logo



UPDATED: Misstep could lead to mistrial in Eric Azotea double-murder trial

Becky Campbell • Updated Feb 6, 2018 at 7:11 PM

Attorneys in a double-murder death penalty trial could be dealing with a house of cards Wednesday when court resumes and they consider a shaky subject — a witness who blurted out that he met the defendant, Eric Azotea, after he was released from prison.

Azotea, 46, of Johnson City, was indicted on two counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse in the January 2015 deaths of Amber Terrell, 22, and Arthur Gibson Jr., 36, both of Kingsport. The two disappeared in early January 2015, and their last known location was in the area of Azotea’s residence in the Pinecrest community of Carter County, police said.

Investigators said Azotea gave them a statement — based on the promised immunity for his girlfriend, Kristin Jones — that he killed the two, cut up their bodies, then burned some parts and buried some parts in the crawl space under his residence.

During the proceedings, he pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse, admitting that he disposed of the gun — which belonged to Gibson — used in the shootings and cut up the bodies to get rid of them.

The misstep Tuesday happened with the state’s fifth witness, Jeremy Combs. As he was answering introductory questions from Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks, he said he met Azotea while doing work for Azotea’s in-laws and that Azotea had just been released from prison.

When a defendant has a criminal history, that information is not admissible to a jury because of the prejudicial effect it can have.

As soon as Combs made the comment, defense attorney Gene Scott jumped up and objected and Brooks held his hands up toward the witness indicating for him to stop talking.

The comment in front of the jury could be grounds for a mistrial, which would mean all the work this week and last week to select a jury, put the panel up in a hotel and provide all their meals could have been for naught.

For an hour, attorneys were back and forth through the courtroom, going into the hallway for conversations and at one point, Azotea, his attorneys — Gene Scott, Dan Smith and Lesley Tiller — and his mother went into a back room to discuss the issue.

Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street sent the jury back to their hotel around 4 p.m. and said the attorneys had some issues to take up and it could take some time. He said the defense and prosecution were having conversations about how to proceed.

Prior to that fiasco, the jury heard opening statements from the attorneys and four witnesses before breaking for lunch. The first witnesses in the case included:

• Sandra Terrell, mother of Amber Terrell;

• Mandy Gibson, younger sister of Arthur Gibson Jr.;

• Ashley Greene, sister to Amber Terrell; and

• Rob Bradshaw, the Elizabethton police officer at the time who drove past Gibson’s abandoned vehicle several days in a row on his way to work before checking it and discovering it was connected to the missing persons case.

Bradshaw testified his normal route from home to work each day took him by the intersection of Big Springs Road and Marry Patton Highway. That highway was still under construction at the time and not open to the public.

During his trips to and from work, he noticed a car parked at the intersection. It got his attention, even though it was not in his jurisdiction, because it had been parked at the intersection for a few days and none of the construction workers were working at that intersection at the time.

Bradshaw stopped and looked at the outside. He said it looked like the ignition switch had been “punched” to defeat the locking mechanism. He said there was a long metallic tool, like a screwdriver, under the seat that looked like it might have been the tool used on the ignition switch.

Bradshaw also said there were some personal objects in the rear seat. He ran the license tag through NCIC and it came back as a hit for missing persons, he said.

At that point, he called 911 to send an officer from the Carter County Sheriff’s Department to the scene.

During opening statements, Brooks set out a timeline of events for the jury, even going as far as showing some photographs and playing a recording of a jail call between Azotea and Jones.

In that recording, Azotea was heard telling Jones that “the only thing that’s going to burn me is shooting that bitch in the back.”

Brooks told the panel “at the end of this case you’re going to have no doubt that this man killed Amber Terrell intentionally and with premeditation.”

Smith made opening statements for the defense, and told the jury that everything they had just heard from Brooks was not fact, but his theory of the case.

“What the state must do during the course of this trial is to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. Smith also pointed out that jurors had been taking notes during Brooks opening statements, but he reminded them that nothing they heard was evidence.

After the state’s first four witnesses, Street sent the jury to lunch and took guilty pleas on three counts of the indictment against Azotea.

After the lunch break, and prior to Combs taking the stand, Sullivan County Sheriff’s Lt. Bobby Russell testified about his initial involvement in the case after Gibson and Terrell were reported missing by their families.

Russell said after Gibson’s vehicle was discovered abandoned along a Carter County road, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office transported it to Blountville for processing. Inside the car, he found a cold chisel in the driver’s seat, a Crown Royal bag in the back floorboard that contained a digital scale and a box of ammunition and a pink wallet that contained Terrell’s driver’s license.

Russell said when investigators determined the actual homicides occurred in Carter County, all the evidence was turned over. But on cross examination, Scott asked Russell about a shell casing and a cellphone that were never turned over. The casing was apparently found in front of Gibson’s apartment and matched the ammunition found in the car. That item was never tested or turned over to Carter County.

The cellphone had been examined by a Sullivan County forensic investigator and some text messages were pulled from it.

That conversation was between Gibson’s brother, James Spiker, and another man on the night Gibson disappeared. The other party asked Spiker if Gibson was still at Spiker’s house, but Spiker told the man his brother had left but was supposed to return later.

Spiker testified in the case as well, and said Gibson came to his house in Johnson City around 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 7, 2015. Spiker said Gibson came to get marijuana and said he was going to Azotea’s house to have dinner with Azotea and Jones. Spiker said he never heard from his brother again after that conversation.

——-

Reported earlier:

The man on trial for killing two people in 2015, cutting up their bodies and burning parts of them pleaded guilty to tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse Tuesday as his double murder trial got underway.

Eric James Azotea, 46, of Johnson City, faces two counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse in the January 2015 deaths of Amber Terrell, 22, and Arthur Gibson Jr., 36, both of Kingsport. The two disappeared in early January 2015, and their last known location was in the area of Azotea’s residence in the Pinecrest community of Carter County, police said

After opening statements from the attorneys and four witnesses, Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street sent the jury to lunch and took up the pleas Azotea’s attorneys, Gene Scott, Dan Smith and Lesley Tiller, had reached with prosecutors.

The tampering with evidence charge stemmed from Azotea’s disposal of the gun, which belonged to Gibson, used in the shootings. The two abuse of a corpse charges were filed after Azotea admitted to investigators that he had used a reciprocating saw to cut up the bodies and burned portions of them. He was accused of burning other parts in the crawl space under his house.

Prior to the pleadings, the jury heard opening statements during which Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks laid out a timeline of events that started with Gibson and Terrell’s disappearance in early January 2015.

The first witnesses in the case included:

  • Sandra Terrell, mother of Amber Terrell.
  • Mandy Gibson, younger sister of Arthur Gibson, Jr.
  • Ashley Greene, sister to Amber Terrell.
  • Rob Bradshaw, the Elizabethton police officer who drive past Gibson’s abandoned vehicle several days in a row on his way to work before checking it and discovering it was connected to the missing persons case.

Testimony will continue this afternoon.

Recommended for You