Danny Hembree, who was sentenced to death in the 2009 killing of a 17-year-old from Gastonia, pleaded guilty Tuesday to another murder he was charged with.
Hembree, 51, agreed to plea guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Randi Dean Saldana. Prosecutors also dismissed a third murder charge against Hembree in the death of Deborah Ratchford, saying it was clear Hembree wasn’t involved in that killing.
Hembree was supposed to go on trial next month on a first-degree murder charge in Saldana’s death. He faces 26 years in prison after Tuesday’s guilty plea and the sentence will begin at the expiration of every other sentence previously imposed on him, said Gaston District Attorney Locke Bell.
“The reason I took this plea is so that I can guarantee the citizens of Gaston County that he (Hembree) will die in prison and never come back here,” Bell said.
Hembree confessed to strangling Saldana in the basement of his mother’s Gastonia home, but said it was an accident after a marathon of sex and crack cocaine.
Saldana’s burned body was found along a dirt road in Kings Mountain State Park in November 2009. Hembree said he’d taken the body there after hiding it for several days in a basement closet.
Hembree had gone on trial last spring in Saldana’s death. But the proceedings were halted after Hembree claimed to have had a sexual relationship with the assistant district attorney, a claim Bell rejected at the time.
Bell said he met with Saldana’s family about the new plea deal, and “they were very happy with this arrangement.”
“They’ve gone through this two times already,” he said, referring to earlier trials. “They’re glad it’s over. It brings some closure.”
Hembree’s testimony on Saldana’s death came as he was on trial for the 2009 murder of Heather Catterton. A jury convicted him in the teen’s killing in November of 2011, and sentenced him to death.
The third murder charge against Hembree was filed in the 1992 death of Deborah Ratchford, whose body was discovered on the edge of a Gastonia cemetery. Authorities said she had been cut multiple times in the upper chest and neck.
In dismissing the murder charge in that case, Bell said a review of evidence showed “it was clear Hembree was not involved.”
“DNA didn’t involve him and three key witnesses were dead,” Bell said. “I was not going to prosecute it anyway.”
Hembree was one of two men charged in Ratchford’s death. Prosecutors had previously dismissed a murder charge against James Arthur Swanson saying in 2009 that “it is clear that we cannot proceed against Mr. Swanson without jeopardizing our ability to seek the death penalty in the cases against Danny Hembree.”
Hembree’s family was “very much OK” with the Tuesday’s outcome, said defense lawyer, Ted Cummings.
“Danny wanted to spare his family the discomfort of yet another trial,” Cummings said. “And he felt the same way about Saldana’s family.”
On Tuesday, Hembree’s attorney said he and Bell had been discussing a guilty plea in the Saldana case for sometime but at a motion hearing Jan. 29 in Gastonia “we came to a meeting of minds.”
On Jan. 31, Cummings went to Raleigh’s Central Prison and talked to Hembree about the guilty plea.
“He agreed,” Cummings said.
Cummings said Hembree’s first-degree murder conviction is on appeal to the Supreme Court.
Commenting on Hembree’s state of mind, Cummings said: “I think he’s happy to have this behind him.” Observer archives contributed.