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Suspected Burke County killer Whisnant returned home after troubled life

By Michael Gordon and Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
mgordon@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/19/37/u7SCR.Em.138.jpeg|209
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    The body of slain U.S. Forest Service agent Jason Crisp arrives in Marion on Thursday. He was killed in a manhunt Wednesday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/19/37/GvDZm.Em.138.jpeg|405
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    Whisnant
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/03/13/19/37/qCBEq.Em.138.jpeg|180
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    Slain U.S. Forest Service agent Jason Crisp with his dog, Maros.

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Four months ago, Troy Whisnant paid tribute to his father, Levi, on Facebook.

“I have the very best father in the world,” he wrote. “I have only … let him down.”

This week, officials say Whisnant killed him and his stepmother, Rhonda, in the basement of their Burke County home.

Their killings may have happened as early as Sunday.

On Thursday, investigators pieced together a timeline of the days-long rampage that started sometime after Rhonda and Troy Whisnant returned home from church on Sunday.

Levi Whisnant was killed downstairs in a workshop he had there, Sheriff Steve Whisenant told reporters. “He was doing some work on a chair, it appeared,” the sheriff said.

Rhonda Whisnant came downstairs, apparently to find out what was happening.

“She was shot in the back going back up the steps,” the sheriff said. “We think that (Troy Whisnant) moved her body downstairs and left her down there for days.”

The sheriff believes Whisnant shot them with a rifle.

For the next few days, Troy Whisnant went in and out of the house among their dead bodies in a drug-induced haze, authorities said.

On Wednesday, one of Rhonda Whisnant’s coworkers called the sheriff’s office after she hadn’t shown up for work.

That day, the armed Whisnant was shot dead during a manhunt around his family’s home, but not before he killed U.S. Forest Service agent Jason Crisp and his service dog Maros, authorities said.

The sheriff said his investigators believe Whisnant was still under the influence of crack cocaine when he ambushed Crisp and his dog Maros.

“We believe that the officer was shot with the shotgun,” the sheriff said. “It appears that was close-range. ... I think he was hiding behind a tree, and when the officer came by, the officer probably never had a chance to respond.”

He took Crisp’s gun and bullets, the sheriff said.

Shortly afterward, he was approached by an Avery County sheriff’s deputy and two state troopers. They told him to drop the weapon.

Whisnant fired one shot, and at least one officer returned fire, killing him.

A troubled past

Sheriff Whisenant said at the Thursday news conference that authorities are still searching for a motive, according to various media reports.

Members of the Whisnant family say Troy lost control of his life at an early age and never got it back.

At 12, he was abusing drugs and alcohol.

At 20, he shot and killed his best friend.

For much of his adult life, he was in and out of prison for crimes ranging from drugs to theft and assault.

In September 2012, Whisnant went back to prison for the last time for a parole violation. Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey added a note to the Whisnant’s case file: “(Defendant) has a history of psychiatric/psychological problems Court strongly recommends facility that can address these issues.”

A state prison spokesman said Thursday that privacy issues prevented him from saying whether Whisnant got the treatment the judge sought.

Last July, after 10 months behind bars, Whisnant was released. This winter, his life apparently took another swoon.

“Why is it that you take everything … that you love for granted?” he posted on his Facebook page two weeks ago. “I have nothing left and am not in a good place. Please keep me in your prayers.”

Troy Whisnant’s aunt and Levi’s sister, Trish “Mama Trish” Whisnant, responded with tough love.

“You going to have to make it get better, Troy,” she said in her own post.

It didn’t seem to work. Within the last week, she says, Whisnant asked her if he could move in. She said she told him no, that she already had heard too much about his drugs and alcohol.

“It made me feel bad,” she said Thursday. “I still loved him. But I didn’t want to get involved with the drugs and stuff. I couldn’t have him in my household.”

That left Whisnant with one place to turn, to his father, and Levi Whisnant couldn’t tell his son no.

“He would have done anything for that boy,” Trish Whisnant said. “He would have took his last breath for his son.”

Then her mind moved ahead in time, to the image of her nephew spending a day or more living among the bodies at her brother’s house.

“He had to be out of his mind, knowing they’re lying dead and he’s carrying on,” she said, her voice rising. “What was going though his mind? What was he thinking?”

An eye for an eye

Some say Troy Whisnant was never the same after his parents’ divorce. Levi and Vivian Whisnant had two kids, Troy and his older sister Jenny.

According to Jenny’s former husband, Jonathan Laws, the 1988 break-up hit both children hard, but Troy the hardest.

“He was just real troubled,” Laws said Thursday. “... But instead of coping with the problems, he covered them up with drugs and alcohol.”

From that point on, Whisnant’s drug usage became a lifelong problem. A psychologist who testified at one of his trials said Whisnant’s pattern of early and chronic drug abuse could make him homicidal or suicidal, according to a story in the Morganton News Herald.

In 1996, Whisnant was accused of fatally shooting his best friend, William Shane Newton, with his own gun. Newton’s mother, Shirley Newton of Morganton, said Whisnant tried to hock the weapon to buy more drugs. Trish Whisnant said her nephew, in his drugged state, never recalled committing the crime.

Under the plea agreement, prosecutors reduced the charge to manslaughter and gave Whisnant credit for the 14 months he served in jail. After less than a year in prison, Whisnant was released. Shirley Newton still seethes.

She remembers standing with her son in her kitchen, telling Shane to stay away from his childhood friend.

“Shane said, ‘Mom, look at me. I’ve got everybody. He’s got nobody.’ It wasn’t two weeks later before he killed Shane.”

On Thursday, she called Whisnant’s death a vindication.

“I’ve waited 18 years, and justice has finally come to me,” Newton said. “They didn’t give him no time at all. If they’d done something to him, given him a longer sentence, maybe these families wouldn’t have to feel what I feel.

“My heart goes out to them. But the Bible says ‘an eye for an eye.’ The Bible also says, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will take care of it.’ That’s God. That’s my God.”

The last trip home

Trish Whisnant says her nephew was never the same after his friend’s death.

State records indicate that Whisnant was in and out of prison or jail for most of the next two decades, from crimes ranging to stealing credit cards to larceny, possession of narcotics to assault on a public figure.

He fathered a son and a daughter with different women but wasn’t around to help raise them, his aunt says.

“I still love him,” she said. “But I know drugs carried his mind off somewhere else.”

In the end, he had one last place to turn.

Levi and Rhonda Whisnant lived on seven secluded and wooded acres on Fish Hatchery Road. Late last week, Troy moved back in.

“With all the trouble and aggravation he put his father through, he’s been in and out of that house so many times it’s not even funny,” Trish Whisnant said.

On Sunday, before Levi and Rhonda attended services at Calvary Assembly of God on Pea Ridge Road for the last time, Levi asked Troy to come along, Trish Whisnant said.

Troy, who less than two weeks earlier had asked his Facebook followers to pray for a better direction in his life, begged off, telling Levi that his stomach wasn’t right, according to his aunt.

Maybe next Sunday, he said.

Cheryl Carpenter and Researcher Maria David contributed.

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