit.
Another man, Robert Wilcoxson, got the same deal. Four others in the crew investigators said killed Walter Rodney Bowman in September 2000 spent years in prison.
The N.C. Innocence Inquiry Commission ruled in April there is enough evidence of innocence to grant Kagonyera and Wilcoxson a hearing before a three-judge panel in Buncombe County.
The hearing is rare. Both men will bear the burden of proof of their innocence.
But at the least, hundreds of pages of case documents, video depositions, and interviews done this month by the Citizen-Times show a case fraught with missteps — from the day a sheriff who was later convicted of corruption stepped into an interrogation room to revelations DNA evidence that might have cleared the men never made it to defense attorneys.
The story of how Kagonyera and the others — considered small-time criminals before the killing — became the only suspects in a brazen fatal home invasion and attempted robbery started the night of Sept. 18, 2000.
Walter Bowman had already gone to bed when three men burst through the door of his Church Road home in Fairview about 11:30 p.m. that night.They wore black and had on gloves and hats. They also wore bandanas to cover their faces, a detail that proved crucial years later. One had a shotgun, the other a pistol — also important details.
The crew intended to rob the victim's son, Shaun Bowman, of $108,000 they believed he had in the home along with marijuana, according to documents gathered in the innocence commission investigation.
The robbers walked in through an unlocked door that night. One held a gun to Bowman's son's head. Another dragged his son's girlfriend by the hair from the kitchen to the living room.
Bowman opened his bedroom door when he heard the screams and then slammed it shut.
One of the robbers aimed the shotgun at the bedroom door, fired and then kicked it open.
“I shot him, I shot him,” a witness later recalled the man saying.
The would-be robbers bolted without checking for drugs or money.
Bowman, 51, died on the way to the hospital.
The investigation that started that night was difficult from the outset.
Shaun Bowman, an eyewitness, fled because he was wanted on a parole violation, according to the innocence commission. The victim had a felony record for drug possession and attempted drug dealing.
“You got drug people killing … drug people,” the lead detective in the case, George Sprinkle, said when asked by the commission years later about mistakes in the investigation.
In a sign of things to come, the very first Crime Stoppers tip to the Sheriff's Office offered the name of a man who later confessed to the crime from federal prison and named two others as accomplices.
But investigators discounted them.
Three weeks on crack
Teddy Isbell was strung out on crack cocaine the night he went to see his old friend Matthew Bacoate at his drug treatment program on Hillside Street a week after the shooting.
He'd been high for three weeks. He hadn't bathed. He needed money for a place to stay.
“He know that I be in Pisgah View (Apartments) and this is where all the guys frequent and (asked) do I know anything about this murder that happened,” he recalled in an interview with the newspaper on Thursday. “I said ‘man I'm just tired. I want to go lay down.'”
Bacoate gave him money for a room at the former Interstate Motel.
Fifteen minutes after checking in there was a knock at the door. It was detectives from the Sheriff's Office.
They asked Isbell to go to the department with them. They said they would tell him what it was about once they got there.
Isbell said the detectives stalled at the Sheriff's Office and said they were waiting on someone.
Bacoate eventually entered the interview room, as did District Attorney Ron Moore, Isbell said.
The detectives started asking him about the Bowman murder. They wanted to know where he was that night.
He told them he was at Pisgah View Apartments. He said he had been high for weeks and wasn't involved.
Moore, who has denied saying anything to Isbell that night other than urging him to tell the truth, said the punishment would be harsh for the murder, Isbell said.
“He said, ‘Well, the early bird get the worm.' He said ‘Somebody going to death row,'” Isbell recalled.
Even Sheriff Bobby Medford got in on the interrogation, Isbell said,threatening the death penalty.
Investigators say that Isbell implicated Kagonyera and Wilcoxson that night along with Larry Williams and a woman who was never charged in the case.
According to investigators, Isbell said he helped plan the robbery but was not there when it happened.
Isbell denies this. He told the newspaper he never implicated the men who were later charged. He wants his record cleared, saying it is keeping him from finding a job and housing.
A break in the case
Deputies collected three bandanas and four gloves found on the roadside near the crime scene two days after the murder.
They interviewed witnesses who were inside the home.
They obtained a video surveillance tape taken around the time of the murder at the Kounty Line convenience store on Charlotte Highway not far from Bowman's house.
The tape shows three black men pulling up to the gas pumps. A witness said the men acted in a “strange manner.”
In one of the case's most bizarre twists, a crucial three-minute segment was later taped over after being taken as evidence with an episode of the soap opera “The Guiding Light.” That part of the tape would have offered a closer look at the faces of the men.
In the days and weeks following the slaying, detectives interviewed each of the suspects multiple times. All repeatedly denied involvement, but some implicated their fellow suspects, according to investigators' reports reviewed by the innocence commission.
They also agreed to provide DNA samples. A state crime lab analysis conducted on saliva found on the bandanas didn't match any of the suspects.
Detectives dismissed that finding.
“That's been done before,” said Sprinkle, the lead detective, in a deposition with a commission investigator. “I mean it's not like CSI (where) you can go in there and pick up a fingerprint off a rock and get it back. It's normal.”
“If we depended on their results in every case that we worked, hell, everybody would be free,” Sprinkle said.
Deputies caught up with Shaun Bowman on Oct. 23, more than a month after the slaying. He named Kagonyera, Wilcoxson, Williams and Aaron Brewton as the assailants in his father's murder despite other witnesses saying the men had covered their faces.
The next day, all six were charged with first-degree murder and jailed without bond.
They spent the next year alternately confessing, recanting and flatly denying involvement. Four pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Williams, just 16 when he was arrested, got 10 years. Damian Mills got 12 years.
The state dropped charges against Brewton. He pleaded guilty to an unrelated breaking and entering and entered the Life on Life's Terms drug treatment program run by Bacoate, Isbell's friend.
Isbell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery after his attorney Reid Brown filed a motion to remove Moore from the case because the prosecutor had been in on the interrogation.
Brown, who is again representing Isbell, said this week that his motion claimed Moore couldn't be both a witness and a prosecutor.
Isbell served three years.
Kagonyera and Wilcoxson got 12-15 years. They are still in prison.
“There was a chance of me losing my whole entire life to the system,” Wilcoxson later told commission investigators when asked why he pleaded guilty.
He thought of his unborn daughter.
“She wouldn't have a father for the rest of her life,” he said in a videotaped deposition. “So, it was either go with the flow and get as less time as I can or still remain and claim my innocence and have a life sentence.”
It was two years before cracks started appearing in the case. The first came from an out-of-the-blue jailhouse confession.
A new confession
Robert Earle “Tricky” Rutherford was in a federal prison in Kentucky when he called Special Agent Barnabas Whiteis of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in March 2003.
He wanted to tell the agent a story.
In telephone interviews over two days, Rutherford confessed to involvement in the Bowman murder.
He implicated two others: Bradford F. Summey, who is currently doing time in state prison for robbery, and Lacy “J.J.” Pickens, who was killed by an Asheville police officer while trying to elude arrest in 2006.
Rutherford told the agent he went to the home with the men to rob Shaun Bowman. He said the three drove there in Pickens' car, parked less than a block from the house, and donned bandanas to hide their faces before going inside. They stopped at a convenience store near Reynolds High before the shooting, he said.
It's unclear why Rutherford came forward. He had already pleaded guilty and had been sentenced in the federal drug case, though the DEA agent told Rutherford he might get a deal in state court if prosecuted in the murder.
Whiteis sent the statement to Sheriff's Office Capt. Lee Farnsworth in April, according to a time stamp on the fax sheet.
The Sheriff's Office sent it to Moore's office in July.
By now, everyone except Isbell had pleaded guilty.
“There is no indication in the file that any action was taken in regards to this confession other than providing it in discovery to Isbell,” innocence commission investigators wrote in their brief about the case.
Two years later, Mills wrote to Moore from prison asking for the statement. There's no indication that Moore responded, the commission said in its report.
But the real bombshell had yet to explode.
The sheriff's detectives might have closed their case, but state and federal police computers were still at work trying to solve part of the crime.
On March 30, 2007, the FBI's Combined DNA Index System got a hit on DNA taken from one of the bandanas found near the crime scene.
It came back to Summey, who Rutherford had implicated four years earlier in his statement to the DEA agent.
The N.C. State Bureau of Investigation written telephone log indicates the DNA analyst called sheriff's Detective Roney Hilliard on June 25, 2007.
The log also shows the analyst left a message for Lt. John Elkins.
“Lt. Elkins called me,” according to the log on June 26, 2007. “I gave him the information on the hit. He said he would talk to the DA and call me back.”
The SBI on Oct. 1, 2007, sent Moore a report about the hit.
But sheriff's investigators and Moore's office took no action, according to the innocence commission's investigation. There was no mention of the DNA match in files provided by the Sheriff's Office or Moore.
Commission investigators only found out about the match when they examined the SBI file.
Kagonyera, meanwhile, continued looking for evidence from prison to prove his innocence.
A hand-written plea
He tried to withdraw his guilty plea, but a judge denied the motion.
He requested the results of the early DNA tests that excluded him and the others as suspects from the county Clerk of Court but was told he had to go through his appeals attorney. The clerk's office noted there would be a fee for copies.
In 2003, he filed a legal motion for the DNA testing of “ski masks, bandanas, and gloves,” even though ski masks were not used in the crime.
A judge denied the motion, saying he had already pleaded guilty.
Two years later, he wrote to the Sheriff's Office asking for the lab results. The Sheriff's Office wrote back and told him to contact Moore's office, according to the commission's investigation.
So he did and got no response, the commission found.
He wrote again a month later and got no response.
In 2006, he filed an affidavit saying he had made false statements implicating himself and a motion to compel Moore to release the DNA evidence.
On Feb. 15, 2008, he filed a hand-written Motion for Appropriate Relief saying Moore was withholding physical evidence that might exonerate him in violation of his constitutional rights.
This time the judge ordered Moore's office to respond.
Moore agreed to compare the DNA from the bandanas and gloves to Rutherford, Summey and Pickens.
But his response to Kagonyera didn't mention the DNA match on Summey despite the SBI's report of the hit to Moore's office, according to the commission.
Moore's July 29 response called into question's Rutherford's motive in making his jailhouse confession to the DEA agent, saying he was trying to “curry favors with the federal government” in his drug case.
It also notes that Pickens was in jail at the time of the murder, though commission investigators discovered he was doing time on the weekends. Bowman was killed on a Monday.
Judge's order ignored
Judge Ronald Payne the day after Moore filed his motion ordered the SBI to compare the DNA of the new suspects with the bandanas and gloves.
Moore's office had Rutherford brought from federal prison to the county jail to get a DNA sample.
While there, he asked a sheriff's detective to send Moore to talk to him.
Moore refused, according to the detective's report.
Rutherford sat in the county jail until April 17, 2009, without ever giving a DNA sample. He asked repeatedly to go back to federal prison.
Despite the judge's order, there is no evidence officials tried to obtain a DNA sample from Summey or to locate a sample previously obtained from Pickens, who was killed by an Asheville officer three years earlier.
Sean Devereux, Kagonyera's attorney on the murder charge, told the commission that he might not have urged his client to plead guilty had he known about the DNA results from the bandanas excluding the suspects.
Devereux blamed Moore for not passing the results along to defense attorneys. He now believes Kagonyera is innocent.
Moore, who didn't appear before the commission, told the Citizen-Times that he didn't recall the report Devereux referred to and that he's had an “open file policy” with defense attorneys on evidence since taking office.
Commission investigator Jamie Lau testified about his interviews with Shaun Bowman, a key witness in the case who identified some of the suspects who were charged with his father's murder. Lau said it became apparent to him in talking to Bowman that he didn't know who invaded the house that night.
The commission also heard evidence about the car that was caught on videotape at the convenience store the night of the murder. An automobile expert identified the car as a 1971 or 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass, the same type owned by Pickens, one of the three men who weren't charged.
Wilcoxson's mother, Rhonden Finch, was ecstatic when she heard the news of the commission's action — that her son would get a new day in court.
“I started screaming,” she said. “I had to praise God. Someone was finally listening. I believed he was innocent all along.”
Finch said her son's daughter was born two months after he was jailed.
“He's been in jail her entire life,” she said. “She'll be 11 in December. He hasn't had a chance to push her on a swing. He's missed a lot.”