A hearing will be conducted in Warren County Superior Court at 1 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 25, to determine whether Lester Henry Kearney, 35, of Littleton, will be tried here or at a courthouse outside the county. The hearing was scheduled as Kearney appeared before Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. on Nov. 13 for pre-trial motions.
Investigator Mike Grissom, who said he was working on behalf of Kearney’s attorney, Thomas Sallenger of Wilson, was in Warren County on Monday asking local citizens to complete a questionnaire related to the case. Questions asked included how long respondents had lived in Warren County, if and how they had heard about the case, and whether or not they had formed an opinion as to the guilt or innocence of the unnamed defendant charged with murder.
Kearney and co-defendant Kevin Burton Munn, 32, of Warrenton, face charges that include first-degree murder in connection with a deadly home invasion and fire at the Lake Gaston home of John and Nancy Alford in 2018.
Kearney and Munn are accused of breaking into the Alfords’ Wildwood Point Subdivision home on March 9, 2018. According to law enforcement reports, Mrs. Alford was kidnapped by one of the men and forced to withdraw money from a bank before driving the suspect back to her home. There, the couple were beaten and bound, and left to die after their home was set on fire. Mrs. Alford died at the scene. Her husband managed to escape and was hospitalized.
Last week, Kearney’s attorneys, Sallenger and Larry Norman of Louisburg, expressed concerns that many people in Warren, Vance and Franklin counties may be familiar with circumstances related to the case.
Hight also heard concerns related to the selection of jurors for the case. The judge noted that in similar cases in the past, a large jury pool of around 500 people was selected and then divided into panels of 12 to be assessed by prosecutors and defense attorneys. If the trial was moved, jurors were brought in to that location.
After some discussion, the defense attorneys and District Attorney Mike Waters agreed to develop a questionnaire for prospective jurors. After completing the questionnaire, prospective jurors would be brought before attorneys for both sides one by one for questioning.
Sallenger presented a total of 69 pre-trial motions during the Nov. 13 court setting.
At the start of the proceedings, Kearney asked for new attorneys, citing problems with communications and not being able to see all evidence.
As he described how many times he met with Kearney and time invested in the case, Sallenger suggested that he is ready to prove his client’s innocence in court.
“He has told me he is innocent, that there is no evidence to prove his guilt,” Sallenger said. “I agree. (Evidence) suggests someone else did these horrendous things.”
Hight denied Kearney’s request to change attorneys, saying it appeared that Sallenger and Norman had been working diligently on the case, and that they had communicated with him at an extent beyond what other attorneys might do.
While Kearney did not take the witness stand during last week’s proceedings, Hight granted multiple requests that he be allowed to address the court. Kearney repeatedly stated his innocence, saying that his vehicle was stuck in a ditch at the time of the incident, and he used his cellphone to call for help.
He requested access to communications-related evidence, such as text messages and Kevin Munn’s cellphones, saying that such records would prove his innocence.
“The co-defendant, whom I barely know, has said that we communicated through text messages,” Kearney said. “… I do know that I am innocent. I have sat in jail for one year and eight months for no reason.”
He added that, at the time of his arrest, Kearney gave his cellphone to law enforcement, telling them to look at photographs of his car in the ditch, saying they would prove that he could not have been in Littleton at the time that the Alfords were attacked.
Hight denied a defense motion for pre-trial release and bond reduction, as well as a motion for Kearney to be transferred from Central Prison in Raleigh to Franklin County to make it easier for Sallenger and Norman to meet with him.
Hight on Thursday afternoon continued proceedings until Tuesday, Nov. 26, regarding a request made by Munn to withdraw a previous guilty plea in connection with the death of Nancy Alford. The case will be heard beginning at 11 a.m. in Warren County Superior Court.
In April 2018, Munn pled guilty to first-degree murder in connection with the death of Mrs. Alford in 2018 and of Vance County businessman Tommy Ellington in 2017. Munn made the guilty plea in exchange for serving a life sentence instead of facing the death penalty, and testifying in other matters related to the case.
On Oct. 23 of this year, Munn’s attorney, Mary Darrow of Raleigh, asked Hight to allow Munn to withdraw his previous guilty plea on the grounds that he felt pressured by his previous attorney, Boyd Sturges of Louisburg, to make a guilty plea in order to avoid the death penalty and did not fully understand the court process. At the time he continued the case, Hight advised Munn to review the evidence against him and seriously consider whether he wanted to withdraw his plea.
On Thursday morning, Darrow told Hight that after meeting with Munn twice since the Oct. 23 hearing, Munn wished to move forward with his request to withdraw his plea.
Munn took the witness stand, testifying that he met with Sturges only twice before making his plea. Munn added that Kearney had threatened his life as well as the lives of his family and showed up on his property more than once.
Munn said that on the day that he entered his guilty plea, he told Sturges that he did not want to plead guilty and wanted a different attorney. However, Munn’s mother was present, and Sturges expressed concern that Munn would be sentenced to the death penalty.
Under cross-examination by the district attorney, Munn gave testimony that refuted statements related to the Alford case that Kearney made in court the previous day, when he said he did not know Munn, and related to some of his own previous statements.
Munn said that Kearney told him that he broke into the Alfords’ home after being told that there were a lot of guns inside the residence, and, after finding little money there, left and returned to the home with a gas can and set it on fire. Munn said that Kearney brought him Mrs. Alford’s car and told him to get rid of it. Munn said that he drove the car to the mountains and, after finding out that a “chop shop” he previously used was no longer open, bought some gas and called a friend identified as “T.J.” to pick him up. Munn said that T.J. arrived with Munn’s sister, Kristina Saferite, and, about that time, set Mrs. Alford’s car on fire. Munn testified that he never told T.J. and his sister why he asked for a ride.
According to law enforcement reports after Munn and Kearney were arrested, Mrs. Alford’s 2011 Mercedes Benz was found abandoned and burned in Haywood County.
“I knew if Lester got caught with that car, he would hurt my family,” Munn said.
Munn described a time that Kearney asked if he would go with him to the Alfords’ home because he heard there were guns there.
“I said ‘no,’” Munn said.
Darrow called Sturges to the witness stand, where Sturges testified that he met with Munn six times, not two as Munn had stated, for a total of nine hours. Sturges said that after reviewing available evidence, including Munn’s statements to the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation and DNA evidence, he advised Munn to accept a plea agreement because he felt that the state had enough evidence that jurors in Warren or Vance counties could find him guilty, and expressed concern that the state would be able to build a better case. Sturges added that a private investigator was not able to confirm the alibi that Munn had presented. Sturges noted that Munn made the guilty plea of his own free will.
Munn noted in his testimony that his work brought him to the site of Mrs. Alford’s office and to the grounds of the Alford home. However, Munn maintained his innocence in both the Alford and Ellington cases.
For the remainder of Thursday’s court session, much of the testimony focused on the Ellington case.
In connection with the Ellington case, Munn testified that he tried to break into Tommy Ellington’s home in September 2017, but found that he could not enter through the front door, living room or kitchen. He said that after finding a door where he could enter, he searched several rooms and articles, including a pair of Mr. Ellington’s pants. When he was about to go through a jewelry box, Mrs. Ellington approached him with a gun. Munn testified that he said that he was sorry and left the house. He admitted that Mrs. Ellington had the right to shoot him, but showed mercy.
In response to statements that his DNA was found on Ellington’s pants pocket at the time of his death in October, Munn replied that the DNA was there due to the break-in.
SBI agent Lynn Gay testified about the process of investigating the Ellington and Alford cases and his role in supervising the investigating agents. He said that, when the SBI was investigating the Ellington case, Mr. Ellington was found outside his home with a pants pocket sticking out, something that Gay described as being unusual.
Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey played a video recording of Munn being interviewed by a number of law enforcement officers. Munn was shown testifying that Kearney asked him for information about the location of Ellington’s house because he had been told that a number of guns were there. Munn told law enforcement that, while it was still dark one morning, Munn and Kearney met at a Henderson location with the understanding that Kearney would follow Munn to Ellington’s house and would tap his brakes twice at the driveway. Munn said that he followed Kearney’s instructions and that when the two men pulled their cars beside each other further down the road, Kearney told Munn that he did not need any more help from him. Munn said that he drove home.
He told law enforcement officers repeatedly that he did not remember every detail related to what happened due to drug use over the years. Munn stated his innocence in both the Alford and Ellington cases.
“I don’t kill people. I don’t hurt people,” he said. “My father had shotguns under lock and key. I never owned a shotgun.”
Following the video, which lasted nearly two hours, Pelfrey presented Hight with a video of Munn meeting with law enforcement about the Alford case.
At Munn’s request, Darrow presented Hight with videos of law enforcement interviews with Munn on the day of his arrest, and Burges’ interview with Munn on the day that Munn gave his plea.
Hight said that he would review the videos outside the court session.
Due to next weeks early holiday print schedule, updates on the Alford case motions will be published on our website and Facebook page as they become available.