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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hearing closed

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Wertz accused of killing two Sharp County residents

FIRST APPEARANCE: Steven Victor Wertz, middle, sits between defense attorney Andy Ballard, right, and special state prosecutor Jack McQuary before Wertz' first appearance hearing began June 15 before District Court Judge Mark Johnson. Johnson later declared the hearing closed and ordered media escorted out of the room. Photo/Wulff

Shackled at his wrists and ankles, Steven Wertz slowly stepped out of a van filled with criminal suspects and into his new temporary home ---- the Sharp County Jail ---- June 14.

Wertz, 56, clad in a pair of brown loafers, khaki pants and a short-sleeved plaid button-up shirt, looked anything other than a man facing two capital murder charges.

After staying his first night in his new home, Wertz, wearing a jail-issued orange shirt, pants and sandals, had his first appearance before District Court Judge Mark Johnson June 15 in an interview room in the sheriff's office.

Johnson, who was sitting in for Circuit Judge Harold Erwin, ordered Wertz be held without bond but not before he ordered that all press be barred from the hearing.

Andy Ballard of Little Rock, who represented Wertz in the absence of his attorney, Greg Bryant, also of Little Rock, asked Johnson to close the hearing after he noticed two reporters snapping photos of himself and Wertz.

Ballard said having the press in the hearing would give undue bias in the community and taint the potential jury pool. Special Prosecutor Jack McQuary said the judge had the right to exclude cameras from the hearing but not the press. But Johnson sided with Ballard.

"I feel it's a very important case," Johnson said, adding that he has read details of the case in a local newspaper. Johnson ordered the two reporters escorted out of the room.

Wertz will appear in court again June 28 with alleged accomplice and old friend James Guthrie Burr Snyder Jr.

Wertz and Snyder, 39, were arrested in early May for the December 1986 slayings of Terry and Kathy Watts in Ash Flat. Both are charged with two counts of capital murder, although Wertz is believed to be the trigger man.

Snyder, who allegedly confessed to the double homicide during an interview in late April, waived extradition from Kentucky and was brought to Sharp County May 7. Wertz refused extradition from Florida. He was brought back after local authorities worked with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The state will seek the death penalty against both men, Jack McQuary.

Wertz, who was a reserve officer for the Guthrie, Okla., police department and worked at the Oklahoma National Guard, became a suspect immediately. He had married Terry Watt's ex-wife, Belinda, after she and Terry Watts divorced.

Terry Watts, 25, had been involved in a custody battle with Belinda Wertz over their daughter, Chasenda, 5. Watts was granted custody of his daughter Dec. 18, 1986, after a bitter court battle in Oklahoma.

Chasenda Watts was spending the Christmas holiday with her mother and Wertz in Oklahoma when her father and stepmother were found murdered in their home Dec. 31, by Kathy Watts' mother, Judy Bone, who had stopped by the home to take Terry Watts to work at Cherokee Frame Company.

The front door of the home had been kicked in and the front glass had been broken. Terry Watts was found naked in the living room floor and had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest. His throat had also been cut and a finger had been severed. The couple's 11-month-old son, Joshua, who turned 1 four days after the murders, was found sleeping next to his father in the living room. He was not harmed.

Kathy Watts, 22, was found naked in the floor of a bedroom in the home. She had sustained two gunshot wounds, one to the left thigh and one to the head. Both are believed to have been shot with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot.

Chasenda was scheduled to return to her father in Arkansas Jan. 2, 1987, but she remained in Oklahoma after the deaths. Steven and Belinda Wertz later divorced and Wertz moved to Florida about 15 years ago, Sharp County Sheriff Dale Weaver said. Belinda Wertz remarried. Chasenda is now grown and married, he said.

The Watts' son, Joshua, grew up with Bone. They moved away from the area shortly after the murders. They now reside in Missouri, Weaver said.

The case had remained open but cold for years, Weaver said. When he took office in 2003 he began working on the case again.

Police spoke to Snyder, who knew Wertz at the time from his involvement with the National Guard in Oklahoma, on April 25. At that time Snyder confessed to the crime, Detective Sgt. David Huffmaster said.

Snyder told police he had accompanied and assisted Wertz by providing the transport and getting Terry Watts to come to the door and then acting as a lookout after the initial shots had been fired, Huffmaster said. Synder also said he assisted in arranging the false alibi that Wertz provided when the two men returned to Oklahoma.

Huffmaster said the fact that the two men are from out of state is one of the reasons it has taken this long to get a warrant.

McQuary said charges weren't filed until recently because of a conflict of interest that existed with prosecutors from the area. One of the deputy prosecutors had worked with Terry Watts before his death, said McQuary, a deputy prosecutor in Benton for the 6th Judicial District, who accepted the case a year ago. He began working on the case diligently in the fall of 2005.

Belinda Wertz Stewart has not been charged in the case, McQuary said, adding that the investigation is ongoing.

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