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Defendant Neil Sargent motions to a person in the courtroom during his trial Wednesday. Photo by Kellen Moore

Originally published: 2012-11-01 20:09:31
Last modified: 2012-11-05 17:43:47

Testimony begins in Neil Sargent trial

A jury of nine women and three men, along with two alternates, began hearing testimony Wednesday in the murder trial of 31-year-old Neil Sargent.

Sargent was arrested in November 2005 after the death of 19-year-old Stephen Harrington, an ASU sophomore from Raleigh.

Harrington’s body was found in the trunk of his smoldering vehicle on Sleepy Hollow Lane in Foscoe on Nov. 8, 2005, his wrists bound behind his back and his face wrapped in duct tape.

Sargent could face a sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted of first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping, robbery with a dangerous weapon and burning of personal property.

Sargent was found guilty of all charges in a 2008 trial, but he successfully appealed on the grounds that the judge had incorrectly refused to admit a critical piece of evidence. That evidence, a statement made to police by co-defendant Brandon Dalrymple, pointed toward the third co-defendant, Kyle Triplett, as the primary aggressor.

In opening statements Wednesday, the prosecution and defense painted very different pictures of Sargent and his actions that November night.

Assistant District Attorney Britt Springer described how Harrington, a good student and an Eagle Scout, got wrapped up in a drug trade as a way of making extra money. He would drive off the mountain and bring back cocaine for distribution.

The evening of Nov. 7, 2005, Harrington returned to Boone after drug run before the incident unfolded at Sargent’s home at 121 Poplar Hill Drive. Sargent, Triplett and Dalrymple were all involved, she said.

“The state will contend that all three players had a hand in Stephen’s death,” Springer said. “… They acted as one, they ended as one, and they should go to jail.”

Sargent’s attorney, Mark Killian of Hickory, admitted that Sargent was not “a Boy Scout or angel” but asserted that he also was not guilty of first-degree murder.

Killian said that the robbery and death of Harrington was choreographed by Triplett, who needed money from the sale of the stolen cocaine to return what he owed to Sargent.

Killian said it was Triplett who beat up Harrington, taped his face and dragged him to his car. An armed Triplett then demanded that the other two men go with him to Sleepy Hollow, where Triplett sprayed the victim’s body with lighter fluid and lit it on fire, Killian said.

“Mr. Triplett — this was his deal,” Killian said. “He set it up, and now he’s trying to drag down everybody else that was there.”

Witnesses testify

The jury heard from nine witnesses on Wednesday and Thursday, beginning with Steve Tatum, a resident of the Sleepy Hollow neighborhood.

Tatum said he discovered the red Subaru in which Harrington’s body was found during his daily morning walk with his wife.

After seeing smoke rising from the open sunroof, Tatum said he went to the house of a neighbor, Dan Hays, and asked Hays to call 911. Hays also testified Wednesday about his memory of that morning.

Kelly Redmon, then a lieutenant and now a captain for the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office, said he happened to be near the area that morning when the call went out for a vehicle fire around 7:40 a.m.

The first officer to arrive at the scene, Redmon said he began searching for the source of the fire. He eventually opened the driver’s door and pulled the trunk latch release, discovering the partially burned body in the trunk.

Frank Aldridge, a member of the Foscoe Fire Department, also was on scene when the body was discovered. He testified that the circular burn patterns on Harrington’s body made it appear that he had been doused with flammable liquid.

Dr. Brent Hall, the medical examiner for Watauga County, offered information to the jurors about his role in examining the scene. Hall said he sent the body for an autopsy at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill.

Wednesday’s testimony ended on a harrowing note with the words of Julie Harrington, the victim’s mother.

Through tears, Harrington described the last time she saw her son, about two to three weeks before he died. The Thursday before his death, Harrington mentioned in a phone call that he had a new friend named Neil.

“Stephen had a great smile, beautiful blue eyes and he loved life,” she said.

When court reconvened Thursday, nearly the entire day was filled with the testimony of SBI Special Agent Van Williams, who helped investigate the crime.

Williams described in detail every item he removed from the car: a partial roll of duct tape, jumper cables, a mesh trunk liner, a can of Zippo lighter fluid wrapped in a Wendy’s napkin, brown sandals, a burned cell phone, a melted cigarette lighter and other items.

Throughout the testimony, prosecutors introduced dozens of photographs and items that Williams described.

Williams also described an array of items that he seized during a search of Sargent’s rented home on Poplar Hill Drive in the early morning hours of Nov. 9, 2005.

Those items included at least three handguns — one on the floor below a coffee table, another tucked beneath a couch cushion and a third stuck inside a brown boot in one of the bedrooms. Authorities also seized two shotguns from behind the entry door, as well as scales, razorblades, several plastic bags filled with white powder substances or what appeared to be marijuana, Wendy’s napkins, a partial roll of duct tape, computers, cell phones and miscellaneous papers.

With each item seized, Williams painstakingly identified and marked on a poster-sized floor plan for the jurors where he located each item inside the house.

Robert Spencer, a former Watauga County sheriff’s deputy, also described his search of Harrington’s home at 456 Seven Oaks Road in Boone. He seized several plastic bags that appeared to contain drug residue, as well as a marijuana bong, a laptop and two small marijuana plants.

He also confirmed that he had seen a dry-erase board in Harrington’s bedroom with the words “total - Neil - 3400” written.

Finally, the jury heard Thursday afternoon from Deborah Radisch, now the chief medical examiner for North Carolina. Radisch, who performed the autopsy on Harrington’s body in Chapel Hill, described burns found on the body. On Harrington’s abdomen, he was so badly burned that his small intestine could be seen through a hole in his skin.

Radisch testified that Harrington’s nostrils were completed covered by tape and that he mouth was almost or fully covered. Some of the tape was inside his mouth and almost clenched in his teeth, she said.

Beneath the tape, Radisch found bruising, swelling and some abrasions to the left side of the victim’s face.

Radisch said she found no evidence of drugs in Harrington’s body and determined that he died of asphyxiation.

Had he not died of asphyxia, the burning of his body would have resulted in his death, she added.

The trial continues Friday.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the date Harrington's body was found in Foscoe. The article has been corrected.