By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
After taking a moment to control himself and wiping back tears, a Mercer County man told a circuit court judge Thursday how he “just snapped” the day he strangled his wife.
Tracy Lee Atwell, 39, of Spanishburg, was arrested after the April 7, 2012 murder of his wife, 33-year-old Christine Atwell, and the abduction of his 8-year-old daughter, Porsche. The child was found safe after an extensive search by the West Virginia State Police, the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies.
Atwell appeared Thursday for a plea hearing before Mercer County Circuit Court Judge Derek Swope and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder with recommendation of mercy, and abduction of a child by a family member. Under first-degree murder with mercy, Atwell could be eligible for parole in 15 years. There is no guarantee that parole would be granted. He also faces a term of one to five years on the abduction charge.
Under the plea agreement, two charges of first-degree robbery will be dropped if Swope decides to accept Atwell’s plea.
A hearing date was scheduled for June 10. At that time Swope will determine whether to accept the plea agreement, and if he accepts the plea, whether the terms will run consecutively or concurrently.
Swope asked Atwell several times whether he understood the plea agreement’s terms and the consequences of pleading guilty. At one point, the judge had Atwell leave the courtroom with his attorneys, Derrick Lefler and Paul Cassell, to make sure he still wanted the plea agreement. Atwell said five minutes later he still planned to plead guilty.
The only way to be discharged from a life sentence is to die in prison, Swope said. Receiving a recommendation of mercy would not end the possibility of spending life in prison even if parole was granted.
“If you get parole and you violate it, you have do go back the rest of your life,” the judge said.
“Yes, sir,” Atwell replied.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Janet Williamson said the state would have shown at trial that on April 7, 2012, Tracy Atwell choked Christina Atwell to death. A report by the West Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office stated that the cause of death was “homicide by asphyxia due to manual strangulation.”
Fighting back tears, Atwell admitted to murdering his wife.
“I don’t deny I killed Christina,” he said, adding he “just snapped” and killed her “in a fit of rage” during an argument.
Atwell denied he murdered his wife to obtain a Social Security check.
“He said he wasn’t happy about her relationships with other men and was concerned about his daughter,” Williamson said later.
Tracy and Christine Atwell were still married in April 2012, but living at separate residences, Williamson said. Steps had been taken to obtain a divorce, but Williamson did not know how far the process had proceeded.
A trial would also have shown how Atwell went to his parents’ home on April 11, 2012, confessed to killing Christina Atwell and told his father he wanted to turn himself in, but wanted to see his daughter because he knew he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison. But on April 12, he robbed his parents at gunpoint, tied them up, and took $100 before taking their Jeep and fleeing with his daughter, Williamson said. Christina Atwell’s body was later found at her home in Rock.
During the search, Atwell would cover the Jeep with tree branches whenever he heard a helicopter approach, Williamson said. Porsche pleaded to be taken home. Atwell was arrested at Nubbins Ridge.
Swope ordered a pre-sentencing investigation. After signing the necessary plea documents, Atwell was escorted in handcuffs and shackles from the courtroom. He is incarcerated at the Southern Regional Jail in Beaver.