As police continued to search Friday for murder suspect Ricco McHam, a Mecklenburg County judge defended his decision that allowed McHam to avoid jail in the first place.
McHam is charged with first-degree murder in the July 4, 2016 shooting death of his best friend, Markas Vereen. Jail records indicate McHam, 19, has been arrested at least 16 times over the last three years – from charges ranging from assault on a female, to firearms violations and drug trafficking. An Observer analysis discovered at least 10 convictions, with three charges pending at the time of his arrest.
In January, Superior Court Judge Bob Bell set a total bond for McHam of $275,000. He posted the bond in February, was placed on 24-hour home detention and ordered to wear an ankle monitoring device.
None of the restrictions appears to have been much of a deterrent. On Thursday, McHam stood before Bell to answer allegations by police and prosecutors that he had violated his bond and should be jailed immediately. Ordered to return to court that afternoon, McHam instead cut off his monitoring device and went on the run. He remained at large on Friday afternoon.
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In court, Bell described McHam as “out of control.”
Now, some critics are wondering why McHam ever got a bond.
“What in the world was Superior Court Judge Bob Bell thinking when he released a murder defendant on bond?” Mark Kressler of Midland wrote to the Observer after McHam’s escape. “There are two people ‘out of control’ in this insult on the justice system!”
In an interview with the Observer on Friday, Bell, a longtime judge and a former Mecklenburg prosecutor, said he had acted appropriately when he set a bond for McHam.
“$275,000 is a lot of money, even for a murder case,” said Bell, the county’s presiding Superior Court judge. “I’m going to say that bond was appropriate for that case. ...And there are going to be cases when a person doesn’t show up.”
McHam showed early signs that he would have trouble following the rules. At his original bond hearing in January, McHam “acted out,” according to Assistant District Attorney Jodi Anderson. That led Bell to increase the bond amounts for the two charges against him: $200,000 for the first-degree murder charge; $75,000 for possession of a firearm by a felon.
McHam had been held on no bond since his arrest. Prosecutors had asked a judge to keep him in custody.
A month later, McHam went free, but not before friends or family paid thousands of dollars in a nonrefundable premiums. Bail bondsmen can charge up to 15 percent of the total.
“That’s not chump change,” said retired Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Richard Boner, a former colleague of Bell. “For somebody to make a bond that size, somebody’s gotta dig deep in that pocket. I’d have trouble doing it.”
(Palmetto Surety Corp. of Charleston, which insured the bond for a Charlotte bail agent, now has six months to help find McHam or risk losing the entire amount. Unlike most states, North Carolina does not negotiate a settlement in such cases, pursuing full payment instead.)
Most murder defendants are granted bond, but the amounts are often so large that few can afford to pay them.
When handling first-degree murder cases, Boner said he rarely withheld bonds, given that murder suspects can spend years in jail before facing a jury. But in such serious cases, he said he set bonds high enough that it would be difficult for the defendant to pay “and that the bail bondsman would be breathing down the defendant’s neck all the time.”
He described the $275,000 bond set in the McHam case by Bell as reasonable.
Yet once out on bail, prosecutors say, McHam quickly pushed the limits on the terms of his release. He was wounded on the night of the Vereen shooting and made multiple visits to various hospitals for treatment. Yet he also lingered for suspiciously long periods in the hospital parking lots, Anderson says. He also made unauthorized trips that were tracked by police through the monitoring device.
Last week, Anderson filed a motion for the bond to be revoked. In court, she called McHam a threat to the community.
In setting a bond, Bell says he considers the seriousness of the crime, the quality of the evidence in the case, along with the likelihood of whether the defendant will show up in court or commit another crime.
He also receives an assessment from the county’s pretrial services office on whether the defendant is a flight risk or a continued threat to community safety. The Observer requested the report on McHam on Friday, but a court official said that information is reserved for judges and could not be released.
Bell said the risk reports are only part of the information he takes into account.
“I don’t think any of us would set a bond without thinking about it and doing an analysis of the facts – what you know about the person, the person you are seeing in the courtroom, their extended family, the people who hold them accountable,” Bell said.
Even with McHam still on the run, Bell says he’d come to the same conclusion: “That was a sizable bond, based on the facts of that case.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.