By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
With a guilty verdict recently handed down in the Jodi Arias trial and the penalty phase expected to wrap up soon, many across the nation are breathing a sigh of relief that the seemingly nonstop coverage of this case will soon be over.
For others, however, the end of the trial may feel like the cancellation of a soap opera they have been tuning in to for months. Water-cooler chatter may bemoan the constant trial broadcast and commentary by major cable news networks, but the case would not be getting so much air time if people were not watching.
Be it the victim, the accused, circumstances surrounding the crime or the brutal act itself — one factor or several can determine whether or not a trial will become a public sensation. After 20-plus years at the Daily Telegraph, I’ve witnessed many murder cases morph into high-profile trials.
What separated these homicides from the many others whose headlines blared for a few weeks before fading off the radar screen? Each case is different, but there are certain characteristics that seem to grab the public’s attention, among them: young victims, young killers, heinous acts of violence and suspects who may be attractive socialites.
Through the decades, we’ve witnessed many high-profile trials here in the two Virginias. Among them:
• Naomi Cloud: Dubbed the “fugitive temptress,” Cloud allegedly seduced her lover into arranging her husband’s murder and, after being indicted for the crime, ran away with another man. Six years later, she was finally apprehended in Kennewick, Wash., by then-prosecutor’s office investigator and now current sheriff Don Meadows.
Cloud had been charged with first-degree murder of her husband, David, who was gunned down on Jan. 26, 1980, in the yard of the couple’s Princeton home after the two returned from a dinner party. Ultimately, it was learned that Cloud had seduced her boyfriend, John Elmer Corprew Jr., into a plot to kill her husband. Corprew, in turn, paid triggerman George Guthrie II to carry out the crime.
Although I was a teen during the 1980s Naomi Cloud saga, I remember it well from the Telegraph’s coverage. Also, my mother knew Mrs. Cloud, as both were members of a local ladies’ bowling league. Cloud’s case caught the public’s attention for many reasons, but one was certainly the socialite’s gift of manipulation of men. Her boyfriend Corprew testified that Cloud “was like a spider and I was caught in her web.”
In 1988, Cloud pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to five to 18 years in prison.
• The Pocahontas, Va., murders: Not once, but twice, did the brutal Pocahontas murders go before the public spotlight. In 1990 Sam Ealy faced state charges for the 1989 slayings of Robert Davis, Una Mae Davis, and her 14-year-old son, Bobby Hopewell Jr. Ealy was acquitted but, more than a decade later, he, Walter L. “Pete” Church and Charlie Gilmore, former mayor of Pocahontas, were brought up on federal charges. Church and Gilmore were both acquitted, while Ealy was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to life.
• The Skygusty murders: Four defendants, four trials, and one guilty plea. It was a long process to reach justice in the 2001 deaths of John and Kimmie Stepp. The two were found murdered in their McDowell County mobile home in 2001, their young daughter a witness to the crime. The four defendants charged in the drug-related case faced vastly different trial outcomes: Keith Molineaux was found guilty of first-degree murder; Thomas King entered a plea deal; Robert Brandon Britto was found not guilty; and juvenile Jamie Jones, tried as an adult, was convicted. The Supreme Court later overturned Jones’ conviction, but he was tried again, convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to time served.
• Joanie Cline: Abused wife or callous killer? That was the question when 24-year-old Joanie Cline was on trial in 2003 for killing her husband, Edward, in his sleep with a single shot to his temple. Although Cline’s attorneys argued she had been battered throughout the marriage by her husband, she was found guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Reminiscing on this case last week, Assistant Managing Editor Charles Owens and I recalled that Cline, when arrested, was very blond — similar to Jodi Arias. But during her trial, she converted to brunette status — also like Arias.
• Kayla LaSala: What type of cold, heartless human stabs another 107 times? How about a 14-year-old girl angry at her father? Kayla LaSala was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of her father, Steven Michael LaSala, on Feb. 23, 2004, at his Country Girl Road residence near Bluefield. The teen later escaped police custody after she removed an electronic monitoring device from her ankle and super-glued it to a family cat.
The television show “America’s Most Wanted” joined in the nationwide manhunt for LaSala, who was later found in Florida with a man she met on the Internet.
Kayla LaSala was sentenced in April 2005 after being convicted of first-degree murder. She remains in the custody of the Department of Corrections and is expected to eligible for parole in 2018.
In many ways, trials are like theater, and the citizenry an eager, viewing public. The more horrible and heinous the crime, the more the public is intrigued.
Although it may sound macabre, most readers and viewers simply want the same ending as prosecutors, police and victims’ family members — justice.
Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at email@example.com. Follow her at @BDTPerry.