CONCORD, N.C. -- You might think if a gunman, already convicted of violent felonies, shot a teenager on a public street that police would charge the gunman with a felony. After all, the mere possession of a firearm by a felon in the commission of a crime is itself a felony. So is shooting into an occupied vehicle.
But the NewsChannel 36 I-Team has unearthed the case of a Cabarrus County man who shot a teenager in his own car on a public street and Concord Police only charged the gunman with a misdemeanor. Less than six months later, the same violent felon barricaded himself in a house in Concord after witnesses say he gunned down his ex-girlfriend and a disabled neighbor, killing both.
The sequence of events leads family members to ask whether police and prosecutors could have prevented the murders by charging the gunman with a felony and increasing the likelihood that he would have been locked up and unable to commit the murders.
On October 3, 2008 on Highland Street in Concord, two women were shot to death: Melissa Jones and Joyce Willard. After a standoff, police arrested Christopher Willard, Jones’ ex-boyfriend. Neighbors and family members say Willard had repeatedly threatened and attacked Jones. When she finally left him, witnesses told police that Willard walked up Highland Street with a 9 millimeter handgun and began shooting.
The day after the shooting, Ms. Fink’s husband Boyce Fink pointed to the bullet holes in his walls and the siding of his home.
“He got to about right here and he opened up on her,” Fink said at the time.
Witnesses say Chris Willard shot the dog—a Chihuahua mix named Buffie—shot Melissa Jones and shot Joyce Fink, who was partially paralyzed from a stroke and could not run.
“My wife – disabled setting in the chair right there – that’s cold blooded murder,” Fink told a NewsChannel 36 reporter at the time.
More than three years later, Chris Willard is set for trial in early 2012. But several witnesses now tell the I-Team they believe the murders could have been prevented.
Patti Abernethy looked up when she heard “Highland Street” and “shooting” mentioned on a television newscast that day in October of 2008. She saw a mugshot of Chris Willard. The same Chris Willard had shot her son, Kenneth Christian “K.C.” Abernethy less than six months before.
The Abernethys say they had repeatedly tried to get Concord Police to lock Willard up.
“Couldn’t get any explanation out of them,” said Patti.
K.C. Abernethy doesn’t claim to be entirely innocent. He later pled guilty to breaking into a car that night. K.C. and a buddy, Matthew Allen Corbin, had taken a gas can valued at $12 and were rifling through unlocked cars the night of April 15, 2008. That’s when Willard confronted him with a .38 caliber pistol. Abernethy says his friend bolted; he backed up to the street.
“He got close enough to me where like he had the gun pointed straight at my head and I can’t remember exactly what he said to me but as he was saying it he was hitting the gun on the top of my head,” K.C. said.
K.C. says he retreated to his Jeep Cherokee parked up the street and peeled out.
“I just heard the sound of something really loud hitting really hard on the side of the door and then pressure on my leg,” said Abernethy. He pulled around the corner to a Circle K convenience store and called for someone to get an ambulance. Court records show Concord Police Detective K.C. Berg charged Willard with “Assault with a Deadly Weapon” which in this case was a semiautomatic handgun and a misdemeanor offense.
No one disputes that Chris Willard shot K.C. Abernethy through the driver’s side door of his Jeep. And no one disputes that Willard had a felony record years earlier for shooting into an occupied building in Lexington.
But Concord Police and Cabarrus prosecutors either didn’t know or care about that felony record until they arrested Willard again – less than six months later – for the murder of the two women. Only then, court records show, did they charge Willard with a felony for shooting K.C. Abernethy. And by then the two women were dead.
“He could have been in jail and them two women would still be alive today,” said K.C. Abernethy.
But instead Chris Willard did not even have to post bond after the April shooting. Court records show he signed a written “promise to appear” in court. And he walked free. The case was continued until June 10, and continued until August 11, and continued until October 28, and so it was pending on October 3 when Melissa Jones and Boyce Fink were murdered.
“There just ain’t no justice in the Cabarrus County Jail,” said Tony Wayne Jones, the father of Melissa Jones. “You know Chris, he was a big bully,” said Jones. “He threatened her all the time, beat her and mistreated her….My daughter, she told me, said ‘Daddy, if I ever leave him he told me he’ll kill me.’”
Jones and other family members can’t help but think what would have happened if Concord Police or Cabarrus County prosecutors had charged Chris Willard with a felony in the April shooting.
“I feel that my little girl would still be here if they would have done their job,” said Jones.
“I don’t think that’s a true statement because we can’t look in a crystal ball and maintain what bond a magistrate would have set,” Cabarrus County District Attorney Roxann Vaneekhoven responded. “We can all stand back two to three years later and play armchair quarterback….The DA’s office does not determine or review misdemeanor cases before they are charged.”
Concord Police Captain Doug Wilhelm responded to the I-Team’s questions by saying, “I’m not going to discuss what was done because the case is pending.” Capt. Wilhelm said the DA’s office asked police not to speak about the earlier shooting.
For stealing a gas can valued at $12 and for rifling through two unlocked cars, Concord Police charged K.C. Abernethy with one misdemeanor larceny and two counts of breaking and entering motor vehicles, which are felonies. Abernethy pled guilty to one of the felony counts and served less than a year in prison after a probation violation for having knives in his room.
Prosecutors secured felony indictments against Willard for “Possession of a Firearm by a Felon” and “Discharging a Firearm into Occupied Property” for shooting K.C. Abernethy, but not until October 27, three weeks after Melissa Jones and Joyce Fink were shot down. Willard was by then facing bigger charges—murder.
“There’s something wrong somewhere,” Jones said.