Killer's Confession Stuns Courtroom

By David Anderson Jr.
Published November 13, 2008

Kenneth Mark Hartley stands to stretch his legs but keeps his head hung low during a break in testimony Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Hartley, 26, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and a sex offense in connection with the 2004 murder of his mother and stepsiblings in the Plain View community. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.

Kenneth Mark Hartley stands to stretch his legs but keeps his head hung low during a break in testimony Wednesday afternoon. Mr. Hartley, 26, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and a sex offense in connection with the 2004 murder of his mother and stepsiblings in the Plain View community. If convicted, he faces the death penalty.

The second full day of Kenneth Mark Hartley’s capital murder trial was accentuated by the retelling of Mr. Hartley’s clinical description of how he killed his family in the early morning hours of June 18, 2004, a few miles from Dunn.

Mr. Hartley, 26, has been charged with first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of his mother, Teresa Gail Tyndall, 41, her daughter, Tristan Megan Bush, 13, and son, Robert Steven Bush II, 10. He is also charged with a sex offense against Tristan. If convicted, Mr. Hartley faces the death penalty.

As SBI Special Agent Shelia Quick solemnly read a 13-page, handwritten transcript of Mr. Hartley’s confession, a death-like silence engulfed the courtroom, broken only by the muffled sobs of the few family members in attendance.

Agent Quick, along with Sampson County Sheriff’s Det. Julian Carr, took Mr. Hartley from the dark roadway where he was found the night after he killed his family to the Plain View Fire Department. Detectives said Mr. Hartley’s clothes were damp and his hands were shaking after he had hidden in the woods near his home for almost 24 hours.

“I told him that his family — including his mother, his sister and his brother — had been found at their home, that they were seriously injured,” Agent Quick said. “I then told him that they were in fact, dead. He didn’t show any emotion.”

Agent Quick told Mr. Hartley the murderer had left a lot of evidence in the home and investigators would likely find out who had killed his family.

“He then looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, I did it,'” Agent Quick told the jury.

After an initial 40-minute interview, Agent Quick arrested Mr. Hartley and read him his rights. At 10:45 p.m., a second, official interview took place, during which Agent Quick wrote down what Mr. Hartley said word for word.

“I went to high school until 11th grade. I quit,” Mr. Hartley said. “I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. I’ve done marijuana, but not recently, maybe four or five years ago. All I do is watch TV and play video games.”

Mr. Hartley told investigators of his father’s absence from his life, that he had killed stray cats as a child and that he had a collection of more than 20 knives. Then he began a detailed narrative of the events that ultimately led to his family’s death.

Ann Collier listens to final arguments during the capital murder trial of her nephew, Kenneth Mark Hartley. 'It's been very hard,' Ms. Collier said of the loss her family has suffered.

Ann Collier listens to final arguments during the capital murder trial of her nephew, Kenneth Mark Hartley. 'It's been very hard,' Ms. Collier said of the loss her family has suffered.


“We ate supper about 8:30 p.m. We all ate together. We had chicken, mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley mix,” Mr. Hartley said. “I think everyone went to bed around 12 p.m. I think I was watching wrestling on channel seven,” Mr. Hartley told detectives. “I picked a newer knife I’d gotten from Wal-Mart. I thought about it maybe 15 or 20 minutes before I did it.”

Mr. Hartley went into his mother’s dark room, listened for noise and walked up to her bed.

“I just started stabbing,” he said. “She immediately woke up. She just started screaming.”

“I stabbed her three or four minutes maybe,” Mr. Hartley added. “I’m not sure how many times.”

Mr. Hartley then turned his attention to his 10-year-old stepbrother who had woken up during the night and wandered into his mother’s room, according to his statement.

“She quit screaming about the same time he walked in,” Mr. Hartley said.

“He said that both his mother and Robert fought hard,” Agent Quick recalled.

As Agent Quick read Mr. Hartley’s account of the rape and suffocation of his stepsister, Tristan, family members fought to hold back tears and a few jurors buried their faces in their hands.

Before leaving, Mr. Hartley put all of the phones in the house in the bathroom.

“I put them there because I figured it was the best place to put them so they couldn’t find them,” he said. “I figured if they didn’t die or whatever, they could get a hold of them.”

Investigators and attorneys agree Mr. Hartley made no other attempt to clean or conceal the crime scene.

Kenneth Mark Hartley, left, stands up during a break in testimony Monday as his defense attorney, Bill Gerrans, right, prepares to question witnesses.

Kenneth Mark Hartley, left, stands up during a break in testimony Monday as his defense attorney, Bill Gerrans, right, prepares to question witnesses.

After changing out of his blood-soaked clothes, grabbing more than $3,000 in cash, a flashlight and a pocket television, Mr. Hartley set out through the woods. He stuck the knife in a tree near Lee’s Chapel Church — about half a mile from the family’s mobile home — and waited in the nearby woods.

“I stayed there through the night and most of today where I could see the road,” Mr. Hartley told investigators after his arrest. “I was looking for anyone I recognized, cops or anyone from work.

“I never thought of why I did it.”

Just ‘One Of The Guys’
Assistant District Attorney Robbie Thigpen called one of Mr. Hartley’s coworkers, J. Dwight Eastman, to the stand Wednesday as well.

Mr. Eastman described Mr. Hartley as “different” and “strange,” but admitted he was a good employee, always on time and able to work well with others.

Mr. Eastman said some of the people at Country Clean — the fire and water damage restoration company that both the defendant and his mother worked for — had a nickname for Mr. Hartley: “Columbine Kenny.”

Mr. Eastman told jurors Mr. Hartley regularly made comments about killing his family members or raping women.

“I’ve heard him say things like, ‘If they ever go in my room I’m going to kill them,'” Mr. Eastman said.

Buddy Conner, one of Mr. Hartley’s two court-appointed defense attorneys, asked Mr. Eastman about these statements in more detail.

“When he made a comment like, ‘I’m going to kill somebody,’ or ‘I’m going to rape her,’ he was just trying to be one of the guys,” Mr. Conner said.

“Yes sir,” Mr. Eastman admitted.

Mr. Conner said Mr. Eastman didn’t really take those comments seriously.

“If you did, you would have called the police,” Mr. Conner said.

“Yes sir,” Mr. Eastman answered.

Mr. Conner continued probing Mr. Eastman, helping him describe a young man without any real friends, who had never been on a date with girl and often showed affection toward his mother and siblings.

“You often just felt sorry for him, didn’t you?” Mr. Conner asked.

“Yes sir,” Mr. Eastman answered.

“But to the best of your knowledge, everyone at Country Clean liked Kenny?” Mr. Conner asked.

“Yes sir,” Mr. Eastman said.

“He was just a good guy,” Mr. Conner concluded.

“Yes sir,” Mr. Eastman said.

The defense, during opening statements, admits Mr. Hartley killed his family, but is mentally ill.

The trial was set to resume today.

 

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Text and images copyright 2008 by The Record Publishing Company.
Used with permission.


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