.50-caliber killings

Sept. 1, 2010

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Arkansas State Police investigators first questioned Terry Dean Birts about shooting two people in the back of the head with an unusual gun less than three weeks after finding two bodies in a black Ford Expedition parked along Interstate 40 in May 2009.

Then 15 months passed.

On Tuesday, state police announced that they had charged Birts, 26, with three counts of capital murder in the May 9, 2009, slayings of Tammy Lawrence, 48, and Ahki Hughes, 24, as well as a third killing — that of Barry Glenn Murphy, 49, found shot the same day along Interstate 440 in Little Rock. Murphy died two months later.

Birts of North Little Rock has been in the Dallas County jail since April 29 after pleading guilty three days earlier in Little Rock to federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm. That jail is where state police investigators on Monday served him with capital-murder warrants.

“Why this is happening today is simple,” said state police Maj. Cleve Barfield, who supervises the agency’s investigators. “We didn’t have enough to charge him before now.”

State police investigators charged three other people, accusing them of hindering apprehension in the case. They are North Little Rock residents Broderick Patrick, 31, and Kevin J. O’Donald, 27, and a Jacksonville man, Tavio G. Garrison, 22.

Patrick and O’Donald have not been arrested or found, state police said Tuesday. Garrison is in the Arkansas Department of Correction’s Wrightsville prison after having his probation revoked on earlier convictions on drug and fleeing charges.

Details of the investigation that led to charging Birts with capital murder are under seal, Barfield said. State police investigators interviewed Birts, O’Donald and Patrick within weeks of the killings, but Pulaski County prosecutors did not consent to filing charges until Monday.

“Clearly we had suspicions before,” Barfield said after a news conference held Tuesday at state police headquarters in Little Rock to announce the charges. “Obviously the information and evidence we developed over time is greater in quality than before because now it’s enough.”

Cases like this one take time and have to come together small piece by small piece. “It’s like building a brick wall,” he said.

The director of the state police, Col. Winford Phillips, singled out Special Agent David Moss, the lead investigator in the case, during Tuesday’s news conference.

“David, good work,” Phillips said.

Troopers who checked out the Expedition parked on the shoulder of Interstate 40 between the Burns Park and Crystal Hill Road exits about 6:30 a.m. that Saturday in May 2009 initially thought it might have been involved in a traffic accident. Then, inside they found the bodies of Lawrence and Hughes, each shot in the head. They also found a shell casing from a weapon rarely used in crimes — a .50-caliber handgun.

Three years earlier, Lawrence had survived a night on an Arkansas River sandbar aboard her husband’s 26-foot Monterey cruiser after a gas-powered generator linked to the boat’s air-conditioning system spewed carbon monoxide that killed her husband and another man.

She suffered a brain injury that night that was severe enough that her stepson took legal guardianship of her the next year. Pulaski County court records show that Lawrence smoked marijuana and abused alcohol, suffered from bipolar disorder and was suicidal.

Investigators believe that she came to know Hughes through drugs. Hughes was a repeat car thief who was on parole at the time of the killings. He had not been part of Lawrence’s life before the night on the cruiser. State police have called them “acquaintances.”

Hours after state police found Lawrence and Hughes shot to death, troopers found Murphy shot and dying on the south side of Interstate 440 near Springer Boulevard. His family removed him from life support on July 18. He died the same day.

State police have not said what type of bullet killed Murphy.

Aside from charging Birts in the three slayings, state police said nothing Tuesday about whether there were other links between the shootings.

Arkansas prison records detail Birts’ 11 tattoos, including one of the Grim Reaper and another of the Statue of Liberty, both on his abdomen. Others include names and nicknames, and on his neck are “Billy the Kid” and “Magnolia or Nothing.”

Between 2003 and 2009, Birts was convicted in Pulaski County of possession of a controlled substance, fleeing and committing a terrorist act — he fired an automatic rifle into an occupied house.

He pleaded guilty April 26 to federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm, counts involving a Glock .40-caliber pistol and an Astra .38 Special revolver.

He is on parole for a 2009 Pulaski County drug conviction. It is scheduled to end Sept. 19, 2012.

The federal indictment mentions nothing about a .50-caliber handgun.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Jim Hays said Birts had not yet been sentenced on the federal gun charge. He is one of 210 federal prisoners in Arkansas jails. Birts is in Fordyce only because Dallas County is one of a few places that the U.S. Marshals Service has a contract to house prisoners, and he is not scheduled to be back in court anytime soon.

“It’s kind of a long way away, but that’s OK,” Hays said. “He isn’t going anywhere until we need him.”

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