The death penalty trial from a grisly 2008 triple killing in Charlotte opened Monday with a whispered cry for help.
Held hostage in her home for hours six years ago this month, Kinshasa Wagstaff made a midnight call to 911, speaking so softly it was if she hoped someone close by wouldn’t hear her pleas.
Kelly Lambe, a 911 operator that night, couldn’t hear her either. So in a recording played in a Mecklenburg courtroom, Wagstaff breathlessly ticked off the numbers of her home address, followed by the name “Patricia.” Then her line went dead.
Lambe made the call a priority, and within minutes a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer visited Wagstaff’s home at 6002 Patricia Ryan Lane. He knocked on the door, heard a dog barking, but found nothing out of the ordinary. So he left.
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Three hours later, Lambe got another 911 call from the same line. This time, no one answered. When the officer returned to the address, Wagstaff’s home was burning to the ground.
The 34-year-old’s burned body was found inside, her hands tied behind her with a cord, her throat cut. The wreckage also included the remains of Wagstaff’s live-in boyfriend, Kevin “Fergie” Young. He, too, had been bound, shot twice, his throat slashed.
That day, Wagstaff’s niece, 18-year-old Jasmine Hines, was found face down in a roadside ditch in Huntersville. She had been shot twice and doused with so much gasoline that it burned her skin.
Prosecutors say two Ohio men are responsible for the killings. Their motive: drugs and money. Only one of them is alive to face a jury. And on Monday, Justin “Castro” Hurd went on trial for his life.
If convicted of the Feb. 3, 2008, slayings, the 35-year-old could be put on death row.
Given what’s at stake, the opening arguments to the seven-man, five-woman jury seemed understated. Assistant Mecklenburg District Attorney Reed Hunt said Hurd’s DNA had been found at Wagstaff’s home and in Young’s car.
His suspected co-conspirator, Nathaniel “Lil’ Nate” Sanders was caught on surveillance cameras buying gas cans, gasoline and trash bags. (Sanders were murdered in Cincinnati later that year.)
Hurd’s lead attorney, Alan Bowman of Newark, N.J., said the prosecution does not have the evidence to clear Hurd’s constitutional protections of “reasonable doubt” and “presumption of innocence.”
Don’t let the enormity of the crimes “weaken your impartiality,” Bowman told the jury. “... Be very careful as you analyze. Stay alert. See the evidence for what it is.”
Little by little, the details of the case tumbled out, etching a web connecting Charlotte with Cincinnati and Atlanta.
Young was a drug dealer who drove to Georgia to buy large quantities of marijuana. His girlfriend’s father, Freddie Wagstaff, remembers being asked to drive a car back to Charlotte from Atlanta in 2006 with a large suitcase in the trunk. When Young opened the luggage, Wagstaff said it contained about 50 pounds of marijuana.
Hurd and Sanders knew each other from Cincinnati, according to testimony. Sanders, who was facing an arrest warrant in his hometown that January, took a weeklong trip with friends to Atlanta.
One of his companions was Antonio Harmon, the day’s first witness and a reluctant one. Harmon has said he fears for his life. In return for his testimony prosecutors struck a deal with the Observer and other media not to show Harmon’s face in the courtroom.
While in Atlanta, Sanders and his friends twice hooked up with Hurd, then living in Georgia, Harmon testified. After the second meeting, Harmon said that Sanders came to him with a plan to drive somewhere outside of Atlanta to “bust a move,” which Harmon said meant making money through drugs and or robbery.
Harmon said he wanted no part of the deal and caught a bus home on Feb. 2. Prosecutors say Hurd and Sanders soon drove to Charlotte.
Bowman tore into Harmon’s credibility, exploiting his inconsistent testimony on dates and other details. He homed in on Harmon’s statements to investigators this month that during the Atlanta trip he spotted a duffel bag filled with guns in the trunk of Hurd’s BMW. In a 2009 interview with police, according to Bowman, Harmon said the only gun he saw that week belonged to Sanders.
Which statement is the lie? Bowman asked.
“I know what I know,” Harmon said.
Bowman also bore in on Freddie Wagstaff, the father and grandfather of two of the victims: If you knew Young was a drug dealer, why didn’t you act more like a parent and intercede?
It was not his place to question whom Kinshasa loved, Wagstaff responded. Young made her happy. “What more can I ask of a man?”
When he took the witness chair, Wagstaff told the jury his name, then began to explain his connections to the case. He spoke of his Kinshasa, but stopped when Assistant District Attorney Clayton Jones asked for the name of his granddaughter.
The jury had to wait a few moments for Jasmine’s name. Her grandfather had begun to cry.