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2 plead not guilty to murder charges

Thursday, July 6, 2006

The two men charged in the 1986 murders of Terry and Kathy Watts both pleaded not guilty to two counts of capital murder during a June 28 court appearance.

Steven Victor Wertz, 56, and James Guthrie Burr Snyder Jr., 39, appeared before District Court Judge Mark Johnson, who was sitting in for Circuit Judge Harold Erwin during the two arraignments.

Johnson granted a continuance requested by the defense attorneys setting the trial date for both men during the January 2007 court term. Wertz and Snyder will be tried separately. The state will seek the death penalty against both men, said special prosecutor Jack McQuary.

The defense attorneys, Greg Bryant of Little Rock, representing Wertz, and Scott Stalker of Batesville and L. Gray Dillinger of Melbourne both representing Snyder, also asked that the judge not allow audio or video equipment in the courtroom during the arraignments. Johnson ruled in their favor.

Johnson, who sat in for Erwin June 15, also closed Wertz's first appearance to the press at the request of Andy Ballard who was filling in for Bryant.

Ballard said allowing the press in the hearing could create undue bias in the community and taint the potential jury pool.

Wertz and Snyder, 39, were arrested in early May for the Watts slayings in Ash Flat.

Snyder allegedly confessed to the double homicide during an interview in late April. He 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 were fired, according to authorities. He also said he assisted in arranging the false alibi Wertz provided when the two men returned to Oklahoma, investigators said.

Snyder waived extradition from Kentucky and was returned to Sharp County May 7. Wertz, the alleged triggerman, refused extradition from Florida. He was returned June 14 after Florida Gov. Jeb Bush intervened.

At the time of the murders Wertz, a former police officer and former member of the Oklahoma National Guard, was married to Terry Watts' ex-wife, Belinda, who had been embroiled in a bitter child custody battle with her ex-husband over their daughter, Chasenda. Watts was granted custody of his 5-year-old daughter Dec. 18, 1986.

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.

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. Kathy Watts, 22, was found naked on 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.

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. He was reared by his grandmother.

Steven and Belinda Wertz later divorced and Wertz moved to Florida about 15 years ago.

Belinda Wertz Stewart has not been charged in the case.

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