Top 10 Stories of 2013: No. 5 – Bath murder case laid to rest

Published 8:02 pm Friday, December 27, 2013

Auturo Lopez-Perez

Auturo Lopez-Perez


On July 2, a courtroom packed with family and friends of the victim, along with the curious, awaited the sentence for the teenager who pleaded guilty to the brutal murder of Bath resident Leonard Alfred Willson III.

The resolution to the 2010 crime is No. 5 of the Washington Daily News’ Top 10 Stories of the Year.

On Feb. 28, Arturo Lopez-Perez pleaded guilty to the beating death of Len Willson, a paraplegic man known to many in the area, as he was often seen riding around Bath and the surrounding countryside on his recumbent handcycle. In a courtroom empty of all witnesses but his mother, Lopez pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, first-degree burglary, felony larceny, robbery with a dangerous weapon and first-degree arson. At the time of the crime, Lopez was 16 years old.

Two other men involved in the crime — Martel Weston and Domonic Farrow — pleaded guilty to lesser crimes in 2012 and agreed to testify against Lopez during trial, though that trial never came.

Instead, after Lopez’s guilty plea, a special sentencing hearing was held in July in what 2nd Judicial District Attorney Seth Edwards referred to as a “mini-trial.”

Superior Court Judge Alma Hinton presided over the day-long hearing that included the testimony of Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Major Kenneth Watson, who was first responder to the Main Street scene after a neighbor reported he had not seen Willson in several days, and who had a lead role in the investigation into Willson’s death; Dr. William Russell Oliver, director of autopsy and forensic services at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine, who performed the autopsy on Willson, and described in detail the nature of his injuries which included broken bones, defensive wounds, superficial wounds and some deep enough to hit bone; and Virginia Lopez-Perez, the mother of teenager who admitted to killing Willson, who testified she shared her concerns about her son’s cavalier reaction to hearing news of Willson’s death with law enforcement. She’d also given 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 said during his testimony.

During the state’s summary, Edwards said it is unknown whether Lopez set out the night of Oct. 5, 2010, with the intention of killing Willson.
“We can prove that he went with the intention of robbing him,” Edwards said.

Lopez and Weston broke into his house sometime after 10 p.m. Oct. 5. Farrow remained in the car, parked a block away, while Weston robbed the house and Lopez beat Willson with first a pitchfork, then a shovel.

Lopez later told investigators that he “needed to put (Willson) to sleep.”

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.

Members of Willson’s family had the opportunity to address the judge during the hearing, and each of them asked 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 Len’s father, 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,” Len’s sister, Kathryn Willson, said. “Len did not get a trial. He was sentenced to death.”

The maximum sentence Lopez could have been dealt was life in prison without parole; the minimum sentence, life in prison (25 years) with parole, with a sentence of 20 to 27 years for the other crimes committed during Willson’s murder running concurrently with the life sentence.
“The death penalty was not an option because of his age,” Edwards explained.
Prior to a 2012 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, Lopez could have been given an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole based on North Carolina’s structured sentencing. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the sentence applied to persons under the age of 18 violated Eighth Amendment rights — life without the possibility of parole is the maximum sentence.

For their roles in the crime, Weston was sentenced to 27 years and Farrow to a minimum of 50 months, with the 32 months he’d been in the Beaufort County Detention Center and Bertie Correctional Institution counting as time served.

From all accounts, Farrow was unaware of the other men’s actions as he waited in the vehicle around the corner, talking to his girlfriend on Lopez’s cellphone.

“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.”

Willson’s family expressed disappointment and outrage when Hinton sentenced Lopez to life with the possibility of parole for the murder. However, because of the many crimes associated with the murder — including an arson attempt to try to cover up Willson’s beating death — Lopez will serve a minimum of 41 years in prison before he’s eligible for parole.