Life with parole for Bath murderPublished 5:12pm Tuesday, July 2, 2013
The man who pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Bath resident Len Willson III, was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole by Superior Court Judge Alma Hinton Tuesday.
Two other men involved in the crime — Martel Weston and Domonic Farrow — were also sentenced in the day-long special hearing at the Beaufort County Courthouse: Weston to 27 years and Farrow to a minimum of 50 months, with the 32 months he’s been in the Beaufort County Detention Center and Bertie Correctional Institution counting as time served.
Hinton, and a courtroom full of friends and family of both the victim and the convicted, saw the testimony of state’s witnesses Maj. Kenneth Watson, who led the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office investigation into Willson’s murder, and Dr. William Russell Oliver, director of autopsy and forensic services at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine.
Through their testimony, Second Judicial District Attorney Seth Edwards painted a picture of a robbery turned murder on the night of Oct. 5, 2010.
According to investigators’ interviews, the day before the murder, Lopez-Perez and Weston made a plan to rob Willson’s home on Main Street in Bath. Around 11 p.m. the next night, Weston and a passenger in his car, Farrow, picked up Lopez-Perez at the Trade Mart in Belhaven and the three drove to Bath, parking in the lot of the Historic Bath State Historic Site. Lopez-Perez and Weston left Farrow in the car, which was parked out of visual range of Willson’s residence.
According to Farrow’s attorney Randy Hughes, and corroborated by testimony from Watson, Farrow was an unwitting accomplice in the crimes occurring around the corner: he’d never met Lopez-Perez before that night, when he’d asked Weston for ride to his own car. But at some point during the drive to Bath, Weston told Farrow he and Lopez-Perez going to go do “a lick,” slang for a robbery.
“All the state’s evidence would show (Farrow) remained in the vehicle,” Edwards said. “But one thing he could have done, that he did not do, was call 911, or Crime Stoppers.”
Instead, Farrow used Lopez-Perez’s cell phone to make a 1½ hour phone call to his girlfriend while he waited, according to interviews with investigators.
Edwards described how the crime unfolded: Weston and Lopez-Perez approaching Willson’s residence and finding a locked front door; Lopez-Perez retrieving a pitchfork from the back of the building where he knew Willson kept gardening tools; using the pitchfork to break the glass in the front door to unlock it and startling Willson where he lay on a couch in one of the interior rooms.
According to Watson, Lopez-Perez said in an interview that it was then he realized Willson would recognize him. He began hitting Willson, a paraplegic, with the pitchfork. When the pitchfork broke, Lopez-Perez left the residence and retrieved a shovel, continuing the brutal assault when he returned.
Before the two men left, Lopez-Perez shoved papers in propane heater, trying to set a fire that would cover up his fingerprints, he would later say in an interview.
Oliver, who performed Willson’s autopsy, testified that Willson died from multiple blunt trauma. Through a series of images submitted as state’s evidence, he described the autopsy findings: broken bones, defensive wounds, superficial wounds and some deep enough to hit bone. In all, there were 27 clusters of four to five contusions on Willson’s body, Oliver said.
That was state in which Watson found Willson when he responded to an emergency call from a concerned neighbor, one reporting he had not seen Willson in several days.
Sheriff’s Office investigators spent two days processing the crime scene before they received a tip pointing to Lopez-Perez’s involvement, Watson said. But it was an interview with Lopez-Perez’s mother, Virginia Lopez-Perez, that gave investigators the connection between Lopez-Perez and Willson: Willson had taught Virginia Lopez-Perez English through Joblink; Willson had served as mentor to Arturo Lopez-Perez; Willson had given him odd jobs around his house, Watson explained.
She also shared her concerns about her son’s cavalier reaction to Willson’s death and, during the interview, when a deputy with Pitt County Sheriff’s Office called to say he had her son in custody, she rode with investigators to Pitt County, and, alone, spoke with Arturo, encouraging him to “do the right thing,” Watson said.
“How did you come to the decision to report him to police?” asked John Bramble, Lopez-Perez’s defense attorney, when Virginia Lopez-Perez took the stand.
“It was a very difficult decision,” she responded through an interpreter. “I was very afraid but I wanted the best for him. I thought it was the best option for him. I thought that if he was still out and keeping the same company he would continue making the same mistakes.”
Watson called Lopez-Perez’s demeanor during the first interview with investigators “relaxed” and “matter-of-fact” and said his only indication of remorse for the crime was in reference to the impact it would have on his mother.
Later, members of Willson’s family directly addressed the judge, each of them asking for the fullest penalty for Lopez-Perez: life without the possibility of parole.
“I wanted to impress on you, Your Honor, how precious my son was,” said Leonard Alfred Willson. “Our family has been devastated — even three years later.”
“I can’t image the horror and betrayal he felt when he realized someone he had helped was killing him,” Kathryn Willson said. “Len did not get a trial. He was sentenced to death.”
Kathryn Willson also thanked Virginia Lopez-Perez for doing the right thing by alerting authorities to her son’s involvement in the murder and, for the mother’s sake, asked that the son be placed in a prison close by so that she can visit him.
“They say a picture’s worth a thousand words. One photograph from the autopsy says more than a thousand words — if there was ever overkill, that was overkill,” Edwards said, as the defense attorneys prepared to present the judge with mitigating factors in their clients’ favor.
“The brutality of this crime outweighs any mitigating factor the defense can present,” Edwards informed the court.
Attorney Don Stroud argued that his client, Martel Weston, has an IQ of 60 and was a passive participant, playing a minor role in Willson’s murder. He also voluntarily acknowledged wrongdoing at an early stage, Stroud said.
Bramble brought up Lopez-Perez’s lack of prior run-ins with the law, his client’s age and immaturity, as well as his full and honest statement to investigators as reasons for the judge’s leniency.
“I submit to you that all is not lost with this young man,” Bramble told Hinton. “I believe he could be rehabilitated, Your Honor.”
Throughout the recitation of the events surrounding Willson’s murder, Lopez-Perez, seated beside Bramble, remained expressionless.
Martel Weston had previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, first-degree burglary, first-degree arson and robbery with a dangerous weapon. Consolidating the arson and robbery charges, Hinton sentenced Weston to 73 months minimum, 97 maximum; 73 to 97 for the burglary charge and 180 to 225 for the murder charge, all to be served consecutively. Weston will serve 27 years before he’s eligible for parole.
Farrow had earlier pleaded guilty to several counts of accessory after the fact.
“Getting in the car put you in a world of hurt,” Hinton said to Farrow. “The best that happened to you was they parked the car where you couldn’t see anything.”
Farrow could be eligible for release in 18 months.
To Lopez-Perez, Hinton handed down a sentence of a minimum of 64 months, maximum of 86 months, for consolidated first-degree burglary and felony larceny charges; 64 to 86 months for robbery with a dangerous weapon; and 64 to 86 months for first-degree arson, all of which will run consecutively before the life with the possibility of parole (25 years) sentence kicks in.
“We’re disappointed,” said Leonard Willson, Len Willson’s father, in response to the possibility of parole for Lopez-Perez. “We thought we had it.”
Lopez-Perez, who was 16 at the time of Willson’s murder, will serve a minimum of 41 years in prison before he’s eligible for parole.