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Defendant Neil Sargent, left, listens to attorney Mark Killian on Monday during his trial in Boone. Sargent took the stand Tuesday to share his account of the circumstances surrounding the 2005 death of Stephen Harrington. Kellen Moore | Watauga Democrat.

Originally published: 2012-11-07 02:00:57
Last modified: 2012-11-07 02:01:19

Neil Sargent testifies in own defense

Ask Neil Sargent what happened the night of Nov. 7, 2005, and he’ll have you believe that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Sargent, 31, is on trial this week for the murder of 19-year-old Stephen Harrington, an ASU sophomore who was found dead in the trunk of his red Subaru on Sleepy Hollow Lane in Foscoe seven years ago this week.

Sargent faces charges of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burning of personal property in connection to the death. Originally convicted on all counts in 2008, Sargent successfully appealed and was granted a new trial.

The defendant took the witness stand Tuesday as the trial inched toward closure, painting himself as an unlucky bystander to the acts of his onetime friend and fellow drug dealer, Kyle Triplett.

In his testimony Tuesday, Sargent didn’t deny that he knew the victim or that they teamed up to deal cocaine.

He didn’t deny that Harrington was beaten and duct-taped across the mouth and nose on the floor of Sargent’s kitchen on Poplar Hill Drive.

He didn’t deny that he was near the covered bridge at Sleepy Hollow Lane when Harrington’s body was doused in lighter fluid and set aflame in the trunk of his red Subaru.

He also didn’t deny that he originally lied to police when questioned about the crime.

But Sargent did deny that Harrington’s death occurred at his hands.

“I still, to this day, don’t know what happened, why it happened, why Kyle (Triplett) did what he did,” Sargent said.

Sargent, who spent four years in the U.S. Army in missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, was working two part-time jobs at the Holmes Convocation Center when the incident occurred in fall 2005.

The evening of Nov. 7, 2005, Sargent said he had returned to Boone with his childhood friend, Matthew Brandon Dalrymple, from Bessemer City. Sargent said he had gone to Gaston County to be with his brother, Eric Sargent, whose fiancé had just had a baby.

Sargent said he went to sleep at some point that night after smoking pot and playing video games and awoke to the sound of someone yelling. Worrying it might be a home invasion, Sargent grabbed a piece of wood from the bedroom and snuck toward the kitchen and the source of the commotion, he testified.

He passed Dalrymple walking the other way in the hallway. The two brushed shoulders, but Dalrymple didn’t answer when he asked what was happening, Sargent said.

As he entered the kitchen, Sargent saw Triplett standing over a male figure with a gun in his hand, he said. The victim — who Sargent didn’t recognize at the time — was curled up in a fetal position with hands duct-taped behind his back and face plastered with tape, he testified.

Sargent recalled yelling, “What the f--- is going on?” then “Get this s--- out of my house!”

Sargent said he went back to a bedroom to put on shoes and other clothes, then returned to find Triplett outside shoving the body into the trunk of a red Subaru.

It was then he realized the bound man was Harrington, Sargent said in court.

Sargent testified that Triplett drove the red Subaru toward Foscoe while Dalrymple, driving, and Sargent, riding, followed in another vehicle.

At Sleepy Hollow, Sargent said he watched in the vehicle’s rear-view mirrors from 20 or 30 feet away as a bright flash — presumably the lighter fluid catching fire — occurred and Triplett ran toward the second vehicle driven by Dalrymple.

The three fled back toward Sargent’s home at high speeds.

Later that night, Triplett and Sargent talked about what happened while Triplett smoked on the porch, Sargent said. Triplett told him that he had “partied with” — not sold — a stash of cocaine Sargent had left with him to sell, and that he had no money to show for it.

District Attorney Jerry Wilson hammered Sargent on cross-examination, asking him why — with multiple opportunities — he never called 911 or fled toward the police station.

Sargent said he had no good answer for that question. He said that he was fearful at times and that he didn’t think he would get a fair shake from investigators because of the amount of drugs and guns in his home.

“I’ve thought about that for the last seven years,” Sargent said. “I just felt like if they never showed up at my house, maybe I’d never have to worry about it.”

Wilson also attacked Sargent’s credibility, pointing out to jurors that Sargent was discharged from the U.S. Army in 2003 for cocaine use and assault.

He also worked to present the idea that Sargent merely copied Dalrymple’s account of the night to make it “two against one,” and give more credibility to that story.

Triplett’s testimony Friday was the polar opposite of Sargent’s. Triplett said it was Sargent who concocted a plan to rob the teen, who taped the boy’s face and who sprayed lighter fluid on the body at Sleepy Hollow.


Dalrymple called to stand

The jury also heard this week from Dalrymple, 27, who pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder. He is currently serving a sentence of 100-129 months in prison.

Dalrymple at first invoked his Fifth Amendment rights on Monday, refusing to testify for fear of self-incrimination. Conversation got heated between his attorney, Scott Casey, and Wilson as they described a hallway conversation about a month ago about whether Dalrymple could be charged.

Dalrymple eventually testified after the District Attorney’s office gave written notice that it would not pursue any additional charges against him.

Dalrymple said that he and Sargent had grown up together and rode the same bus to school. Triplett, however, was a mere acquaintance; Dalrymple said he had met him once before in Bessemer City, where Dalrymple lived.

The testimony of Dalrymple and Sargent matched on most points, but Dalrymple said he had also witnessed Triplett taping the victim’s face. He denied any involvement in the murder.

“I did not murder anybody,” Dalrymple said. “I never touched this boy.”

Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer worked to counter Dalrymple’s statements by pointing out that he at first denied everything when questioned by police. She also drew jurors’ attention to the fact that he later amended several parts of his Nov. 9, 2005, statement to police.

Springer also pointed out that Dalrymple had chances to go to police that he didn’t take, including the opportunity to literally turn the other way when following the red Subaru.

“That was a bad decision I made,” Dalrymple said. “I went right when I should’ve went left.”

Defense attorney Mark Killian also called to the witness stand Sargent’s sister, Tressie Sargent, his brother, Eric Sargent, Joseph Norris and Chad Norris, who all testified about some of the events surrounding that period of time. SBI Agent Wade Colvard, a Verizon wireless representative and two others also testified.

The prosecution and defense will present their final arguments today before the jury receives its instructions and begins deliberations.