It was planned to look like a suicide.
But even in the best-laid plans, evidence is left behind…
Jocelyn Branham Earnest was found dead on the floor of her living room in Forest, Virginia. By her side was a gun and a suicide note—typed, lacking a signature, and with one fingerprint on it. A fingerprint apparently belonging to Jocelyn’s estranged husband…
Wesley Earnest was a respected high school administrator, poised to restart his life in a new community. Parents entrusted their children to his care and believed he was above reproach. But the investigation into the life the couple once shared would reveal adultery, troubled finances, and shattered dreams—enough for one man with murder on his mind to travel hundreds of miles…
Under Cover of the Night
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.20(w) x 7.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
Dan John Miller has earned multiple Audie Award nominations, winning for The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman; has twice been named a Best Voice by AudioFile magazine; and has received several AudioFile Earphones Awards.
Read an Excerpt
Marcy Shepherd often took two weeks off from her job in the human resources department of Genworth Financial around Christmas, to spend time with her children and finish up her holiday preparations, and 2007 was no exception. On Sunday, December 16, 2007, the perky blonde went shopping with her friend and co-worker Jocelyn Earnest, and they made plans to get together again on the evening of Wednesday, December 19. Text messages bounced between the women throughout the day that Wednesday as Marcy ran errands, even briefly stopping at the Genworth offices to deliver popcorn that co-workers had purchased from her son’s Cub Scout troop.
At home that evening, Marcy sat down with her eight-year-old son to watch SpongeBob SquarePants. Just before seven thirty, she received a text from Jocelyn asking if she was there. Marcy responded, “Y.” When she didn’t hear back from Jocelyn, Marcy sent another message spelling out her answer more clearly, “Yes, I’m here.” Still no reply from Jocelyn, which was unusual since she had answered every other text that day promptly. Marcy knew a momentary pause could have a lot of innocent explanations: another phone call, taking a shower, a temporary separation from her cell phone, whatever. At first, it was not cause for alarm.
When the television show ended, Marcy went upstairs with her son, made sure he brushed his teeth, read a story to him, and tucked him in for the night at eight thirty. She sent an email asking Jocelyn if her text messaging was not working. Jocelyn still remained silent.
Ten minutes later, Marcy left her son with her husband and drove to CVS, still waiting to hear from Jocelyn—still expecting they would meet up that night. She sent another message to Jocelyn while she was in the store, before completing her purchases and leaving at 9:08 P.M.
Marcy was beginning to think that she might not see Jocelyn that evening after all. She had Jocelyn’s Christmas present—an enormous box of festive outdoor holiday lights wrapped in gold Santa Claus paper—in her car, however, and not wanting to take the package home for fear its size would stir up her children’s heightened state of holiday excitability, Marcy decided to drop it off at the office instead.
She drove fifteen minutes to the downtown Genworth Financial offices and used her key card to gain access to the building after hours. The security system recorded her walking through that door at 9:24 P.M. and taking the elevator to the first floor. She placed Jocelyn’s gift on her desk and then returned to her car, checking out at 9:28.
Still not having heard from Jocelyn was making Marcy anxious. She realized that she could be indulging a senseless agitation, but she could not quiet her escalating fears that something might be wrong. It took a quarter of an hour to drive out to her friend’s house, which was situated in a quiet, serene neighborhood in Forest, Virginia, part of scenic Bedford County, nestled up against the Blue Ridge Mountains.
When she arrived, Marcy saw Jocelyn’s green Honda parked in the driveway, but while the outside light was lit, only a single low-wattage light burned inside the white-clapboard bungalow with silver metal roof. Had Jocelyn gone out in someone else’s vehicle? If so, why hadn’t she called or texted about her change of plans? Had she accidentally left her phone behind? Had she fallen asleep? Maybe turned off her cell?
Marcy had planned to just drive by the house without stopping, but instead she turned around in the next driveway and drove back to her friend’s home. She parked and walked up the curved sidewalk to the quiet house and knocked on the front door. There was no response, and no sounds seeped from inside.
Still unsettled, Marcy returned home at a little before ten o’clock. She texted Jocelyn that she was worried and asked her to call. Marcy had difficulty getting to sleep but finally reassured herself that she’d surely get a simple explanation the next morning. Jocelyn would explain what had happened, and they’d laugh about Marcy’s unwarranted concern.
The next morning, Marcy rose a little bit after seven and at a quarter past the hour sent Jocelyn another text message. When she still didn’t get a response, Marcy set her phone to send her an alert when Jocelyn logged in to the instant messaging system at Genworth. That way, she would know right away that her friend was safely at work.
When by 10 A.M. she had not received any alerts, Marcy called someone who worked for Jocelyn and was told, “We’re expecting her but we haven’t seen her.”
Something was wrong. As long as Marcy had known her, Jocelyn was always one of the first people at her desk. At 11:30, Marcy again made the drive to Jocelyn’s home, in escalating anxiety.
Jocelyn’s car was still parked in the same spot. Just as the night before, only one weak light glowed beyond the windows. The temperature had risen a bit from the morning’s low of twenty-four degrees, but with the light breeze, it was still cool enough to make Marcy shiver on the way up the sidewalk.
Once again, she knocked on the front door. When she got no answer, she balled up her fists and pounded on it as hard as she could, desperate to capture her friend’s attention. The possibility of calamity roared in Marcy’s ears. Was Jocelyn sick? Injured? An innocent explanation (could Jocelyn have gone to bed early, turned off her phone, and overslept?) seemed less and less likely.
Marcy moved around the exterior of the home; coverings on all the windows prevented her from seeing the interior, but she knocked on each one. Still no sound from inside. She called a mutual friend and co-worker, Maysa Munsey, hoping she had answers. But Maysa did not know where Jocelyn was, either—and she, too, was worried.
Maysa knew the code to the home’s alarm system, and Marcy knew where to find the keypad—if only she could get inside. Then Marcy remembered Jocelyn telling her about a spare key she kept in the shed, inside the six-foot fence that surrounded the swimming pool area. Marcy went over to the gate, surprised to find it unlocked when she tugged on the handle.
Still on the phone with Maysa, Marcy located the spare key inside the outbuilding and ran back to the front door. But it didn’t work. She tried again and again, thinking that it was just her anxiety making the simple task difficult. Finally, she gave up and dashed around the house to try the back door instead.
When the door, which opened to the kitchen, swung open, it brought with it a blast of heat, enough to fog up Marcy’s eyeglasses and momentarily obscure her vision. She called out, “Jocelyn! Jocelyn, where are you?” Then she tilted her head back to peer under her lenses and gasped. She could see Jocelyn lying still on the floor.
“Maysa, call 9-1-1 right now!” Marcy cried. She disconnected from Maysa and punched 9-1-1 into her own cell phone as well.
The 9-1-1 operators asked her to check for a pulse and try CPR.
Marcy felt her hands trembling with panic as she walked across the living room, still on the phone with 9-1-1. As the fog faded, her vision improved, allowing her to see her friend clearly. Her fears morphed into visceral horror. Jocelyn was dressed as if she just walked in the door in a pair of jeans, a sweater, and her winter coat, but she was lying flat on her back on the floor. Her legs stuck straight out. She appeared stiff and unnatural.
Marcy didn’t want to believe what she was seeing. Maybe Jocelyn just bumped her head, her heart insisted. But logic kicked back into gear when Marcy saw the pool of dark red surrounding Jocelyn’s head, mottling the blue carpet with dark, streaky stains trailing across the floor.
The blood puddle was predominately to Jocelyn’s right, so Marcy stepped to the left of the body and kneeled down. That was when she saw the firearm. “There’s a gun,” she said. She moved away from it, kneeling on her friend’s other side. She placed her fingers on Jocelyn’s throat. It was stiff. It was cold. And nothing beat beneath her skin.
Marcy got a close look at her friend. Her lips were blue. Her fingernails were blue. Blood stains ran in multiple directions on her face, forming a strange hatch pattern. At the operator’s request, she reached down and touched Jocelyn’s left wrist. Nothing.
The 9-1-1 operator told Marcy to see if Jocelyn was breathing by placing her hand on the stomach area. Marcy slipped her hand in between Jocelyn’s sweater and the shirt beneath, desperate to feel the up-and-down movement of respiration, but it wasn’t there. Marcy’s heart pounded, her mouth dry. She wanted to breathe life back into her friend, but she knew it was far too late. Jocelyn was obviously past the point where CPR would be of any use.
As Marcy stood there, shaking with grief and horror, she thought about all the times that Jocelyn had expressed fear that her life would end violently—the moments she had expressed her paranoid-sounding thoughts about her estranged husband, the many times Marcy observed Jocelyn gripping the armrest in a fear that she’d see Wesley as soon as they’d completed the last turn in the road approaching the house.
Marcy knew Maysa was on her way to the house and that Maysa would have her own children with her. She did not want them to arrive and walk right inside. Marcy opened the front door and stood there watching and waiting, then suddenly wondered about Jocelyn’s pets—her black Lab, Rufus, and her two cats. She left the doorway and went down the hall far enough to look into the master bedroom, where she was relieved to see Rufus safely in his kennel. Locating the cats would have to wait.
She hurried back to stand guard at the front door, the phone still connected to 9-1-1. Maysa Munsey, her long, wavy brown hair flying, arrived before any of the first responders. When she pulled up, Marcy shouted out, “Leave the kids in the car.”
The operator agreed, saying, “Don’t let them in the house. Don’t let them in the house.”
Marcy blocked the front door as Maysa joined her on the front porch. Wrapping her arms around Marcy, Maysa asked, “Are you certain she’s gone?”
Marcy nodded. The two women hugged and sobbed as they waited for the police cars to pull up. Deputy Jason Jones was the first to arrive at the home in the Pine Bluff subdivision. Speaking to Marcy and Maysa, he said, “Please remain here at the house until investigators arrive and talk to you.”
The two women left the porch and waited in the driveway. They felt helpless and out of place. Less than a week until Christmas, and instead of making holiday preparations and wishing “Happy Holidays” to friends, family, and co-workers, they stood together in the cold without a single merry thought. The very idea of Christmas spirit felt obscene on that dark winter’s day.
Bedford County deputies Jason Jones and Robbie Nash had been the first officers to arrive at the scene at 1482 Pine Bluff Drive on Thursday, December 20, 2007. The medic unit was right behind them, but Jones told them to wait outside until they cleared the residence. The two lawmen separated and searched the home, sweating from the heat in the house. Finding no one there except for a black dog in a kennel and two cats, Jones allowed the medics inside but warned them not to disturb the body or anything around it any more than necessary. After determining that Jocelyn Earnest had no vital signs, they gathered up their equipment and went back outside. Jones stayed in the room with Jocelyn’s body waiting for the arrival of an investigator.
• • •
Gary Babb, the sergeant in charge of investigations for the Bedford County Sheriff’s Department, had stopped by his home in the small city of Bedford for lunch when he received a call from the dispatcher requesting that he respond to a DOA in Forest, approximately twenty-two miles away. He grabbed the rest of his sandwich and went out the door.
He took Route 221 toward Lynchburg, then traveled down roads that twisted and turned under canopies of tall trees and past pastures of cows and fields lying fallow for winter until he reached the small suburban development where the body had been discovered.
A lot of civilians sat in cars or milled in the street in front of the house in question. As he walked from his car, they stared at him with expressions of naked longing that blended an unsustainable mixture of hope, hopelessness, and denial.
The outside of the house appeared ordinary enough with white vinyl siding and a large bay window, enhanced by a stunning stone chimney and foundation. A tall weathered wood fence surrounded the backyard. Uniformed officer Robbie Nash stood on the porch in front of the open front door, guarding the scene. Jones stepped out onto the porch upon the detective’s arrival, and the two deputies explained what they’d found inside of the home and the futile efforts of the rescue squad.
“Did you find a suicide note?” Detective Babb asked.
Both officers shook their heads and said, “No, sir.”
Stepping across the threshold, Babb noted that the deceased thirty-eight-year-old woman was five feet six inches tall, of medium build, with hazel eyes and light brown hair with dark blond highlights. She was lying on her back, wearing jeans, brown shoes, and a car coat. One step inside, he noticed that despite the open door and the winter air slipping through it, an uncomfortable heat filled the home. The smell of death and blood had dissipated to some degree, though, leaving only traces of the ominous odor.
Between the front door and the body, Babb spotted a sheet of paper facedown on the floor, appearing to be insignificant household clutter. But it bore four creases, as if it had once been folded into quarters, and that piqued the detective’s interest. He pulled on a pair of gloves and flipped the paper over. On the reverse side, he read:
Mom, I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve tried so hard to be strong but I just can’t continue. The ups and downs are too much to deal with. I keep trying to appear as though I am doing fine but the days are so overwhelming and lonely. My new love will never leave the family. Wes has buried us in debt and starting over is too much. I am so sorry mom. I am so sorry everyone.
Babb was immediately suspicious of the note. To begin with, it was typed and did not bear a signature—unusual for the last words of someone about to commit suicide. In addition, the tone of the message was more impersonal than other final messages he’d read in the past, and it raised more questions than it answered. Nevertheless, the note was not sufficiently unsettling to rule out the possibility that Jocelyn had taken her own life.
To avoid tracking through the pathway in the immediate vicinity of the victim, Babb walked through the kitchen and came around the other side to get a closer look at her. Leaning forward, he saw bloody streaks running across her face. A revolver lay on top of her coat—an unusual position for a suicide. Usually, the weapon ended up under the body. But again, Babb knew it was way too soon to reach any firm conclusions.
The detective moved down the hall where he found a thermostat. It had been pushed all the way to the highest setting, as far to the right as it could go. He continued on to the bedroom at the end of the hall and saw a cage containing a large black dog who wasn’t barking and didn’t appear distressed, but who panted heavily from the heat or lack of water or both.
A cabinet by the bed had a drawer that gaped open three or four inches. Beside it, an unopened condom package lay on the floor. On the bathroom floor, Babb found an empty wrapper for another one in the trash can.
Babb had not seen anything in the home that indicated the possibility of a forced entry.
He backed out of the house to obtain a search warrant. Once he’d gotten the paperwork moving, he went out to talk to the people who’d gathered outside.
The two women who’d found the body, Marcy Shepherd and Maysa Munsey, had telephoned other friends and co-workers while they waited. They wanted no one to learn of Jocelyn’s death from a reporter calling with questions. By now, many others who cared about Jocelyn had gathered in the driveway, wanting to deny the reality of her death and comforting one another in their time of loss.
Marcy’s eyes were red from crying, Maysa clung to her boyfriend, and both women seemed too upset to communicate well, so Babb first spoke with other friends of Jocelyn’s, Jennifer and Bob Kerns, a nurse and a public school administrator.
Jennifer provided the name and the West Virginia phone number for Laura Rogers, Jocelyn’s sister, for Babb to make the next-of-kin death notification call. Then she asked, “He finally killed her?”
“Who?” the investigator asked.
At Babb’s prodding, Jennifer explained that she suspected Jocelyn’s estranged husband, Wesley Earnest. He and Jocelyn had been married for twelve years but had been separated for the last two to three years, and were embroiled in an acrimonious divorce. Wesley was a PhD, Jennifer said, who lived on the other side of the state in Chesapeake, working as an assistant principal at a high school. Despite the distance, she claimed that he’d made an unexpected late-night visit to Jocelyn in the past.
The detective assured her, “We’ll find who did it.”
• • •
Jocelyn’s sister, Laura, was driving on the interstate when the call arrived, en route to pick up two birthday cakes for co-workers, but all thoughts of celebration fled her mind when detectives delivered the news. As soon as she heard about her sister’s death, she, too, immediately suspected Wesley, and warned the investigator, “You will not break him. He is narcissistic and has a borderline personality.”
Babb made his first attempt to call Wesley, but couldn’t reach him.
• • •
Like Detective Babb, Bedford County sheriff’s investigator Mike Mayhew had been on his lunch break when he got the call about a death scene on Pine Bluff Drive in Forest. He left his SWAT training exercise to report to the scene, and fellow investigator Ricky Baldwin pulled up right after him. The medics with the rescue squad were still there when they arrived, and Mayhew obtained their statements about what they observed and how they had gone through the assessment but found no signs of life in the victim and their resuscitation attempts were wooden steps in procedure.
When Mayhew walked through the door, he, too, was rocked by the high temperature. The smell of cat urine wafting from a litter box masked the odors of decomposition, blood, and gunpowder that he might otherwise have noticed. He looked to the right, where Jocelyn’s body lay, and saw what appeared to be an entry wound in her left temple and the gun on her right side. Something’s not right here, he immediately thought.
Mayhew was also concerned about the way she was dressed, with her keys just lying there. The victim looked as if she’d just come in, or was about to leave. Although her body didn’t appear posed, neither did he think it looked natural—it seemed to have been straightened, and he could tell her head had been moved at least three feet by the way her strands of hair appeared as if they were dragged through the blood and remained spread out on the carpet.
The investigators asked everyone on the scene if they had moved the body—none had. Mayhew did a walk-through of the house, snapping photos of each room from the perspective of three different corners. He kept his eyes open for evidence as he proceeded, pausing to collect and bag anything that seemed fragile. While doing so, he also sketched and took measurements of every room. Once the initial documentation was complete, Mayhew turned down the thermostat to a normal level and opened all the windows to cool the house down.
Mayhew and Babb went outside to talk to Maysa and Marcy, respectively. Like Jennifer Kerns, both of the women immediately mentioned Jocelyn’s estranged husband, Wesley Earnest. Both women had made plans with Jocelyn for Wednesday and Thursday nights. Both insisted that Jocelyn had not been seeing anyone. Jocelyn was happy, they said, and caught up in the Christmas spirit. She’d bought presents for everyone. While the detectives talked to the two friends and co-workers, neighbors milled around on the road in front of the home.
The forensic techs went to work inside, searching for anything that looked as if it could have any significance to the death. The house was ranch-style, with a full finished basement. The front door opened into a living room with a beautiful stone fireplace. The open floor plan wrapped around with a doorway to the dining area and then on to the kitchen. In between the kitchen and the living room was a guest bedroom. A deck stretched across the back of the house.
Going the other way from the front door again, they passed a bathroom on the right and a second guest bedroom on the left. Down the hallway from there was the master bedroom. In the basement there was another bedroom and an entertainment area, and there was a swimming pool in the backyard.
In the master bedroom, the techs secured an unopened LifeStyles ultra-sensitive ribbed condom—its presence reinforcing the statement about a “new love” in the note by the victim’s side. In the master closet, behind hanging clothes and underneath a fabric bag of softballs, they collected a very large box of assorted ammunition—.40 caliber shotgun shells, 12-, 20-, and 22-gauge shotgun shells and .40 caliber bullets—but none matched the .357 found lying on the body. In fact, they didn’t find any ammunition that fit that particular weapon anywhere in the house.
Among the more notable items found were several handwritten, spiral-bound journals authored by the victim. Their presence raised the question, since she’d written all those pages in longhand, why wouldn’t she have handwritten her suicide note, too?
In the craft room, investigators were greeted by holiday chaos: piles of wrapping paper, scissors, ribbons, and wrapped Christmas gifts. They recovered a box of condoms from the guest bedroom, and noted stray hairs and a small amount of blood in the basin and on the pedestal of the sink in the guest bathroom. The bathroom was otherwise dusty and a bit disheveled, as if rarely used and seldom cleaned.
Back in the living room, forensic expert Marjorie Harris pointed to Jocelyn’s body and told detectives that it appeared the victim’s head had landed in three distinct positions—tilted back and to the right, tilted forward and to the right, and ended up turned to the left. “If her head happened to bounce on the carpet, that might account for the changing positions but it doesn’t explain a couple of other things,” she told them.
“The pattern of the blood stains on her face, the way her hair is stretched and pinned under her head and the streak of blood across the floor all indicate a distinct possibility that someone dragged the victim’s body a couple of feet soon after she was shot.”
The detectives wanted to know if the deceased could have dragged her own body across that floor before she died, but they would have to wait for the autopsy report for an answer to that question. The investigators turned their attention to locating the fatal bullet, following possible trajectories for a shot traveling front to back, and looking for evidence in the floor, walls, and ceiling behind her.
With the arrival of Dr. Paul Lilly from the medical examiner’s office, however, they realized that they had been looking in all the wrong places for bullet fragments. Lilly noted that the shot had entered the back of Jocelyn’s head and exited in the front. They would return to search again using this new line of trajectory.
After his examination, Dr. Lilly ordered the removal of the body and its transport to the medical examiner’s office. With that accomplished, the techs then removed a section of stained carpet with its pattern of dried blood. Investigators and forensic personnel gathered everything that might be considered relevant in hopes of piecing together an answer to the big question: homicide or suicide? Was the suspicious nature of the scene mere coincidence? Or had a murder been staged to appear like a self-inflicted death? Detectives did not yet know with any certainty, but what they’d already observed made their instincts twitch.
• • •
After trying all day long, Investigator Babb finally reached Jocelyn’s estranged husband, Wesley Earnest, at 7 P.M. “Your wife has passed away, Mr. Earnest. I’d like to get with you if you could come in and talk to me.”
Without the slightest indication of surprise about the news, Wesley said, “I’ve been traveling and I’m tired. Could I come around nine tomorrow morning?”
Babb objected. “I’d really like to do it tonight.”
“I can’t do that,” Wesley insisted.
They agreed to a meeting in the morning. Wesley never asked how Jocelyn died. He did not have a single question about what happened.
• • •
Investigators Babb and Mayhew finally left the scene at Jocelyn’s home at 1 A.M. on Friday morning. They hoped the medical examiner’s postmortem examination of the deceased and the forensic evidence analysis would provide definitive answers to all their questions. They needed to know one way or another. Until those results were available, all they could do was interview and speculate. For now, it was simply a death investigation, and whether or not they would ever have someone to arrest and charge with a crime was unknown.
If it was a homicide, the three prime suspects would be Marcy Shepherd, the woman who found the body; Wesley Earnest, the estranged husband; and the “new love,” identity unknown.
After grabbing a few hours of sleep, Investigator Mike Mayhew went to the autopsy suite in Roanoke, Virginia, where a body bag lay stretched ominously on the stainless steel table. Assistant medical examiner Dr. Amy Tharp unzipped it, and a tech photographed Jocelyn Earnest’s body. They propped a block under her head to facilitate x-rays. Viewing the film, Tharp noted the darkness where the bullet’s trajectory created a pocket of air in Jocelyn’s skull, while the fillings of her teeth and the outline of her necklace glowed white on the image—though brighter still were the bullet fragments scattered in her brain.
Next, Tharp removed the bags that had been placed on Jocelyn’s hands and swabbed the palms and fingers for any gun residue. She observed that there was no blood spatter on Jocelyn’s hands (as would typically be present had she been holding the gun when it fired) and noted that there was no injury to the nails, no foreign material visible under them and no debris elsewhere on the hands.
Tharp also documented Jocelyn’s personal effects and clothing before undressing the victim. As she removed them, she preserved the victim’s green and black coat, jeans, belt, sweater, shirt, shoes, socks, panties, bra, watch, necklace, and cloth bracelet. In the process of removing Jocelyn’s clothing, they found a fragment of a bullet lying in the bag that transported her body and saved it as evidence. Tharp thoroughly examined the body, seeking out any external damages, scars, birthmarks, or tattoos. Except for the obvious wounds to Jocelyn’s head, she found no other fresh injuries.
Tharp shaved and cleaned around the wounds on the deceased woman’s head and examined them closely. On the right side, above and slightly behind Jocelyn’s ear, Tharp noted a round, crisp hole with scraped edges and stippling, little red marks created from bits of burning (and unburned) gunpowder, smoke, and flame, which marked the point of entry. It was not a contact wound, meaning the weapon had not been in direct contact with the skin. The gun had obviously been two inches to two feet away when it was fired.
Tharp then turned her attention to the left temple at the outer corner of the eye. The skin was pushed slightly outward, without any abrasion to its surface, just as she expected to see from a tumbling bullet that escaped at a slightly sideways angle. A skull fracture had caused blood to pull in the tissues near the wound, giving Jocelyn a classic black eye. Without a doubt it was an exit wound, confirming the possibility posited by Dr. Paul Lilly at the scene.
Next, Tharp conducted a more invasive examination of Jocelyn’s head. Making an incision from ear to ear, she moved the scalp away from the skull and documented the hemorrhage between the two as well as the fractures that caused the fused sutures of the bone to pull apart.
Tharp then removed the top of the skull to follow the deadly track of the projectile. It traversed the right back portion of the brain, causing unconsciousness; cut across the brain stem, causing instant death and a total loss of voluntary and involuntary movement; then went through the other half and exited through the left temple. Jocelyn’s death was instantaneous—she could not have moved her own body.
• • •
Meanwhile that morning, Investigator Gary Babb reported to the sheriff’s office to await the scheduled 9 A.M. arrival of the new widower. That hour came and went with no sign of him. Then Babb received a call from defense attorney Joey Sanzone, informing him that his client, Wesley Earnest, would arrive at 5 P.M.
In the meantime, Mayhew and Babb returned to Jocelyn’s house for a second search of the crime scene. They quickly located a bullet fragment, smaller than a pencil eraser, lying in a shoe. They found another fragment on the couch, and the remaining lead wedged between a cushion and the arm of a chair. Each shard of lead was removed and preserved. The investigators looked around the room. Could Jocelyn have held a gun to her own head at such an angle to have caused the bullet to lodge in those locations?
No matter how hard they searched, investigators could not find any additional fragments. But two rounds had been fired from that gun. They went down to the basement and examined every inch of the ceiling beneath the living room to see if the other one had been shot through the floor. They found nothing—the second fired bullet remained a mystery.
• • •
Before five that afternoon, the investigators were back at the county courthouse with Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Wes Nance, awaiting the arrival of Wesley Earnest and his attorney, Joey Sanzone. It was after six before they saw Wesley pull up in a pickup truck. Mayhew snapped a photo of the truck just in case they needed it in the future.
At six feet four inches with a trim frame, the dark-haired thirty-seven-year-old Wesley was a gangly man with a disarming, slightly goofy smile. He towered over his shorter, rounder attorney. When they were seated, Babb told him again about Jocelyn’s death and asked, “Had you heard about that before receiving my call yesterday?”
“Yes. I arrived at Shameka’s between six thirty and seven last night,” Wesley said, referring to his girlfriend Shameka Wright, “and Shameka’s mom asked, ‘Didn’t you used to live on Pine Bluff?’ I told her ‘yes’ and she said there was a story on the news about some woman dying there.”
Maybe that accounts for his lack of curiosity, Babb thought, or maybe not. He explained to Wesley that in a “normal death investigation” they had to establish the whereabouts of the people connected to the victim in the window of time around the time that Jocelyn died.
Wes gave minute details about everything he’d done on Tuesday.
“What did you do on Wednesday?” Babb asked.
“I went to work at the school. There was a fight there that day. I was tired and didn’t feel well after that. I went home and went to bed.”
“You didn’t go anywhere that night?” Babb continued.
“You didn’t talk to anyone?”
Despite his vague recollection of Wednesday’s events, when Babb asked about Thursday and Friday, Wesley was again very thorough in his descriptions of his actions and activities.
Babb moved on to asking about Wesley’s estranged wife. “What was Jocelyn like?”
“She was the greatest woman—a great person, a great athlete. I broke her heart. I hurt her,” Wesley said.
Everything Wesley was saying seemed to be in accord with the comments of her friends regarding her personality, her collegiate basketball career, and her black belt in karate, but Babb wondered about what Wesley wasn’t saying. “What did you think of Jocelyn?”
“She was wonderful.”
“If she was so wonderful, why did you go out with others?”
“Jocelyn was okay with that. She told me to sleep with other women.”
Babb knew that directly contradicted what he’d heard from Jocelyn’s friends who’d cited his infidelity as what ended the marriage. “Really? I thought you were getting a divorce.”
“My brother was the catalyst for that. He caused a big confrontation at the house and I left. He’s a very controlling guy. You know, when we separated, it broke Jocelyn’s heart. She stopped eating and lost forty pounds. I was just doing my thing,” Wesley said with a shrug. “She was very depressed but I didn’t do anything about it.”
Babb made a mental note to find out everything he could about Wesley’s brother, Jocelyn’s attitude toward infidelity and any possible dark moods she may have experienced. He said, “My only problem is this: she seems like a real strong person to do what she did with basketball and karate and that image clashes with her being depressed,” Babb said.
Most disturbing of all to the investigators was Wesley expressing the belief that Jocelyn had committed suicide. Of all the friends and family members interviewed so far, he was the only person who thought it was possible that she had taken her own life.
Wesley switched subjects. He mentioned one of Jocelyn’s co-workers, a man he said he suspected she’d had something going with, since they spent so much time together doing projects.
Wesley admitted that he’d purchased a .357 Magnum in the past but added, “It was a present for my wife, for her protection.”
A .357 Magnum was the weapon that they’d found at the scene, the one that in all likelihood took Jocelyn’s life. Babb now thought it was in all probability also the same weapon Wesley claimed to have purchased for Jocelyn.
Consulting with Sanzone, Wesley agreed to provide a DNA sample and fingerprints. He would not, however, agree to a polygraph test.
“What kind of vehicles do you have? I know you have a truck,” Babb said, referring to the one that Wesley just drove to the meeting.
“That’s not my truck. I just borrowed that truck,” Wesley answered.
The investigators exchanged a glance. They’d both noticed that Wesley appeared a bit rattled when they asked him about the vehicle. There had to be a reason for that, and they were determined to find it.
Saturday, December 22, 2007, detectives questioned Marcy Shepherd and Maysa Munsey separately and found consistency in both women’s versions of the events of Thursday morning. Both women insisted that they had not moved Jocelyn Earnest’s body.
The investigators were troubled, though, about Marcy’s admission that she’d been out to the house the night before. “If you were here last night, why did you come back today?”
“Because, Jocelyn was afraid of Wesley. She just installed a security system because she was afraid of him. If she thought Wesley was outside, she would go into the bathroom, lock the door, and stand frozen in the tub. She said he was still coming into her home and that she was afraid he would kill her. And I think he did.”
Detectives wondered if Marcy really believed that or if she was trying to divert attention from herself. Even more red flags were raised in their minds when they asked Marcy if she knew the identity of the “new love” referenced in the note they found near the victim’s body.
She looked down at her feet and didn’t speak for a moment. When she did, she said, “That was me. I loved Jocelyn Earnest.”
When pushed for further details, Marcy explained. “We started working together in August 2005 and developed a friendship. I started feeling something more and I asked her if she felt the same way and she said, ‘No.’ So, I said, ‘Okay. We’ll just be friends.’”
“But then it changed?”
“Yes, it became a romantic relationship.”
“Were you and Jocelyn intimate?”
“No. We had feelings for one another but we did not have a sexual relationship.”
“No physical intimacy?”
“After the company Christmas party the first year we worked together, I went to her home. We kissed on the sofa. But both of us were married at the time so we didn’t pursue it any further.” Marcy explained that as of April 2006, she and her husband had legally separated, although they continued to live in the same house in order to care for their young children without disruption. Returning to her relationship with Jocelyn, Marcy added, “We did develop a strong emotional attachment.”
“Was that the only time you two got physical?”
“There were a couple of times after that that Jocelyn kissed me—nothing more than that.”
The detectives exchanged a glance. Unrequited love or unsatisfied lust could be motive for murder, but it was generally a more personal homicide than a single shot to the head.
The relationship between the two women, however, could also be a motive for Jocelyn’s estranged spouse to have taken her life.
When Marcy told the investigators about the text messages she’d exchanged with Jocelyn on the last day of her life, the detectives wanted her BlackBerry. Marcy didn’t want to part with it. “I am afraid of Wesley Earnest,” she told them. “Jocelyn said that if he knew anything or found out anything, he would kill us both. He could be lurking anywhere. I am afraid to be without my phone.”
Was it a reasonable explanation? A diversionary move? Or was Marcy simply buying time because she had something to hide?
• • •
That same day, the medical examiner confirmed that Jocelyn had died from a gunshot wound to the head. Although it would be weeks before investigators received the final autopsy report, Dr. Amy Tharp did give them her preliminary findings that indicated it was not suicide and the death was instantaneous. Still, Tharp hesitated to officially define Jocelyn’s death as a homicide until receiving the toxicology and other test results.
While the detectives waited for evidence reports from the forensic lab to confirm their suspicions of murder, they reviewed the seventeen spiral notebooks filled with Jocelyn’s handwriting—some found in her home, others discovered when they executed a search warrant on her office at Genworth. Page after page, Jocelyn exposed her deepest thoughts, worries, and joys. The investigators tried to maintain a professional distance, but they felt themselves drawn closer to the deceased woman. It felt as if she were talking to them, explaining her life in intimate detail. They kept reading, hoping they’d find the key to unlock the reason for her death.
And then they did. One entry made in August 2005 jumped off the page. Jocelyn wrote of her growing fear of Wesley and urged her family to suspect “my cheating husband” if she were ever found dead. “Know that he killed me, because I would never kill myself. My guess is he shot me and then killed himself.” In another entry, she wrote: “If I die, Wesley killed me and he probably shot me.” It was a chillingly prophetic pronouncement about the means of death, but would it prove to be as accurate about the person who pulled the trigger?
Another observation became apparent as they read through the journals. The style and wording found in these notebooks was not consistent with what they’d seen in the note found on the living room floor. Did that point to a different author? Or was it simply because she was more depressed and stressed in the moments before she took her life?
Of particular interest to the detectives was another document they discovered, a timeline of the last eleven years of Jocelyn’s life, composed on oversized paper. All of the events listed were handwritten and in first person. Oddly, though, there were two distinct handwriting styles, indicating that the entries were authored by more than one person. Those entries were bracketed in red, and notably, all were statements that reflected positively on Wesley Earnest.
Some comments in this unfamiliar hand offered an excuse for any possible infidelity on his part. For instance, one entry in 1996 read: “Kept telling Wes to sleep with someone else and come home to me.” A year later: “Kept telling Wes, I don’t want to be with you sexually.”
Other entries praised Wesley. In 1998: “It’s okay. Wes took care of me as always.” Three years later: “Very understanding husband with me spending late hours at work.”
Still other notes in the unknown handwriting placed the blame for difficulties in the marriage squarely on Jocelyn’s shoulders. In 2005: “Wes kept trying to talk to me, but I just kept shutting him out,” followed in the next year by: “Wes wants another chance to make it work out but finds it highly unlikely because my family has too much influence and never fully embraced Wes and Wes’s mother has been left out of the loop.”
Who wrote those entries? It certainly didn’t appear to be Jocelyn. Could it have been Wesley Earnest? If so, when did he alter that document? Long ago, to aid him in contentious divorce proceedings? Or in the aftermath of murder, to diminish suspicion on the estranged spouse? As in many investigations, every new tidbit of uncovered information generated a roar of unanswered questions.
Suspicions against Marcy Shepherd were now a distant second to those pointing to Wesley Earnest. However, Investigators Gary Babb and Mike Mayhew guarded against tunnel vision. They needed more before they settled on any firm conclusions of guilt. The Bedford County Sheriff’s Office brought in backup to help make that happen. Personnel from the police departments in the city of Bedford, the seat of the county where Jocelyn died; Lynchburg, the city where Jocelyn worked; and the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office, the neighboring area where Wesley stayed when visiting his girlfriend, now became part of the team of investigators.
• • •
While the detectives sought answers, Jocelyn Earnest’s family, friends, and neighbors sought healing. Lisa Jennings, a former neighbor, was stunned by news of Jocelyn’s death. She remembered the Earnests as an athletic, outgoing, and smart couple. “They were nice people as far as we knew,” she said to a reporter for the Virginian-Pilot.
Next-door neighbor Ernest Daye started double-checking the locks on his windows and doors each night. “It’s worrisome,” he told Lynchburg’s News & Advance. “We haven’t heard anything. She was my neighbor. I used to see her and wave and speak to her. That’s all I know—nothing, to tell the truth.”
“It’s always been a quiet and peaceful neighborhood,” Dorothy Slusher said to the News & Advance reporter. “It makes you wonder what happened to her. It’s so sad. I keep my doors locked day and night. You just don’t know. People are crazy.”
• • •
The first step on the path back to normalcy for those who knew and cared about Jocelyn was the funeral service.
Initially, Wesley’s family said that they wanted her body. Wesley even went to the funeral home insisting that since Jocelyn was his wife, it was his decision. He told them, “I want her cremated in a cardboard box and put in a simple urn.”
Since Jocelyn’s family wanted to lay her to rest in West Virginia, where they lived and Jocelyn grew up, they enlisted Mayhew’s help. In a dispute like this one, he was powerless, but he did make sure nothing was done until a legal decision was reached. He contacted Joey Sanzone and told him that he needed to file the proper paperwork. With the attorney involved, the conflict simply went away. Jocelyn’s body was transported to her home state of West Virginia to the Brown Funeral Home in Martinsburg. The family received friends there from 7 to 9 P.M. on December 27, 2007. Services began at 10 A.M. on December 28 with Reverend Ed Taylor officiating. It was a low-key event, made even more mournful because no one knew if the deceased had taken her own life or had been the victim of a violent act. Both possibilities were tragic and painful, but the not-knowing haunted the solemn occasion.
Jocelyn’s mother, Joyce Young, was visibly shaken by the experience. While Jocelyn’s home was still sealed as a crime scene, Joyce had pleaded with investigators to have something that smelled like her daughter. They’d taken pity on her and had allowed the grieving mother inside—in the presence of law enforcement and Wesley’s defense attorney Joey Sanzone—to take possession of a pillow from Jocelyn’s bed.
“To go to a funeral, to pick out your child’s casket, it just tears you apart,” Joyce said.
Jocelyn was interred in nearby Rosedale Cemetery. The obituary notice noted: “In addition to or in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Berkeley County Humane Society.”
Her father, Bill Branham, took home her beloved Labrador retriever, Rufus. Homes for her cats were found with feline-loving friends.
• • •
On January 16, 2008, questions about Jocelyn’s death still hung in the air. Marcy Shepherd, Maysa Munsey, and another friend from work, Dora Farrah, arranged a local memorial service at Timberlake United Methodist Church in Lynchburg. Four hundred people, including some from West Virginia, gathered beneath a sky that threatened snow and entered the sanctuary to express their admiration for their deceased friend.
Co-workers described Jocelyn as a leader who could facilitate the input of others and make decisions on large projects. Friends referred to her special ability to recognize when things were wrong and do something about it. “She didn’t wait for that phone call for help. She just offered it. She was my best friend, closer than a sister,” Maysa said. When Marcy stood before the gathered mourners to speak of Jocelyn, she said, “She was like a fine wine with a complex bouquet. If I asked everyone in the church what their relationship with Jocelyn was, they’d all have different answers. Yet, she was always herself.”
They cried, said good-bye, expressed their love, and waited for more information. Many were already convinced that Jocelyn had not taken her own life and were impatient for authorities to make it official.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Diane Fanning:
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