Wednesday, May 19, 2010

MAY 19, 2010

Evidence heard in 1972 murder trial
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May 19, 2010 2:29 AM

Upcoming testimony of a codefendant against a former local police chief on trial in the nearly four-decade-old shooting death of Camp Lejeune Marine cannot be held against him, if a judge approves the state’s immunity request today.

As prosecutors methodically laid out their case Tuesday against retired Marine and former Cape Carteret and Belhaven police chief George Hayden — indicted last year in the 1972 shooting death of Sgt. William Miller — attorneys for Hayden’s two alleged co-conspirators sat quietly in the courtroom taking notes.

Kinston lawyer Bill Gerrans, who represents Rodger Gill, another former Marine charged in Miller’s death, held tightly to Gill’s immunity agreement. He would not elaborate, but said he was satisfied with his client’s arrangement with the state. Gill is on the state’s witness list.

Hayden, Gill and Miller’s then-wife Vickie Babbitt face first-degree murder and conspiracy charges in Miller’s homicide. Hayden, 58, is the first of the three defendants to stand trial. Babbitt, 58, and Gill, 56, are free on bail.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Ernie Lee told jurors in opening statements that Miller was shot and killed by Hayden in an ambush triggered by a love triangle involving Hayden, Miller and Babbitt.

Hayden’s attorney, Jacksonville lawyer Billy Joe Morgan, said that the state didn’t have enough evidence 37 years ago to convict Hayden and still doesn’t.

“The case is no better now than it was in 1972,” Morgan said. “The state does not know who killed Bill Miller.”

Miller’s sister, Sharron Aguilar — who kept her brother’s unsolved homicide case alive for almost 40 years after his death — testified that Miller was happy in early 1972 with Babbitt, his second wife, and their infant daughter. Aguilar said Miller wrote in letters in May 1972 that he planned to bring his wife and child to Wisconsin to meet his family and children from his previous marriage when he returned from Japan later that year. But Aguilar said when Miller returned to Jacksonville in August 1972, he found Hayden living with Babbitt. Hayden refused to leave and their argument escalated into a fight. Hayden lost and Babbitt went with him, taking her and Miller’s daughter.

Everything changed for Miller after that, Aguilar said. He became distraught and told her he felt threatened.

During cross-examination, Morgan questioned Aguilar why she didn’t tell Navy cold case investigators about her brother acting distraught and threatened in a 1996 interview. She said she was very emotional at that time and didn’t remember exactly what she told investigators, but her memory of what her brother said to her in 1972 was crystal clear.

At around 10 p.m. Sept. 16, 1972, Larry Lanier, a flight instructor at the time, found Miller’s body laying in the middle of the road on Western Boulevard, which was “just a two lane road through the woods back then,” he testified Tuesday.

Lanier described what he saw: “There was a well-dressed man, a little younger than me, in the road. He was obviously shot. There was blood and chunks of brain all over the road. You could tell it just happened because there was a still-burning cigarette at the man’s feet.”

Jim Dell, a retired agent with Naval Criminal Investigative Service testified that on Sept. 16, 1972, he was on his way to an unrelated Marine homicide in Hubert when he stopped at the site of Miller’s death. He told jury members that the shells found at the scene were consistent with those used in an M-16. He said he later found two M-16 magazines in the glove box of Hayden’s car.

The jury also heard from the original Onslow County Sheriff’s detectives investigating the case and a medical examiner who detailed Miller’s autopsy.

Testimony is expected today from Miller’s neighbor in 1972 who loaned Miller his car the night Miller died. Robert Fitta originally told detectives that Miller said he felt he might be ambushed and took his .22-caliber pistol. Fitta told NCIS agents in the mid-1990s that he was the one who suggested to Miller that he might be riding into an ambush, according to court records.

Hayden’s trial picks up today at 9:30 a.m. and is expected to last a week.

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