Azotea's defense wants search warrants tossed in Carter County death penalty case

Becky Campbell • Nov 22, 2017 at 9:27 PM

ELIZABETHTON — Attorneys for a Carter County man charged with killing two people, cutting them up and trying to burn their remains filed a motion last week asking a judge to throw out evidence taken from the man’s residence and phone because the search warrants were based on faulty information.

The motion, filed Nov. 17 by defense attorneys Gene Scott, Dan Smith and Lesley Tiller, called information used as probable cause for the search warrant “overly broad, inaccurate and is a reckless misrepresentation of the data,” obtained from the victim’s cell phone records. 

Eric Azotea, 46, faces two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abuse of a corpse in the January 2015 deaths of Arthur Gibson Jr. and Amber Terrell. Their remains were found in the crawl space of the house where Azotea and his girlfriend lived in the Pinecrest community. Their bodies had been dismembered and burned, according to investigators.

Prosecutors and investigators believe Gibson and Terrell, both of Kingsport, went to Azotea’s home Jan. 7, 2015, and were shot, apparently over a drug debt. Gibson was reported missing Jan. 10, 2015 and Terrell was reported missing the next day. Their remains were found under Azotea’s house after investigators obtained a search warrant based on information from Verizon about the “precise location” that Terrell’s cell phone was last detected by a cell tower.

The search warrant, filed by Carter County Sheriff’s Investigator Mike Little, gave a timeline of events leading up to his request to search Azotea’s residence. 

• Jan. 8, 2015 - a Tennessee Department of Transportation employee reported a 1999 red Ford Escort parked along a newly constructed but not-yet-opened section of Gap Creek Road; it was running but no one was around the vehicle; no one from the Carter County Sheriff’s Office responded to the call.

• Jan. 10, 2015 - Gibson reported missing by his sister and hadn’t been heard from since Jan. 6; Gibson’s cell phone was turned off and the voicemail full. She believed him to be in danger.

• Jan. 11, 2015 - Terrell reported missing by her mother and hadn’t been heard from since Jan. 7.

• At time, the couple drove a red 1999 Ford Escort owned by Gibson’s brother, James Spicer.

• Jan. 12, 2015 - Elizabethton police saw the Escort parked on Gap Creek Road and ran the tag, which came back to Spicer and was flagged that Sullivan County investigators were looking for it in connection to a missing person case.

• Little said the vehicle had been “punched,” which meant a tool was used to start the ignition as opposed to the key.

• Nearby residents reported the vehicle had been parked there since the evening of Jan. 7, 2015.

• The vehicle was towed to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office, where investigators found Terrell’s wallet and identification; no car keys were located.

• Jan. 13, 2015 - Sullivan County Investigator Bobby Russell interviewed Azotea at his residence; Azotea admitted he talked to Gibson around Jan. 6, 2015; Gibson asked to borrow some tools from Azotea.

• Spicer told investigators that his brother visited him on Jan. 7, but got a phone call and had to leave. It was the last time anyone saw Gibson.

• Jan. 24, 2015 - Little and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Agent Brian Fraley interviewed Logan Peters, Gibson and Terrell’s roommate, who said he was aware of phone calls between Gibson and Azotea on Jan. 7, 2015, regarding selling and purchasing drugs. According to Peters, Azotea invited Gibson to his home for dinner in hopes he could persuade his fiance to buy the drug molley from Gibson. The arrangement was for Gibson to sell Azotea a quarter-ounce of the drug for $400.

• Peters received a phone call from Gibson on Jan. 7 who said he had to go to Azotea’s house in Carter County before delivering a quantity of marijuana and a pack of cigarettes to Peters.

• Around 7 p.m. Jan. 7, 2015, Peters said Azotea called him looking for Gibson and Terrell and said they never showed up at his house.

Using that timeline, Little subpoenaed Terrell’s phone records from Verizon and confirmed Azotea called that number four times on Jan. 7, 2015. The calls were made at 5:08 p.m., 5:09 p.m., 5:47 p.m. and 5:56 p.m. According to those phone records, Terrell’s phone was located “in the approximate location of Azotea’s residence,” at the time of the last call. A call from Peters’ phone to Terrell’s phone around 7:30 p.m. went unanswered, according to those records. At 7:33 p.m., all activity from Terrell’s phone stopped.

Using all of that information, investigators approximated the area where Terrell’s phone was used. In his affidavit for the search warrant, investigators determined Terrell’s phone was at Azotea’s residence at 7:30 p.m. at the time Peters called her.

A defense technology expert, however, disputes the state’s information used to obtain the search warrant. Larry Daniel — who has 30 years experience in software development, data recovery, computer and server diagnosis and repair, and network administration — concluded that the conclusion Terrell’s phone was at Azotea’s residence at 7:30 p.m. misrepresents the data obtained from Verizon because the tracking tools are “best estimates and are not related to any GPS measurement,” nor does it represent a “precise location.”

In the motion to suppress, defense attorney Gene Scott stated that “once these reckless misrepresentations are stricken from the search warrant, the remaining content is insufficient to establish probable cause to search Mr. Azotea’s residence.” Because of that, the defense maintains the warrant was void and anything obtained during that search would be inadmissible at trial.

Scott made a similar argument for the dismissal of a search warrant that allowed investigators to obtain Azotea’s DNA samples, his cell phone records and his Google browser history.

Investigators believed Azotea’s browser history would show that he searched the internet on how to dispose of human remains.

Azotea’s next court appearance is Dec. 12 for a motion hearing. He is scheduled for trial Feb. 5 through Feb. 16. Jury selection will take place the previous week. He remains jailed without bond while the case is pending. Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Azotea if he is convicted of first-degree murder.

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