Two capital murder suspects were spared the death penalty after both accepted negotiated court pleas in which they admitted their roles in the death of an Agnos man. As the verdicts were read four seats in the courtroom were filled with the victim's family, but none with the family members of the accused.
Inmate Bobby Woodrum, 19, accepted a plea of life in prison without parole Nov. 5 in Izard County Circuit Court. Bryan Shankle, 20, accepted a 40-year prison term at his court hearing Nov. 7. His charge was reduced to first-degree murder for his role in the death of Russell "Joe" Fisk of Agnos, who was found dead in his home June 24, 2002, with a leather belt wrapped around his neck.
Three different versions of what may have happened the night of the murder have emerged through the judicial process.
After Shankle was sentenced the victim's family read the following statement:
"We want you to know that we do not buy the lies you have told. You came to Joe's home in the afternoon. He was not home; his house was unlocked. At that time you could have taken anything you wanted and left. But you came back that night and brought a weapon with you and when you walked into his home where you had been welcomed before, you had the intent to kill him; an old disabled man.
"Your story is that there was an argument and he pulled a gun on you. We know better. If that was so, you would have had his gun and nothing else. But when they found you, you had his gun case with a broken lock. He kept it in the file cabinet and he always kept it locked. His key was on the keychain hanging by his door. You took the gun in its case and had to break it open to get his gun.
"Bobby had not done any yard work for Joe in over two years. Joe did not owe him money. You and Bobby came there and brutally murdered him and mangled his dead body.
"Joe was maybe the only person who believed in Bobby. One of the last things Joe said about him was 'He's not really such a bad boy.' So long as there is anyone in this family alive, we will be there to try to prevent any parole attempt on your part.
"Joe would not have wanted the death penalty for either of you. We are satisfied with the penalty of life in prison without parole that Bobby received. You deserve the same." Kelly Garner, Katy Knighten, Rita Wood and Megan Smith
Shankle's girlfriend, Ann Mead of Batesville, said Shankle told her he did not do the killing. She said his sentence was too harsh. "I will stand by him and write him. I will still be his friend," she said.
After Shankle signed his negotiated plea his attorney, Larry Kissee, said, "He will tell something of a different story then what has been told before."
And he did. In a brief interview with The News Shankle gave the following account of what happened the night of the murder:
Two other friends, Jesse Petty, 21, and Billy Jack Wilson, 27, waited in a car down the road from the victim's residence while Woodrum and Shankle visited with Fisk at his home the night of the murder. Timothy "T.J." Est, 20, went with Shankle and Woodrum but he waited outside.
They asked Fisk if they could borrow a tire iron, he said. The intent was to rob some vending machines with the tire iron.
Petty, Est and Wilson became impatient and walked inside the house, Shankle said. "He (Fisk) always told us not to bring anyone over that he didn't know," Shankle said. Fisk then grabbed his gun, so Shankle grabbed Fisk's arm to keep him from shooting anyone and they both fell on the ground -- that is when the situation got out of control, said Shankle.
He said Petty and Est jumped on the victim's back and Wilson jumped on his legs to hold him down. Shankle said he tried to get the gun away from Fisk. Est and Petty put the belt around Fisk's neck, he continued.
Shankle said Est told Woodrum to hit Fisk with the tire iron and he did several times before they all fled.
Woodrum's attorney, William "Bill" James Jr. of Little Rock, said, "He (Woodrum) admitted to his conduct and accepted his punishment like a man."
James said that during the court hearing Woodrum apologized to the victim's family. Woodrum had been friends with the deceased and his family for years, James added.
James said he thinks circumstances occurred the night of the homicide that the public will never know.
16th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Don McSpadden offered Woodrum the same plea agreement earlier this year but the offer was taken off the table after Woodrum, Shankle and another inmate escaped from the Independence County jail May 19.
Two weeks ago prosecutors came back to the table and offered Woodrum the deal once again and this time he accepted it to avoid the death penalty, James said.
McSpadden said Woodrum was given until Nov. 7 to make his decision.
Before Woodrum accepted the plea it was agreed the hearing would be held immediately because he wanted to be transferred from the Independence County Detention Center, James said.
With the additional charges of kidnapping, fleeing and escape, Woodrum could have ended up serving a life sentence for those charges, so facing the death penalty on the murder charge was not a good risk, James added.
He also accepted a negotiated plea of five years on the charge of escape, 20 years on the charge of kidnapping, three years for breaking and entering and 10 years on the two charges of theft of property, all to run concurrently.
He was sent to the Diagnostic Unit at the Arkansas Department of Correction in Pine Bluff for further evaluation. He will be transferred to another facility after 30 days.
McSpadden said if the governor commutes Woodrum's life sentence then future parole boards would take all the charges into consideration before his release. "It would put heat on the governor and parole board," he said.
James said his client admitted he caused most of the injury to the victim. Even though his client played a major role in Fisk's death, James said he questions who the actual ring leader was.
"It's a tragic situation on either side. Certainly regrets go out to the family, but Bobby's family is also hurt -- they lost him," he said.
James said he hopes his client can find some new meaning to his life. "I hate to see a 19-year-old go like this, but it beats the death penalty," he said.
Shankle also received an additional 20-year prison term for escape, kidnapping, breaking or entering, two counts of theft of property and second-degree battery charges. He will be eligible for parole in about 28 years, Kissee said.
He too will be transferred to the Diagnostic Unit at the Arkansas Department of Correction for evaluation and then transferred to another facility.
"Given the circumstances and all the charges he was facing and his exposure to over 200 years on all the charges, to get it down to a set term of years where he has a chance to parole out, it was a pretty good plea," Kissee said.
Kissee said he thinks the issue of Shankle's mental retardation may have influenced the state to make the offer. He said two independent psychologists were hired to evaluate his client but they concluded he was not mentally retarded by legal definition. He said they determined he was on the low end of the intelligence range.
The two remaining suspects in the case, Petty and Est, still await trial dates. A motion to decline prosecution was filed March 3, 2003, for the fifth suspect in the case, Billy Jack Wilson, after he agreed to testify on the state's behalf.
Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dwayne Plumlee said Est and Petty's cases are pending because the state wanted to dispose of the capital murder cases first.
McSpadden said that Est and Petty's roles were minor in the homicide case, but Kissee disagreed, saying his client indicated the two played a major role in Fisk's death.
Petty was arrested again on Dec. 30, 2002, on drug charges and faces additional charges of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to deliver.
The official version of what occurred June 24, 2002, according to court affidavits, follows: The five men (Woodrum, Shankle, Petty, Est and Wilson) had been to the Fisk residence the night of the murder. A witness said Woodrum and Shankle entered the home and argued with Fisk about money that Fisk owed Woodrum for some lawn work.
The witness reported that Woodrum told her he had struck Fisk in the face with his fist, causing Fisk to fall and strike his head on a cabinet. Woodrum told her the men fled the residence, not knowing whether Fisk was alive or dead.
The forensic report said the victim's death was a result of a broken neck, broken back and head trauma which included something being inserted into the victim's brain and twisted.
Shankle and Woodrum were arrested three days after the murder at Boggy Landing near Elizabeth by the Arkansas State Police SWAT team.
Petty, Wilson and Est were arrested June 28, 2002, in Independence County.
Woodrum and Shankle escaped from the Fulton County jail March 23. The pair handcuffed a jailer, Rhonda Long, to a chair, broke into the evidence room and stole guns and ammunition. They took Long's vehicle keys and fled, but were apprehended in Missouri eight hours later.
Texas County Prosecuting Attorney Mike Anderson said his office hasn't determined if the Missouri charges will be dropped. He said he will be contacting victims to see if they want to proceed. "The likelihood is slim," he added.
After their capture they were transported to Independence County Detention Center, but escaped a second time, May 19, 2003.
Woodrum and Shankle escaped after they overpowered a jailer then started punching buttons in the central control area until the electronic doors opened. They were caught eight days after their second escape.
McSpadden said, "I think it was a fair plea under the circumstances. The family was satisfied rather than go through a trial."
For an in-depth interview of Bryan Shankle see this week's copy of The News.