The death penalty trial of Cobey Wade Lakemper began Thursday afternoon and emotions ran high, with tears shed on both sides of the case.
"You will be shown today, and for the next several days, the path of destruction Cobey Wade Lakemper left behind," began Newton County District Attorney Layla Zon. "You will hear about the lives he took... And when Mr. Lakemper was finally captured in Tennessee, he had no remorse and no regret for the deliberate and intentional actions he took."
Lakemper is standing trial for the August 2005 robbery and shooting of hotel clerk Wendy Cartledge-Carter, part of a crime spree that began in July of that year that stretched from Missouri to Tennessee. Zon alleged that the whole thing was a game for Lakemper and that he taunted law enforcement officers
"The defendant killed Wendy Carter and the evidence in this case is going to show that he shot her on Aug. 18, 2005, on her birthday," she said.
As Zon presented her opening statement to jurors, Cartledge-Carter's family members cried openly.
According to Zon, Lakemper checked into the Comfort Inn on Industrial Boulevard on Aug. 17, 2005, and paid in cash for one night, allowing the clerk to make a copy of his driver's license. Around 7 p.m. he came back into the lobby and hit on several women, making them uncomfortable, before heading back to Room 114. Around 2:30 a.m. he came back to the lobby and Cartledge-Carter allowed him into the locked lobby to use the Internet. At some point, she went out to smoke, and he came out after her, asked for a cigarette and the two smoked together and shared small talk.
The evidence reportedly showed that when they headed back into the hotel, Lakemper struck Cartledge-Carter in the head with a hard object. The two argued and she ran into the lobby office, blocking the door with her body; however there was a glass window and Lakemper allegedly shot her through the window with a 9 mm handgun.
"He demanded the money from the hotel register," said Zon. "Mrs. Carter pleaded with him; she told the defendant that she had children, she was married and the sole source of income for the family. That she was living with her mom and dad and taking care of them, too. She pleaded with him, saying ‘if I give you the money, will you not shoot me?' She gave him the money, and he shot her anyway."
The bullet cut through Cartledge-Carter's intestines and colon. She was able to call 911 as Lakemper fled the scene, according to Zon. She also said that several feet of the victim's intestines were removed and that doctor's tried to patch her colon.
"She stayed alive for about 79 days," Zon told the jurors. "You will hear that on Nov. 4, 2005 Mrs. Carter succumbed to those injuries... It was not because she didn't have the will to live. Her body just couldn't heal from the injuries inflicted on it."
The jury also heard in Zon's opening statement that Lakemper allegedly shot and killed an elderly couple in North Carolina prior to Cartledge-Carter's shooting and that in July he broke into a home in Missouri, stealing a gun that was matched as the one used on both the elderly couple and Cartledge-Carter.
"He didn't really try to hide the fact that he was Cobey Lakemper," she said.
"Today is the beginning of a journey for justice," said Zon. "And justice in this case requires no other verdict than guilty on all counts."
Lakemper's defense attorney Joseph Vigneri spoke next, telling the jurors they shouldn't forget that Lakemper is a real person.
"Mr. Lakemper was and is a real person with a real life," he said, adding that his client was 28-years-old at the time of the slaying.
Vigneri told the jurors about Lakemper, naming his parents and sister, as well as his two small sons. According to Vigneri, Lakemper's parents divorced when he was small and that he has suffered from family violence, physical and emotional and alcohol abuse growing up, and had a history of battling substance abuse.
Arguing against Zon's claim that Lakemper showed no remorse for the crimes he allegedly committed, Vigneri said that after being arrested in Tennessee he attempted to hang himself.
"We agree that the evidence is going to point to Mr. Lakemper as the person who shot her," Vigneri said. "We're not going to dispute the actual physical facts of what happened there... We believe the evidence will show there was no malice of any kind, no intent to kill of any kind and no aforethought of any kind... In no way did Mrs. Carter deserve what happened to her."
Vigneri also said that she was shot in a place and a way that would "not seem it would kill her," and that she was left "very much alive."
Vigneri also hinted that Cartledge-Carter may have had a pre-existing medical condition(s) prior to being shot that could have contributed to her death. Additionally, he told jurors that evidence would show that Lakemper was suffering from various mental illnesses that impaired his judgment at the time of the shooting.
"These things are going to shine a light on how Cobey Lakemper came to be the person he was in July 2005," said Vigneri.
He told jurors that a breakup with Lakemper's live-in girlfriend, which resulted in her leaving and taking their small son, along with the deterioration of a stable home life he had built with them, and the loss of the potential for more custody of his elder son who lived with his ex-wife started the downward spiral that led to the shooting.
As Vigneri talked about Lakemper's small sons and the life he had with them, Lakemper wiped tears from his eyes and looked down at the defense table.
"When they left so did the stable family environment and so did his sobriety and so went the total collapse of Cobey Lakemper's world around him," said Vigneri.
"This was the collapse of his world and this downward spiral was what immediately proceeded...to this very point, where he is seated in the courtroom with his fate totally in your hands."
Testimony in the trial began with Zon calling the 911 operator who took Cartledge-Carter's call that came in at 2:35 a.m. Aug. 18.
During the tape of the 911 call, Cartledge-Carter can be heard screaming "I'm dying! Please help me!"
Throughout the call, she screams for help and pleads not to die. During this time one of her sons rushed from the courtroom in tears, and Cartledge-Carter's 80-year-old father William sat in the back, staring heavenward, his chin trembling with emotion. Both the dispatch operator, members of the jury and Lakemper could be seen wiping tears from their eyes as the tape played.
Cartledge-Carter's mother Betty took the stand next, telling jurors that her daughter called her that night as well; indeed she can be heard talking on one phone to her mother and on the other to the dispatch operator at points in the 911 tape.
"She called and said Mama, I've been shot. Send Daddy over to the motel," remembered Betty. "The next time I saw her she was at the hospital... She didn't ever come home from the hospital," she said, tearing up.
Covington Police Officer Paul Madsen, the first officer on the scene, explained how he cleared the area so that EMS could come and help the victim. He told jurors that he could see the bullet wound entrance on her right side and a quarter-sized place where the bullet was protruding just below her skin on her left hip. He also found out which room Lakemper was registered in and had an officer watch the door until more law enforcement arrived.
Tom Kunz, a lieutenant with the Newton County Sheriff's Office testified that when he arrived in the lobby EMS was working on Cartledge-Carter and that he saw a spilled glass of water on the floor along with a cordless phone with the battery separated from it.
"She was very distraught, very scared," he said of Cartledge-Carter. "I heard her say ‘please help me, don't let me die.'"
He was able to get the master key to all the rooms, which he said he gave to his senior deputy, and he found a piece of spent brass from a 9 mm bullet, which he marked with an ice tray from the hotel, two cigarette butts outside and a bottle of liquor on top of a file cabinet in the office. Vigneri questioned how he knew that the spilled liquid in the cup had been water and Kunz told him that it was clear and odorless. He also confirmed, after Vigneri asked, that Lakemper did not shoot the victim again after she begged him not to.
Tommy Thomason, also with the sheriff's office, said that he cleared and secured Lakemper's hotel room and noticed a small sheet of paper, which turned out to be a handwritten note, on the foot of the bed.
Cartledge-Carter's first cousin Sharon Hancock testified that the two were like best friends and that she was also employed at the hotel at that time and had offered to work for her cousin that night, since it was her birthday. She said that around 2:30 a.m., Cartledge-Carter called her and said that she had been robbed and shot and she immediately headed to the hotel.
"As she was being wheeled out, she reached out and touched my hand," sobbed Hancock. "I grabbed her hand, and she said, ‘I love you' and I told her that I loved her too."
She said that a few minutes later her phone rang and it was Cartledge-Carter calling from the ambulance and that she told her the "he told her that he promised he wouldn't shoot her if she gave him the money and he shot her anyway," said Hancock.
Another hotel clerk, Amanda Nix, told jurors that Lakemper had come into the lobby complaining about his key card not working, and as she fixed it, he asked her where to go in Covington to party and if she would come to his room later and told her she had beautiful eyes.
Nix told Vigneri that Lakemper appeared to have been drinking and had alcohol on his breath when he approached her.
"He didn't act like someone in their right state of mind," she said.
A man who was staying in the hotel testified that he stayed in the lobby because Nix appeared uncomfortable with Lakemper and that he followed Lakemper out and watched as he approached another woman. That woman testified that he had asked her if she knew where he could party then asked her if she wanted to come back to his room and "have a good time."
Testimony is scheduled to continue at 9 a.m. tomorrow in the courtroom of Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn.