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Originally published: 2012-10-08 15:14:41
Last modified: 2012-10-09 14:33:49

UPDATE: Russom pleads guilty to murders

A Vilas man accused of killing two people in the presence of his 6-year-old son will spend life in prison without parole after agreeing to a plea bargain Monday in Watauga County court.

Jeremy Daniel Russom, 29, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in the Nov. 22, 2010 shootings of Heather Baumgardner and Barry Cook at 1387 Mabel School Road in Zionville.

Baumgardner, 24, was the mother of Russom’s two children. Cook, 39, was a construction foreman she had recently started dating. Each suffered two gunshot wounds, believed to have come from a .38-caliber handgun police located in a yard near the crime scene, according to statements made in court Monday.

Russom was arrested about four hours after the shooting after fleeing from officers near Country Retreat Family Billiards in Foscoe.

In court Monday, Judge Gary Gavenus proceeded quickly to accept a plea arrangement between District Attorney Jerry Wilson and Russom's appointed attorneys, Garland Baker and Don Willey.

Prosecutors indicated in February 2011 that they intended to seek the death penalty if Russom were convicted. The plea bargain removed that from consideration and ensured that the state would not pursue any other charges from the incident.

Wilson said Tuesday that his office originally expected the case to proceed to trial before he received a call from Russom’s attorneys last week.

“The defendant had a change of heart,” Wilson said. “What brought that on, I’m not sure.”

Wilson said both victims' families were satisfied with the plea. Accepting a plea agreement prevented the young boy from being asked to testify, and it also ensured a greater sense of closure by precluding appeals, he said.

“A lot of people I hear say, well, they need to be sentenced to death,” Wilson said. “But our death penalty in North Carolina has become nothing more than something in a book. In my opinion, we have seen the last execution in North Carolina that we’re ever going to see.”

As a result, Russom will spend the rest of his natural life in prison without the possibility of parole.

He also must pay $18,823 in restitution and a $5,000 fine, along with reimbursements to the state for his attorneys' fees. Gavenus also recommended substance abuse treatment and psychiatric counseling for Russom while in prison.

Russom is not recommended for work release, Gavenus added, and must not have any contact with the immediate family of either victim.

More than two dozen family members and friends of the victims, as well as family of Russom, sat in the courtroom during the half-hour hearing Monday.

Jolene Baumgardner, Heather Baumgardner's mother, presented a letter to the court explaining how her life had been affected by the tragedy and wondering whether Russom felt regret about his actions.

“You have two beautiful children and you murdered their mother in cold blood,” the letter read. “Your son saw you do this. I’ve never known of anyone being so cruel. … My daughter loved you so much and you all could have had such a wonderful life.”

In an interview the morning after the shooting, the boy identified his father as the shooter and told authorities that Russom had broken into the house and was waiting for them that day, Capt. Dee Dee Rominger of the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office said Monday in court.

Baumgardner pledged in her letter to care for the two young children and raise them in a Christian home.

“I know God is with me and he’ll help me to be strong,” she wrote. “I pray for God’s mercy on your soul.”

Skip Greene, Cook’s former employer, said several employees of Greene Construction took a break from work to attend the hearing and remember their friend.

Greene remembered Cook as a “top-notch employee” who got along with everyone and could practically read his boss’ mind.

“I think everybody is relieved that we do not have to go through a court trial,” Greene said. “That would just rub the sores.”

Russom declined to comment Monday when given the opportunity in court. He was admitted Monday afternoon into Central Prison in Raleigh.