Monday, January 14, 2008

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Expert will test guns

The woman accused of gunning down two Iredell County couples in 2005 appeared in court Tuesday as her attorney presented a motion concerning two firearms.

For the full story, click here.

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Cracking the case

By Donna Swicegood

Iredell County Sheriff Phil Redmond received two pieces of news he'd been waiting to hear within a matter of minutes on July 25.

One was that his wife Prissy's cancer surgery was a success and the other was that forensic evidence had linked a suspect to two sets of unsolved double homicides.

Thirty minutes later, sheriff's deputies arrested Barbara Evans, 65, in connection with the murders of James and Delet Powell and and Don and Sue Barker.

For months, the two murder cases had been practically all-consuming for Redmond, who knew both couples personally, and for his detectives, who spent countless hours pouring over bank records, talking with hundreds of people who knew the couples and fielding thousands of phone calls about the cases.

Few leads surface

Little did the sheriff or his detectives realize how this case would dominate their lives when the first call came in on Jan. 21, 2005.

Reponda Smith stopped by her parents home in Union Grove around 9:30 a.m. She couldn't get inside. When she looked in through a window she spotted blood and called 911.

Deputies found her parents - the Powells - inside, both dead from gunshot wounds. Right away, detectives knew solving this case would be difficult, Redmond said.

James Powell, an avid car restorer and former convenience store operator, ahd a wide circle of friends and acquaintances that extended beyond the borders of North Carolina.

Twelve hours at the crime scene was just the start, said Lt. Roger McDaniels, one of several detectives who worked on the two cases.

In the day following the Powell murders, interviews were donducted and at least five people were given polygraph tests, McDaniels said.

That included family members, such as Reponda and her husband Kenny.

As days stretched into weeks, the investigation continued to grind on, Lt. Stanley Watkins said.

On a cold night a week after the murders, deputies stopped cars in front of the Powells' home, hoping someone noticed something unusual the Thursday before.

More of the Powells' acquaintances were interviewed. One of those acquaintances was a woman named Barbara Evans, whose late husband knew James Powell, according to the sheriff.

The State Bureau of Investigation sent agents to help.

"There were numerous leads. Folks were constantly calling in," Redmond said. "The detectives were checking out leads constantly."

But none of those clues gave detectives what they needed to make an arrest or even focus the investigation on one person.

An eerily similar scene

Detectives were still working round-the-clock on the Powell case when tragedy struck again - on Sept. 16, 2005.

The scene was eerily similar to the one nearly nine months earlier.

A call came in just around 7 a.m. that day.

George Mooe, an employee at Barker's Grocery, had gone to the home of Don and Sue Barker.

Like Reponda Smith a few months earlier, Mooe sensed something was wrong that morning. He couldn't see inside the house, and couldn't get either Don or Sue Barker to open the door.

After getting a relative, he came back to the house. By then it was daylight. He saw Don Barker laying inside the house. He called 911.

The scene was reminiscent of the one in Union Grove, with the same cast of detectives and crime scene investigators.

A canine officer, Travis Ward, took his bloodhound around the area but came up with nothing.

Contrary to popular rumor, the bloodhound did not lead Ward to Evans' house, which was less than two miles from the Barker home, Redmond said.

McDaniels said the bloodhound was used more to determine if the suspect may have dropped something leaving the scene.

"It was more of an article search," he said.

McDaniels and Watkins said they noted the similarities in the two cases right away, but did not have any solid evidence connecting the two.

The process that began in the Powell murders repeated itself.

Family members were also investigated, but eliminated, Redmond said.

He said family members in both cases were cooperative and understood the need to focus on them initially.

"In both of these cases, these families were very understanding of what it took to solve the case. They undserstood the procedures and why we had to do what we did," he said.

Both of the adult children in these cases - Reponda Smith and Allen Barker - endured gossip that they were somehow involved, Redmond said.

Like Powell, Barker had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. His grocery store on Turnersburg Highway at Houpe Road had long been a popular gathering spot.

The Barkers were known throughout the ocmmunity for their generosity and involvement.

As detectives pursued the two cases as separate crimes, they submitted ballistics information to be processed.

Ballistics test points to single weapon

That ballistics evidence provided the link they had been waiting for, Redmond said.

About one month after the Barkers were killed, the lab confirmed the same weapon was used in all four deaths.

The SBI, which had been helping on the Powell case, sent more people to assist with what was suddenly a quadruple murder investigation. Watkins, who attended an FBI training school at Quantico, Va., used his contacts to engage the services of the Behavioral Analysis Unit to do a profile.

Scott Hartley of the N.C. Justice Academy lent his expertise on interviewing and examining statements, Watkins said.

Evidence points to Evans

Now detectives began looking for connections between the two couples, Watkins said.

During the next 10 months, anyone linked to both couples was looked at with extra scrutiny.

Again, Evans name popped up in the investigation, Redmond said. She was a frequent visitor to Barker's Grocery, and had even put money in a jar that was used to collect donations for the reward fund.

As the investigation continued, those linked to both cases were eliminated one by one.

Eventually, everything focused on Evans, Redmond said.

Authorities searched her home in the days before the arrest, and according to Redmond, found weapons possibly linked to the case.

Long investigation yields arrest

The phone call he got on July 25, while at the hospital awaiting news on his wife, confirmed a ballistics match.

The district attorney's office, which had worked with detectives on the case since its early stages, gave the go-ahead for arrest warrants.

Redmond said neither he nor his detectives can comment on the exact evidence found in the case as it is now in the hands of the district attorney's office.

The case is now winding its way through what promises to be a long period of pre-trial motions and hearings.

Mark Rabil, who was appointed to represent Evans through the Indigent Defense Fund, said the next step in the legal process is a Rule 24 hearing scheduled for Nov. 27.

At the Rule 24 hearing, the district attorney will present evidence to determine if the death penalty can be sought in this case.

Rebil said now he is waiting to get a look at the more than 5,000-page case file presented to the district attorney.

"We have some of it," he said Friday.

For now, Evans remains in the Women's Correctional Center in Raleigh, where she's being held without bond.

The trial is likely to be at least two years away.

Despite claims that the timing of the arrest was motivated by the upcoming eleciton, Redmond said, it came as soon as the evidence was presented to the district attorney's office.

"The sheriff's office does not issue warrants. We present the case to a judicial official (magitrate, judge or district attorney) and the state of North Carolina issues warrants," he said.

Redmond said he's proud of the work his detectives and deputies turned in on this case.

"They kept plugging and plugging," he said.

All the nights, weekends and canceled days off were worth it, Redmond said. That point was driven home, he said, on graduation night when the Barkers' great-niece, Meredith Haynes, spoke about Don and Sue during her salutatory address to her North Iredell High School classmates.

"Hearing her talk, seeing how she felt, seeing the loss, it made it all worthwhile," Redmond said.