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Earl Conrad BRAMBLETT

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Mass murderer
Characteristics: Arson - "Addicted to young girls"
Number of victims: 4
Date of murder: August 29, 1994
Date of arrest: July 30, 1996
Date of birth: March 20, 1942
Victims profile: Blaine and Teresa Hodges and their children, Anah, 3, and Winter, 11
Method of murder: Shooting / Strangulation
Location: Roanoke County, Virginia, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution in Virginia on April 9, 2003
 
 

 
 

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United States Court of Appeals
For the Fourth Circuit

 
opinion 02-3
 
 

Supreme Court of Virginia

 
opinion 981394-981395 transcript 96-743-750
 
 

 
 

Summary:

The bodies of a family of four were found in their burning house on August 29, 1994.

The children and their father were shot in the head. The mother had been strangled. The victims were identified as Blaine and Teresa Hodges and their two children, Anah, 3, and Winter, 11.

Authorities immediately suspected Bramblett, a family friend who had been living with the Hodges family.

After questioning, authorities believed he knew things about the crime scene that had previously not been reported. .22-caliber bullet casings from his truck matched those at the scene and a pubic hair belonging to Bramblett was found in the girls' bed.

Prosecutors theorized that Bramblett murdered the family because he was sexually obsessed with 11 year old Winter, and that Blaine Hodges was using the girl to entrap him in a sex crime. Tapes recovered from Bramblett depicted his sexual attraction toward the eldest daughter.

Bramblett claimed all the circumstantial evidence used against him had either been planted or fabricated. He said his pubic hair sample was taken before authorities located the hair on the girls' bed, and that his tape recordings had been altered to give the impression he was attracted to Winter.

Bramblett was arrested and charged with the slayings about two years after the murders. The testimony of a jailhouse informant, since recanted, was also presented at trial. Bramblett told him he was "addicted to young girls," and said that he had been caught with one of the children by her mother.

The informant testified that Bramblett told him he choked her. After that, Bramblett killed the rest of the family and burned the house to destroy the evidence.

Citations:

Bramblett v. Commonwealth, 513 S.E.2d 400 (Va. 1999), cert. denied , 528 U.S. 952 (1999).

Final Meal:

No final meal request.

Final Words:

"I didn't murder the Hodges family. I've never murdered anybody. I'm going to my death with a clear conscience. I am going to my death having had a great life because of my two great sons."

ClarkProsecutor.org


Convicted Virginia Killer Dies in Electric Chair

Reuters News

April 9, 2003

JARRATT, Virginia (Reuters) - A Virginia man convicted of murdering four members of a family in 1994 was executed on Wednesday in the electric chair, a method he chose over lethal injection as a way to declare his innocence.

Earl Bramblett, 61, was pronounced dead at 9:09 p.m. EDT at the Greensville Correctional Center, said Larry Traylor, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Asked if he had a last statement, Bramblett, who has maintained his innocence, said: "I didn't murder the Hodges family. I never murdered anybody. I'm going to go to my death with a clear conscience. I'm going to go to my death having had a great life because of my two great sons, Mike and Doug."

Once a widely used means of execution, electrocutions have become rare in the United States. Only Nebraska still requires the use of the electric chair. Many states, such as Virginia, give prisoners the option of the electric chair or lethal injection. Bramblett's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and a clemency petition to Virginia Gov. Mark Warner were both rejected.

Blaine Hodges, 41, and his daughters, Winter, 11, and Anah, 3, died of gunshots to the head. His wife, Teresa, 37, had been strangled. The family members were found dead in their burning home by firefighters in 1994. Bramblett was a friend of the family in Vinton, Virginia.

During his 1997 trial, authorities suggested he murdered them before setting fire to their home because he was sexually obsessed with Winter and imagined Blaine Hodges was trying to entrap him in a sex crime. Bramblett was linked to the killings by matching crime-scene bullets with others in his possession.

Tracy Turner, a fellow prisoner, who testified that Bramblett told him he killed the family and that he was "addicted to little girls," now says he lied. Bramblett's lawyers contended in the clemency petition that the case against Bramblett was based on ambiguous circumstantial evidence. They said the murders could have been committed by others, such as a man who worked with Blaine Hodges and was mentally ill.

Bramblett was the first person executed in Virginia this year and the 88th put to death in the state since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed executions to resume in 1976.


Virginia Executes Man for Family's Slaying

By Bill Baskervill - Fredericksburg.com

AP April 9, 2003

JARRATT, Va. - A man who murdered a family of four was put to death in Virginia's electric chair Wednesday, maintaining his innocence to the end. Earl C. Bramblett, 61, was pronounced dead at 9:09 p.m. EDT after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeals and Gov. Mark R. Warner denied his request for clemency.

Bramblett was only the third Virginia inmate to die in the electric chair since condemned prisoners were given the option of electrocution or lethal injection in 1995.

Bramblett was led into the execution chamber at 8:54 p.m. and strapped into the oak electric chair built by inmates. "I didn't murder the Hodges family," Bramblett said firmly in his final statement. "I've never murdered anybody. I'm going to my death with a clear conscience," Bramblett said. "I am going to my death having had a great life because of my two great sons," who visited Bramblett earlier in the day along with his ex-wife.

A Department of Corrections official then turned a key switch in the wall behind the electric chair, activating the system. An executioner sitting behind a one-way glass immediately pressed a button labeled "execute" and 1,800 volts surged through Bramblett's body, causing him to go rigid and throwing him against the back of the chair.

Bramblett's head and right leg were shaved to allow skintight attachments of two electrodes. During the execution, a puff of smoke rose from the electrode on his right leg. After waiting five minutes, Dr. Alvin Harris, a corrections physicians, walked into the death chamber and placed his stethoscope against Bramblett's chest. "This man has expired," Harris announced.

Lawyers for Bramblett unsuccessfully challenged the Virginia law that gives condemned inmates the choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. "We believe it is barbaric," said attorney Jennifer Givens.

Blaine Hodges, 41, and his daughters Winter, 11, and Anah, 3, were each shot once in the head and Teresa Hodges, 37, was strangled. They were found in their burning Vinton home on Aug. 29, 1994.

Authorities immediately suspected Bramblett, a family friend who had been living with the Hodges, after questioning him and discovering he knew things about the crime scene that had previously not been reported, Roanoke County Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Leach said.

Prosecutors also tied Bramblett to the scene using .22-caliber bullet casings they said matched cartridges found in his truck and pubic hair belonging to Bramblett that was found in the girls' bed. Prosecutors theorized that Bramblett murdered the family because he was sexually obsessed with Winter, and that Blaine Hodges was using the girl to entrap him in a sex crime. Tapes played at Bramblett's trial depicted his sexual attraction toward the eldest daughter.

But Bramblett said all the circumstantial evidence used against him had either been planted or fabricated. He said his pubic hair sample was taken before authorities located the hair on the girls' bed, and that his tape recordings had been altered to give the impression he was attracted to Winter.

Bramblett told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he chose the electric chair over lethal injection to protest what he considers his wrongful conviction. "I'm not going to lay down on a gurney and have them stick a needle in my arm and make it look like an antiseptic execution taking place as a result of a fair trial," Bramblett said in a telephone interview from the Greensville prison. Bramblett's attorneys said in their clemency petition that the recanted testimony of a jailhouse snitch who linked Bramblett to the murders also should be enough to warrant a new trial.


Condemned Virginia Man Chooses the Chair

By Maria Glod - The Washington Post

April 8, 2003

A Roanoke County man facing execution for killing a family of four has chosen to die in the electric chair instead of by lethal injection, a decision that could make him the third inmate electrocuted in Virginia since inmates were given a choice in 1995.

Earl Bramblett, 61, is to die at 9 p.m. tomorrow at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt. His attorneys, working to halt the execution, have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and have filed a clemency petition with Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). Jennifer Givens, one of Bramblett's attorneys, said she does not know why Bramblett chose the electric chair.

In 1997, a Roanoke County jury convicted Bramblett of capital murder in the 1994 slayings of longtime friend Blaine Hodges, Hodges's wife, Teresa, and the couple's two daughters.

Blaine Hodges and the two girls, Anah, 3, and Winter, 11, were fatally shot in their Vinton home, authorities said. Teresa Hodges was strangled. Prosecutors have said Bramblett killed the family and then set fire to their home because he feared Blaine Hodges was about to tell police that Bramblett had sexually molested the older daughter.

Bramblett's attorneys, who met with state officials yesterday to discuss the clemency petition, contend that Bramblett's execution should be halted because a "jailhouse snitch," who testified that Bramblett confessed to the killings, has since recanted, according to the clemency petition.

They also said that there are "hints that others had a motive to kill the family." If Warner does not intervene, "the Commonwealth will carry out an execution steeped in the most flagrant prosecutorial abuse," Givens and attorney William H. Lindsey wrote in the petition.

In court documents, Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore maintains that there was significant evidence against Bramblett, including the discovery of a hair that matched Bramblett's on the bed where the children's bodies were found.


ProDeathPenalty.com

A Spartanburg, S.C., man charged with murdering a couple he befriended and their two young daughters implicated himself by describing a detail only the killer would know, prosecutors said.

The victims were found dead after a fire at their Vinton home on Aug. 29, 1994. Teresa Hodges, 37, had been strangled. Blaine Hodges, 41, and the two girls -- Winter, 11, and Anah, 3 -- were shot in the head. Bramblett, a friend of the family who sometimes used their home as his own, was arrested in Spartanburg two years later.

The case was circumstantial. Authorities have no murder weapon, confession, eyewitness or clear motive. Diane Struzzi, a reporter for the Roanoke Times interviewed Bramblett after his arrest.

In the interview, Bramblett said a relative of the Hodges family told him that gasoline had been sprinkled around Mrs. Hodges' body. Burkart said lab results confirming that fact had not been given to investigators when Bramblett made the comment. ''That's only a thing that the killer would know,'' Burkart said.

Defense attorneys Terry Grimes and Mac Doubles argued that much of the evidence was inadmissible, including material obtained in a search of a motel where Bramblett was renting a room and audio tapes Bramblett had sent in sealed boxes to his sister in Indiana but the judge ruled that the jury should see and hear the evidence.

In a tape recording, Bramblett said he believed the Hodges family was trying to entrap him in a police sting. He also claimed in the audio tape that Blaine Hodges was ''keeping espionage on me'' and using his older daughter to lure him into a sexual trap.

He was not specific. Bramblett and Blaine Hodges had been close for 20 years. He was often seen at the Hodges home, painting or building rose trellises. A neighbor saw Bramblett at the home the day before the fire. W.F. Brown, Vinton's assistant chief of police, testified that he went to see Bramblett at his hotel room a few days after the killings to see if he could help them find the culprit.

During questioning, Bramblett was defensive and said, ''Why don't you go ahead and arrest me for murder,'' Brown said. Bramblett broke down in sobs and said he contemplated suicide because he felt so bad about the family's deaths, Brown said. In the motel room, police found cartridge cases of the same caliber as bullets found at the murder scene.


National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

Earl Bramblett, Virginia - April 9, 2003

The state of Virginia is scheduled to execute Earl Bramblett, a white man, April 9 for four murders in Roanoke County in 1994.

Bramblett allegedly killed William Blaine Hodges and his entire family – wife Teresa, daughter Winter, and daughter Anah – before lighting their house on fire. Teresa’s autopsy revealed ligature strangulation, and the rest close range gunshot wounds.

Bramblett, a friend of the Hodges family for many years before the tragedy, has consistently maintained his innocence. After cooperating with police in the days immediately following the crime,

Bramblett fled to Spartanburg, South Carolina, and stayed there until his apprehension and arrest two years later.

Although this action likely damaged his innocence claim in court, numerous psychologists diagnosed him with a severe delusional disorder of the persecutory type, which caused him to believe he was the object of a massive conspiracy (this disorder existed long before the Hodges murders).

At trial, the evidence presented against Bramblett was primarily circumstantial, and it clearly leaves open the possibility that he is, in fact, innocent of the crime for which he awaiting execution.

One of the key witnesses, Dorothy McGee, initially claimed she saw a red truck speeding away from the crime scene at the time of the fire. Bramblett’s truck was white.

But prosecutors later convinced McGee that because of “halogen” lights, the truck appeared pinkish-red, even though it was actually white. However, evidence indicates that those particular lights were not installed until after August 29, 1994, the date of the events described in McGee’s testimony.

In keeping with the all-to-common problems of the death penalty system, Bramblett’s court-appointed attorney failed to object to a reenactment video presented by the state showing a white truck under the aforementioned “halogen” lights. Another critical witness for the state, Tracy Turner, testified that Bramblett confessed to him, and that he described the crime in considerable detail.

Turner, however, allegedly had this conversation with Bramblett while the two men were incarcerated in the Roanoke County Jail; he was a convicted felon himself, a jailhouse snitch hoping to regain his status as a prison trustee.

He clearly fabricated his account of the events, which was inconsistent with medical evidence regarding the order in which the victims were killed. Beyond the problematic facts and the seemingly faulty case presented by the state, there are several mitigating factors that should justify clemency fro Bramblett regardless of the innocence claim.

He has a history of paranoia and delusional disorders, and there are still questions as to whether or not he was competent to stand trial in 1997.

Bramblett has also charged that investigators conducted illegal searches and withheld critical evidence from the defense. These claims, however strong, only cast more doubt on an already questionable case, and the state of Virginia should err on the side of caution and stop this scheduled execution. Please write the state of Virginia and protest the pending execution of Earl Bramblett.


Family's Killer Dies in Electric Chair

By Maria Glod - The Washington Post

April 10, 2003

Convicted killer Earl Conrad Bramblett was put to death last night in Virginia's electric chair, only the third inmate in the state to choose electrocution since lethal injection became an option in 1995.

Bramblett, 61, who was sentenced to death for killing a family of four in southern Virginia in 1994, maintained that he was innocent and said he chose electrocution as a form of protest. "I hope the SOB's who put me here will never forget what they see," Bramblett wrote in an April 3 letter to a private investigator who had supported him. "If that's revenge, then I suppose it is. . . . But perhaps those who just went along (and any other decent people out there) will be so influenced or affected, they will look into my case."

Bramblett was pronounced dead at 9:09 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, the Associated Press reported. He was the first inmate to be executed this year. Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) had denied Bramblett's request for clemency less than an hour before the execution. The U.S. Supreme Court also denied a request for a stay, and both the Virginia Supreme Court and the U.S. District Court in Roanoke rejected last-minute arguments by Bramblett's attorneys that use of the electric chair amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

Bramblett was convicted of capital murder in 1997 in Roanoke County for the killings of his longtime friend Blaine Hodges, Hodges's wife, Teresa, and the couple's two daughters. Blaine Hodges and the two girls, Anah, 3, and Winter, 11, were fatally shot in their Vinton home, authorities said.

Teresa Hodges was strangled. Prosecutors said Bramblett killed the family and then set fire to their home because he feared that Blaine Hodges was about to tell police that Bramblett had sexually molested the older daughter.

Sarah Lugar, Teresa Hodges's niece, said yesterday that she planned to attend the execution, along with her mother, Brenda Lugar. Sarah Lugar remembered the Hodgeses as an "all-American family." She recalled that her aunt often made homemade bread and that the children loved the movie "Beauty and the Beast." "A lot of pain and suffering will die with [Bramblett] tonight," Sarah Lugar said hours before the execution. "Nothing that we are going to see this evening will be any worse than what he did to them."

But Bramblett's attorneys say questions remain about his guilt. In their unsuccessful clemency petition, Jennifer L. Givens and William H. Lindsey argued that the conviction was based largely on the word of a "jailhouse snitch" who later recanted. The petition also argued that authorities disregarded "hints that others had a motive to kill the family."

Prosecutors have vigorously defended the conviction and said the evidence against Bramblett is substantial. In court documents, prosecutors point to evidence including a hair belonging to Bramblett that was discovered in the bed where the children's bodies were found and audiotapes Bramblett had made describing his "obsession" with the 11-year-old.

In his April 3 letter to Douglas C. Graham, the retired private investigator who has corresponded with Bramblett for years, Bramblett called his impending execution an "assassination." If the option of life in prison were offered, Bramblett wrote, he would choose to die. "If I have to sign to accept life, I'm out of here. It's adios, amigo. They are just going to have to kill me," he wrote.

Bramblett spent a few hours yesterday afternoon with members of his family, said Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman Larry Traylor. He made no requests for his last meal and was offered the same dinner served yesterday to all inmates: sloppy Joes, boiled potatoes, corn and chocolate cake.

Traylor said the electrical mechanism attached to the state's homemade oak chair, which officials believe has been used since 1908, is tested about once a month. It was tested Tuesday and again yesterday morning. Bramblett was the third inmate to die in the chair since 1995, when lethal injection became an option for Virginia death row inmates.

In that time, 61 Virginia inmates have been executed by injection. Kenneth Manuel Stewart Jr., who killed his wife and infant son at their Bedford County farmhouse in 1991, was electrocuted in 1998. Michael David Clagett, who killed four people during a robbery, was electrocuted in 2000.


Virginia Executes Bramblett

Richmond Times-Dispatch

April 9, 2003

JARRATT - Earl C. Bramblett was executed in the electric chair tonight for the 1994 slaying of a family of four. Bramblett, 61, was pronounced dead at 9:09 p.m. at the Greensville Correctional Center, said Larry Traylor, Virginia Department of Corrections spokesman.

Relatives of the victims watched the execution. "They were absolutely wonderful people," Sarah Lugar of Richmond, the niece of one of Bramblett's victims, said earlier in describing the slain Hodges family of the town of Vinton in Roanoke County.

Asked if he had a last statement, Bramblett said, "I didn't murder the Hodges family, I never murdered anybody. I'm going to go to my death with a clear conscience. I'm going to go to my death having had a great life because of my two great sons, Mike and Doug." He thanked his sons, saying, "you blessed me. Be strong."

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected three of Bramblett's appeals yesterday, including one that was turned down less than an hour before the execution. His lawyers had filed appeals in federal court and the Virginia Supreme Court yesterday afternoon alleging it was a violation of the ban against cruel and unusual punishment for Virginia to allow a condemned person to choose between the electric chair or lethal injection.

Since Virginia made the option available on Jan. 1, 1995, Bramblett is only the third inmate to choose the chair as his means of death. Traylor said there appeared to be no problems with the execution.

About a dozen protesters held a candlelight vigil during a light rain in a field outside the prison.

Firefighters found the Hodges family members dead in their burning home on Aug. 29, 1994. Blaine Hodges, 41; and his daughters, Winter, 11; and Anah, 3, died of gunshots to the head. His wife, Teresa, 37, had been strangled. Bramblett was a friend of the family.

During his 1997 trial, authorities suggested he murdered the family and torched their home because he was sexually obsessed with Winter and imagined Blaine Hodges was trying to entrap him in a sex crime.


Killer Dies in Virginia Electric Chair

By Bill Baskervill - Washington Times

AP April 9, 2003

JARRATT, Va. — A man who murdered a family of four was put to death in Virginia's electric chair last night, maintaining his innocence to the end. Earl C. Bramblett, 61, was executed at 9:09 p.m. after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected his appeals and Gov. Mark Warner denied his request for clemency. Bramblett was only the third Virginia inmate to die in the electric chair since condemned prisoners were given the option of electrocution or lethal injection in 1995.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused yesterday afternoon to block the execution, although a stay was supported by three justices: John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They did not give a reason. Bramblett was convicted in 1997 of killing Blaine and Teresa Hodges and their two young daughters.

Bramblett was led into the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center at 8:54 p.m. and strapped into the oak electric chair built by inmates. "I didn't murder the Hodges family," Bramblett said firmly in his final statement. "I've never murdered anybody. I'm going to my death with a clear conscience. "I am going to my death having had a great life because of my two great sons," who visited Bramblett earlier in the day along with his ex-wife.

A Department of Corrections official then turned a key switch in the wall behind the electric chair, activating the system. An executioner sitting behind a one-way glass immediately pressed a button labeled "execute" and 1,800 volts surged through Bramblett's body, causing him to go rigid and throwing him against the back of the chair.

Bramblett's lawyers unsuccessfully filed challenges yesterday in the Virginia Supreme Court and Roanoke federal court to the Virginia law that permits electrocution and gives condemned inmates the choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. "We believe it is barbaric," attorney Jennifer Givens said. She said Bramblett's lawyers were aware March 28 that their client had chosen electrocution but did not get around to filing the challenges until yesterday because they were busy with the appeal to the Supreme Court and the clemency request to Mr. Warner.

Bramblett gave the lawyers permission to challenge the Virginia law, but "he has not changed his mind on the method of execution," Miss Givens said. Bramblett was the first inmate executed in Virginia this year.

Bramblett told the Associated Press on Tuesday that he chose the electric chair to protest what he considers his wrongful conviction. "I'm not going to lay down on a gurney and have them stick a needle in my arm and make it look like an antiseptic execution taking place as a result of a fair trial," Bramblett said in a telephone interview from the Greensville prison.

Blaine Hodges, 41, and his daughters, Winter, 11, and Anah, 3, were each shot once in the head and Teresa Hodges, 37, was strangled. They were found in their burning Vinton home on Aug. 29, 1994.

Authorities immediately suspected Bramblett, a family friend who had been living with the Hodgeses, after questioning him and discovering he knew things about the crime scene that had previously not been reported, Roanoke County Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Leach said. Prosecutors also tied Bramblett to the scene using .22-caliber bullet casings they said matched cartridges found in his truck and pubic hair belonging to Bramblett that was found in the girls' bed.

Prosecutors theorized that Bramblett murdered the family because he was sexually obsessed with Winter, and that Mr. Hodges was using the girl to entrap him in a sex crime.

But Bramblett said all the circumstantial evidence used against him had either been planted or fabricated. He said his pubic hair sample was taken before authorities located the hair on the girls' bed, and that his tape recordings had been altered to give the impression he was attracted to Winter.

Bramblett's attorneys said in their clemency petition that the recanted testimony of a jailhouse snitch who linked Bramblett to the murders also should be enough to warrant a new trial.


Courts, Governor Reject Appeals of Family Killer

By Bill Baskervill - Fredericksburg.com

AP April 9, 2003

JARRATT, Va. - A man was to be executed Wednesday night for killing a family of four after last-minute court appeals and a clemency request to Gov. Mark R. Warner were rejected. Earl Bramblett, 61, was to be executed by electric chair, his chosen method of execution.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused a final appeal within an hour of Bramblett's execution, scheduled for 9 p.m. EDT at the Greensville Correctional Center. Warner also declined to intervene. "The death sentence imposed on Mr. Bramblett has been reviewed and affirmed by several courts, including the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Supreme Court of the United States," Warner said in a two-paragraph statement.

Bramblett's lawyers unsuccessfully challenged the Virginia law that permits electrocution and gives condemned inmates the choice between the electric chair and lethal injection. "We believe it is barbaric," said attorney Jennifer Givens. Bramblett gave the lawyers permission to challenge the Virginia law, but "he has not changed his mind on the method of execution," Givens said. Warner would honor a last-minute request by Bramblett if he changed his choice from electrocution to injection, senior Warner advisers said.

Bramblett told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he chose the electric chair over lethal injection to protest what he considers his wrongful conviction. Bramblett would be the first inmate executed in Virginia this year. He would also be the third person in the state executed by electric chair since prisoners were given a choice in 1995. "I'm not going to lay down on a gurney and have them stick a needle in my arm and make it look like an antiseptic execution taking place as a result of a fair trial," Bramblett said in a telephone interview from the Greensville prison.

Blaine Hodges, 41, and his daughters Winter, 11, and Anah, 3, were each shot once in the head and Teresa Hodges, 37, was strangled. They were found in their burning Vinton home on Aug. 29, 1994. Authorities immediately suspected Bramblett, a family friend who had been living with the Hodges, after questioning him and discovering he knew things about the crime scene that had previously not been reported, Roanoke County Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Leach said.

Prosecutors also tied Bramblett to the scene using .22-caliber bullet casings they said matched cartridges found in his truck and pubic hair belonging to Bramblett that was found in the girls' bed. Prosecutors theorized that Bramblett murdered the family because he was sexually obsessed with Winter, and that Blaine Hodges was using the girl to entrap him in a sex crime. Tapes played at Bramblett's trial depicted his sexual attraction toward the eldest daughter.

But Bramblett said all the circumstantial evidence used against him had either been planted or fabricated. He said his pubic hair sample was taken before authorities located the hair on the girls' bed, and that his tape recordings had been altered to give the impression he was attracted to Winter. Bramblett's attorneys said in their clemency petition that the recanted testimony of a jailhouse snitch who linked Bramblett to the murders also should be enough to warrant a new trial. Leach said Tuesday the defense team was "grasping at anything and everything" they could and that all the evidence pointed to Bramblett's guilt.


Tammy Akers and Angela Rader are still missing

Mom remembers missing girl

By Lindsey Nair - Roanoake Times

Wednesday, April 09, 2003

Earl Bramblett, who is scheduled to be executed tonight, was a suspect in the girls' disappearance. He was never charged in connection with it. The man Helen Akers has always suspected of killing her daughter and a friend is about to die at the hands of the state for a different crime. With him, Akers fears, will go any chance she had at knowing what really happened to Tammy Akers and Angela Rader, both 14, about 26 years ago.

"I'm glad that he will never be free to hurt someone else," she said, "but if he never says anything, I'll never find out what happened to Tammy. When he dies, it goes with him." Earl Bramblett is scheduled to be executed tonight for the 1994 killing of the Hodges family of four in Vinton. Akers has contacted one of Bramblett's lawyer and asked if his client would talk to her one last time about her daughter, but she has received no reply.

A detective with the Roanoke Police Department traveled to Sussex 1 State Prison on March 31 for a final interview with Bramblett about the Akers/Rader case, but Bramblett declined to see him. "There's one thing that he's been said to say, that he had done some things that he would never tell anybody," Akers said. "There's always that hope that his heart will be touched and he won't want to die with this on his conscience, that somewhere inside of him there's still something that's good."

On the evening of Feb. 7, 1977, Helen Akers took a trip to a drugstore. Before she left, Tammy told her that she was going out to meet her friend, Angela Rader . She was gone when her parents came home, and neither Tammy nor Angela showed up for school the next day at William Ruffner Junior High School. They were never heard from again. Tammy's mother described her as "spoiled rotten" but said she was always a good little girl until about age 12, when she started getting into trouble. She had run away with Angela a time or two before, something her family thinks kept the police from taking her disappearance seriously for several years. "She was into a lot of stuff that she shouldn't have been into," Akers said. "At that time I was trusting."

The Akers family first met Earl Bramblett in the 1970s, when they lived a block away from his silk-screening shop in Northwest Roanoke. Tammy was part of a group of young people who hung out at the shop and worked there on occasion. Bramblett's wife, Mary, had two young sisters about Tammy's age, and Tammy hung out with them and spent the night with them at Bramblett's house. "I never had any indication at all that he was anything but a nice person," Akers said. " He never talked much to adults, but there were always kids around. Not just mine, but just kids."

Several years after Tammy and Angela disappeared, Roanoke police received a clue. Two young women told a detective they had gone to a party at Bramblett's house. While there, they said, Bramblett drunkenly shot a gun and sobbed that he "wished he hadn't hurt Tammy." Police questioned Bramblett but learned nothing. They kept an eye on him for several years. In 1984, he was charged with molesting a 10-year-old girl but was acquitted. He was never charged in connection with the girls' disappearance.

Prosecutors decided not to mention the Akers/Rader case during the sentencing phase of Bramblett's 1997 trial for the Hodge family murders . Although members of the Hodges, Akers and Rader families believed Bramblett had something to do with the girls' disappearance, there was no hard proof. Prosecutors did subpoena several women to testify that Bramblett had sex with them when they were in their early teens. The judge cut them off after two testified, saying that was enough.

Tammy's older sister, Linda Owens, has said that Bramblett started molesting her at age 12, when he forced her to have sex with him. She testified at the trial, but not on the subject of molestation. Instead, she was asked to recount an incident where Bramblett became violent with her and displayed a gun. Owens believes Bramblett started molesting Tammy about age 9. "After I got older, I realized this old man always had young girls around him," Owens said. "He surrounded himself with young girls."

Eight months after Bramblett landed on death row, investigators dug around his former Bedford County home looking for clues in Tammy and Angela's disappearance. They were not given permission by current owners to dig inside the house, so the dirt basement where Owens believes the girls may be buried has never been searched. Police found nothing outside.

Bramblett might say that proves what he has always maintained: That he had nothing to do with what happened to Tammy Akers and Angela Rader. In a letter to The Roanoke Times in 1998, Bramblett confirmed that he was a suspect in the girls' disappearance but said his drunken statement at the party was misinterpreted by the two young women. "And in my 'crying in my beer sadness' I accepted blame for Tammy's fate because I had never done anything to steer her in a better direction," he wrote. "And I will again express my opinion that Tammy Akers died in a bonfire in central Florida around 1980 and the police are aware of this and have withheld it from the public." Bramblett never explained his theory and police have never mentioned any Florida connection.

A few years ago, police took samples of blood from Akers and Angela's mother, Dorothy Rader, so the girls' remains could be identified if they were ever found and their mothers were no longer living. Dorothy Rader, who always believed Angela was alive, died without ever knowing the truth. So did Tammy's older brother, Patrick, who spent much of his life trying to solve the mystery himself.

Akers said she would like to believe Tammy is still alive, but she does not. "I'm not basing anything on false hopes," she said. "The only thing I wish is that I knew where Tammy was so that I could bring her home" for a proper burial.


Earl Conrad Bramblett

TheDeathHouse.com

Bramblett is scheduled for execution in the electric chair Wednesday for murdering a family of four, including children ages 11 and 3. A former private investigator who has worked on Bramblett's case told The Roanoke Times that Bramblett choose the electric chair as "revenge" on the investigators who he claims have framed him for the murders.

The key evidence directly linking Bramblett, 61, to the murders was the testimony of a jailhouse snitch who initially claimed Bramblett told him he murdered the family. That snitch has since recanted his testimony. The case against Bramblett is mostly based on circumstantial evidence, but evidence that court documents say is "powerful."

Investigators believe that Bramblett murdered the family fearing that the father of the children was going to tell police that Bramblett had molested his oldest daughter. The bodies of the were found in their burning house on August 29, 1994.

The children and their father were shot in the head. The mother had been strangled. The victims were identified as Blaine and Teresa Hodges and their two children, Anah, 3, and Winter, 11. Bramblett was arrested and charged with the slayings about two years after the murders. Bramblett was a family friend.

Bramblett was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997. Bramblett’s appeals lawyers have tried to link the murder to a now dead Vietnam veteran who had an argument with Blaine Hodges at work and had talked of killing women and children.

The circumstantial evidence, mostly disputed, linking Bramblett to the murders included: testimony that Bramblett was with the Hodges family just prior to the murders; a truck closely resembling Bramblett's seen leaving the scene when the fire was discovered; bullet, shell casings and cartridges found in Bramblett's possession matched similar items found in the home; accelerates used to start the fire at the Hodges home discovered on Bramblett’s clothing; a public hair found in the bed of the children; and audiotapes sent by Bramblett to his sister that prosecutors said demonstrated a "motive" for the slayings.

About a year before the murders, Bramblett had sent his sister photographs of the Hodges children and 62 audiotapes, court documents stated. On the tapes, Bramblett expressed a sexual interest in one of the children and believed her parents were trying to "set him up" or entrap him in a sexual act with her.

The audiotapes and package was opened after police started their investigation. But the key evidence came from Tracy Turner, a convicted felon who was with Bramblett in jail while he was awaiting trial.

Turner testified that Bramblett told him he was "addicted to young girls." They discussed the charges the two men faced. Bramblett "said that he had been caught with one of the children by her mother. Turner testified that Bramblett told him he choked her. After that, Turner claimed, Bramblett said he killed the rest of the family.

Turner also claimed that Bramblett told him that he had read in a book that burning the crime scene destroyed forensic evidence and that was why he set fire to the Hodges’ home. Turner said that Bramblett told him his defense at trial would be that the Hodges’ were killed in a drug hit.


Earl Conrad BRAMBLETT

BIRTH: 20 Mar 1942

Father: Lyfus Wilburn BRAMBLETT

Mother: Signe Theodora BEITO

MARRIAGE: 14 Mar 1971


Earl Bramblett Homepage

THE FRAMEUP OF VIRGINIA DEATH ROW INMATE 252091, EARL BRAMBLETT

NO WEAPON-NO WITNESSES-NO MOTIVE-NO CONFESSION

Earl's Last Letter

Earl's Execution Date April 9, 2003

The court will not let Bramblett fire his attorneys and present his own appeal. The attorneys keep all NEW evidence from the court to protect the trial lawyers, because of their incompetence, and prosecution lawyers because they lied in the trial to convict Bramblett.

Police Misconduct-Prosecutorial Misconduct-Judicial Misconduct

THE SCUMBAGS THAT FRAMED HIM

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT BARRY KEESEE, VIRGINIA STATE POLICE INVESTIGATOR FIRED EX-POLICE CHIEF OF VINTON R.R. "RICKY" FOUTZ COMMONWEALTH ATTORNEY OF ROANOKE COUNTY "SKIP" BURKART (Burkart has been appointed a General District Court Judge which indicates the level of justice in Virginia) "MAC" DOUBLES THE BUMBLING INCOMPETENT DEFENSE ATTORNEY

· THE DISCOVERY

· THE GUN FABRICATION

· THE RED TRUCK THAT TURNED WHITE

· THE FIRE "STORY"

· PAGE INFORMATION

To peruse this entire web site; it will take about one hour. It will be well worth your time; should any of your friends or family ever be murdered, and the killer is not immediately found still holding the smoking gun or bloody weapon.

ARE WE STILL LIVING IN AMERICA? "God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right, even though I think it is hopeless." --Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

This is from the Roanoke Times. The lady was interviewed the morning of the crime. The dogs didn't have anything to do with Bramblett's frame up. They were just working as usual trailing suspects.

Below is the Vinton Cop Mike Stovall's testimony about the lights.

Mike Stovall is now a Roanoke County School Board Member and works for First Union. I talked with him on the telephone on 10-13-2000 and he takes the position that the lights had no effect on the truck color and someone may have stayed around an hour and a half after setting the place on fire. That Mrs. McGee's eyesight was excellent. It seems to be the nature of the mindset of police thinking to never admit something may have been a mistake.

Below is Mrs McGee's testimony about the truck she said she saw that morning.

Grimes objected only to this statement. What difference what she imagined? The lights should have been the focus because they were NOT INSTALLED at that part of the highway.

Mrs. McGee first called it a red truck and you notice she amended her description to a pinkish red truck at the urging of police to make the description fit Bramblett's vehicle. The "halogen" lights were a half mile back up toward the crime scene when she saw the red truck under clear lights. But the police were determined in their effort to frame Bramblett so notice below they showed her the trucks under lights other than the ones where she saw the truck. This was no mistake, this was deliberate and it's false evidence concocted by the police and shown to the jury by Burkart who knew it was a lie. I talked with Mrs. McGee 11/25/2000 and she insists she saw a pinkish red truck IN HER HEADLIGHTS. There was no artifical light anywhere near the truck. She said it was dark otherwise. Very dark!

Here is David Williams affidavit to Bramblett's habeas attorneys. He had been a PI about one year when Doubles hired him. One year! Williams was a PI for the defense paid for by the State. It seems he is trying to justify his lack of investigative skills by blaming Bramblett for not cooperating. The State could have saved their money for all the help he was for the "defense". He did a rollover anytime he encountered opposition instead of asserting his right as an official court appointed investigator for the defense of his client. Remember, Burkart, Leach and Keesee had fed Turner the information they wanted him to use in testifying. Turner was the Jail house snitch that has since recanted his testimony because of his conscience bothering him. His name as a witness should have been part of Discovery to the defense.

Below is the form where Keesee asks forensics to test to see if it's Bramblett's print. Notice he says not to run it through the Automated Fingerprint Information System (AFIS). Might not fit the frameup if they actually found who's print it was.

# 2 is Teresa Hodges. This would give most investigators a clue that there was a struggle taking place between Teresa Hodges and her attacker. She was found wearing only panties.

HERE'S HOW MUCH THEY LOOKED FOR THE KILLERS

Keesee's Court Testimony

Grimes, one of Bramblett's trial attorneys, wouldn't honor this Power of Attorney to let me inspect Bramblett's files even though the files were Brambletts. Doubles didn't even respond to my query about the files. You will read elsewhere Grimes offered to send the files to Bramblett after warning him that lots of files never got to prisoners if they were sent there. When the files were finally sent to the habeas attorneys all the discovery evidence was missing. Grimes either kept the discovery evidence or destroyed it.

Doubles and Grimes - Bramblett's two totally incompetent trial attorneys


Abolish Archives

VIRGINIA - November 6, 1997:

A Roanoke County jury recommended yesterday that Earl Bramblett be put to death for killing his former best friend, the man's wife and their 2 daughters. The jury deliberated for 78 minutes before issuing its decision on the 2nd day of Bramblett's sentencing hearing.

In choosing the death sentence over life in prison, the jury decided that Bramblett's crimes were vile and that he still poses a danger to society. A judge will sentence Bramblett next month. 3 witnesses had testified that Bramblett was a good father, a valued worker and an unselfish assistant coach in youth basketball. But several women testified that Bramblett had sexually assaulted or terrorized them.

Bramblett, 55, was convicted Friday of 1st-degree murder in the killing of Blaine and Teresa Hodges, of Vinton, and their 2 daughters, Winter, 11, and Anah, 3, in August 1994. Prosecutors said Bramblett killed the family because he feared that Blaine Hodges was about to tell police that Bramblett had sexually molested Winter Hodges.


COLD BLOODED MURDER (and conspiracy) in Southwest Virginia

It's an ugly word about an ugly subject but all murders aren't committed with violence and weapons.

The one I want to tell you about is the murder of Earl Bramblett; someone the police determined to frame, the morning a crime of murder was discovered in the small Town of Vinton, Virginia August 29, 1994.

The murder was of the entire Hodges family, Blaine Hodges, his wife, Teresa Hodges, two daughters of the couple, Winter age eleven and Anna aged three. The two children had been shot in the head twice, the father shot once in the head and Teresa the mother had been strangled and set on fire. She was downstairs, all others upstairs in bed. The house had been closed up and the fire did little damage to the inside of the house.

Teresa had been burned badly but it was still determined that she had been strangled and was wearing only a pair of turquoise panties, her white shorts were found across the room and she was lying on the rest of her clothing.

The Vinton police and the Violent Crime Unit of the Virginia State Police investigated the crime; Barry Keesee was the Senior Investigator for the case. Although Keesee claimed he thought it was a murder/suicide for over ten hours, he went to Earl Bramblett's place of employment the morning of the crime. He claimed he only knew it wasn't murder/suicide late that same afternoon. This morning visit was not mentioned in Bramblett's trial and Keesee was never questioned as to why he was there. You will find out why he was there later.

There was a part of a handgun found on the floor beside Blaine Hodges bed that was missing a barrel. The forensic firearms examiner ruled it could not have been the murder weapon, not because of the missing barrel, but because the manufacturer's specifications ruled it out. The manufacturers specifications inner barrel configurations did not match the bullets found in the victims.

Later, approximately two years later, this same firearms expert wrote Keesee a letter indicating this gun could be the murder weapon, because of one he found like it had the required inner barrel configurations that matched the bullets in the victims. Why he would remember this particular case was never explained either. He was never asked about this at trial. Later, he would write a letter saying he lied, too much later.

With this new "information" about the piece of gun, a reluctant Commonwealth Attorney, reluctant until this letter, proceeded with a Grand Jury indictment. Earl Bramblett was arrested in Spartanburg, South Carolina where he had been living since his attorney told him to leave the Roanoke, VA area shortly after the crime. He was working at a trade in which he was a master, silk screen printing, and had bought a house and somehow acquired a three legged dog.

The police had been watching him for a couple of days before this arrest and went in with their guns drawn as if he were some violent offender. Bramblett's only brush with the law was about twenty years back when he was found guilty of drunk driving, and writing a bad check at about that same time. There was no violence anywhere in Earl Bramblett's background.

Judge Roy Willett, an irascible twenty-five year veteran of the bench, decided there wasn't reason enough to change venue and the trial started in November of nineteen ninety-seven. Bramblett had been in the County of Roanoke Jail for a year as his court appointed attorneys, appointed by Willett, asked for delay after delay, ostensibly to gather more evidence for his defense. In the meantime, the attorneys asked for, and got, a Private Investigator paid for by the State to look into Bramblett's allegations that he was the victim of a conspiracy by the police and the adult victims.

The trial was supposed to be the longest in the history of Roanoke County, but it was shortened considerably by the lack of preparation and the inexperience of the defense attorneys. The year they had to prepare for the case was either wasted or they were too frightened by the jury trial and judge to present a case. It was a one-sided affair to say the very least. It may have even been a rollover by the defense attorneys because Bramblett was difficult to work with and they believed him guilty also.

In either case Bramblett was under represented and Willett sat and listened as about every rule of jurisprudence was violated. The trial was a pathetic attempt at theater to railroad an innocent man to Virginia's death row. In this instance, Virginia's fast track death row. Bramblett was executed April 9, 2003 at Greenville, VA at 9:09 PM. How many other capital murder cases do you know of that are "finalized" in five years? This particular case will show you how "justice" works in Virginia.

This was not just several people gathering evidence and coming to a common conclusion, this was a conspiracy to imprison and kill Earl Bramblett, for crimes they believed he committed. This was a conspiracy by the Commonwealth Attorney of Roanoke County Skip Burkart, his assistant Randy Leach, the Virginia State Police Investigator Barry Keesee asking/coercing the State Firearm Forensic Expert Bill Conrad, inmate Tracy Turner and a witness, Mrs. Dorothy McGee to commit perjury.

These people were aided and abetted by Mac Doubles and Terry Grimes, Bramblett's defense attorneys and Will Lindsey, Bramblett's habeas attorney. The facts I show you here are indisputable because they are from the very people that framed Earl Bramblett and killed him.

All of these people thought that would be the end of their scam to kill this man, Earl Bramblett. Little did they know that this is just the beginning, since before, they had only imprisoned an innocent man, now they have killed an innocent man.


JusticeDenied.org

{Disclaimer: The JD Staff did not reach a consensus on running this story. The reason some of us wanted to publish the story is that we felt there was enough evidence for innocence to risk it. If it turns out that we are wrong, we will learn from that, but if the man is innocent, we would feel remiss at not giving him a chance to speak in his defense.

Actually, it is not Bramblett who asked us to publish his story, but his advocate, who will remain nameless. Our readers make up their own minds anyway, so this is another story in which you will decide innocence or guilt. --From the divided staff at JD.}

Earl Bramblett: Was he framed by vengeful police?

Most so-called normal people are born into families with two parents who nurture, protect and love them until they find mates of their own and the process is repeated generation by generation. Then there are people like Earl Bramblett. Earl and his brothers and sisters were loved and protected but the other influence in the family was alcohol.

Earl's father seemed to handle this "problem" better than his mother did, but it still tore the family apart. Earl, the youngest, was affected more than his siblings were. His family's nomadic existence had a lasting effect, one that would impact every facet of his colorful and fateful future.

Due to changing school so often, Earl developed an ability to make friends easily and was a very good athlete. Friends as far back as high school still remember him and keep in touch. They express disbelief that the Earl Bramblett they knew could be sitting in a cell on Virginia's Death Row. The route from popular high school athlete to Virginia's Death Row covers a span of about thirty-five years and may have a lot to do with his early years and dysfunctional family.

Earl dropped out of college in California and came to Roanoke, Virginia to be closer to his father and an older brother. He took a job in his father's silk screen printing business and showed a very high aptitude for doing quality work but that didn't stop the animus that had developed over the years. Earl quit and took a job as assistant coach at a local high school. It was here he met a young athlete by the name of Blaine Hodges and Bramblett was his track coach for several semesters. Bramblett went back to running his father's business because his father was in failing health and soon died.

The business prospered and Earl met a young woman and they fell in love and were soon married. The marriage resulted in two children, Mike and Doug, and all was well for several years but soon Bramblett's need for space and his former lifestyle of coming and going when he pleased presented problems. Divorce was inevitable and soon Earl returned to his former lifestyle seeking good times.

Earl continued to run the printing business located in a somewhat rundown part of the city in a neighborhood of rental property and older homes going to seed. Many of the teenaged children of the neighborhood sometimes found errands they could run or small jobs they could perform for a few dollars at the print shop. Earl knew many of the older teens, fifteen and sixteen year olds, and may have had sex and given alcohol to a couple.

If this sounds shocking it wasn't that unusual in the early "swinging" seventies, especially in the neighborhood where the print shop was located. Many of these girls would be having children of their own in a year or so and given the state of everything that was going on in those years throughout the country it was nothing anyone would get alarmed over.

Earl was using a seventeen-year-old girl to figure his time cards at the shop and caught her cheating the company. To get back at Bramblett she had her thirteen-year-old sister accused Bramblett of fondling her. Bramblett was arrested but evidence showed he was out of town on business when the girl alleged the incident happened. The judge issued a stern warning to the police to not bring cases into his courtroom without properly checking evidence. This may have been the beginning of the police attempting to get something on Bramblett because of their embarrassment at being rebuked by the judge.

Things continued as usual until the summer of 1974 when two girls Earl knew were reported missing by their families. One of the teens had been picked up driving a stolen car and was also charged with assault and battery and shoplifting.

The judge gave her a break but told her if she came back in his courtroom she would be sent away. It was reported she had run away to visit a sister in Florida. There was an extensive investigation and Earl was investigated thoroughly. Even his lake house was searched and tracking dogs searched the surrounding grounds. A concrete patio Bramblett had installed was dug up and inspected.

Nothing was ever found that Earl had anything to do with their disappearance. One of the girls was reportedly seen in a grocery store several months after the disappearance. All this was reported in the local daily newspaper, The Roanoke Times and World News, and the mother of one of the girls got a phone call from her daughter saying she was all right. Other than that information, neither of the girls has been heard of since.

This scared Earl Bramblett. From that time forward he suspected, with some reason, that the police were always watching him. This incident along with the police so eager to charge him on the thirteen-year old girl's say-so was the genesis of Bramblett's paranoia. Anytime Earl saw a policeman or police vehicle he would avoid being near them and do all sorts of maneuvers to get out of their way to keep from being noticed. It became a way of life.

Earl would see one of his track students occasionally, Blaine Hodges, and they would talk about what was happening in each other's life and, now older, Blaine became somewhat of a friend. Earl had closed his printing shop by this time and was working on a job basis for several companies around the Roanoke valley while living a nomadic life. Earl could make a lot of money very fast doing silk screening but money wasn't his main interest in life. Freedom to come and go and hit the open road to travel, visiting his sisters in other states, was far more desirable than the forty-hour-a-week grind.

During this time Blaine Hodges had met a girl he was serious about, Teresa Fulcher, and they asked Earl to be at their wedding. From then on Bramblett was a frequent visitor at Blaine and Teresa Hodges' home. Earl was their friend when their first daughter, Winter, was born and later their other daughter, Annah. All during this time Earl was watching his sons grow up and paying child support but his real family was the Hodges. Blaine Hodges was working at the Vinton Post Office as a window clerk and Teresa was a homemaker. Teresa doted on her children and was a very good mother. Earl had much more empathy with the Hodges than the infrequent times he was able to visit his own children. Winter and Annah were like his grandchildren but he had a special affinity with Winter because of her intelligence and outlook on life and ideas about the social order.

All seemed to be well with the Hodges and their friend Earl Bramblett until Blaine decided to "borrow" some money from his postal drawer. He had done this a couple of months before but had managed to replace it before it was discovered. This time he wasn't so lucky. He was charged with the crime and found guilty and sentenced to six months in Federal Prison and had to pay back twice the amount he had stolen, which amounted to about nine thousand dollars.

Blaine Hodges never revealed for what he needed the money or on what he spent it. It is known that he didn't use the money to pay bills or buy anything obvious such as a car or cameras or anything tangible he showed to anyone. The postal inspector knew, but he was not allowed to testify to what it was. Blaine Hodges was really angry at the post office and showed the supervisor a check after he was fired and said, "I'll make a lot more money than that job paid." She said it looked like a government check.

Teresa Hodges' half-brother worked for the DEA and was a well-known drug dealer in the Roanoke area. He and Blaine were always doing things together but were not "real" friends. Most times their dealings together involved secrecy, which bred a lot of suspicion from Bramblett. Earl tried to help the Hodges anyway he could after Blaine was fired. He really didn't want Teresa and the children to suffer so he did what he could in bringing food to the Hodges and also paid for Winter's baton and dance lessons.

Earl gave Blaine a printing set up but Blaine wasn't interested in starting a printing business and he sold it to a church in North Carolina for four thousand dollars. Earl worked for several companies and used Blaine to help him whenever he could and found other odd jobs for Blaine so the family would have some income. Blaine and Teresa had gotten in the Amway business but were far from realizing a living from it.

For some reason, Earl thought that Blaine had made some kind of deal with the police to entrap him and thereby Blaine would escape going to jail. This is a ridiculous idea to people who are not paranoid but very real to someone who is.

Earl thought this entrapment employed Winter, the eleven-year-old, to do inappropriate things, like standing on her head while wearing a dress or running around the house without a top on, in an effort to get Earl to do something inappropriate with or to her. Again, this is not the thinking of a rational person but of someone who is paranoid to the point of obsession. The child's normal childish behavior, in Earl's eyes, became a sinister enticement.

Earl bought a small recorder and started cataloging the events as he saw them and sometimes even left the recorder running in the Hodges house to see if he could find what they were plotting against him. All this time he is the friend of the family thinking that Blaine is forcing his wife and daughter into doing these things to entrap him against their will. He held them blameless and continued his support of the family by still working Blaine whenever he could and being a benefactor of the family.

Bramblett lived in a travel trailer at one of the businesses where he worked but spent a lot of time at the Hodges. Earl sold the trailer and paid Blaine to help him deliver it to North Carolina. Earl then spent his time at the Hodges, cheap motels, in his truck and traveling around the country.

Winter told Earl at one time that she was ashamed of the house and "that only trash lives in houses that look like this." Earl convinced Blaine he could paint the house for them just to have something to do because he knew Blaine didn't want charity and would not have let him do it if he thought it was charity. He told Blaine he would paint it all except the high parts because he is afraid of heights. Blaine agreed to paint those parts because he was a pilot and not afraid of heights. Earl had just about finished painting the house when the tragedy happened.

On August 29, 1994 a postal worker going to work was driving down Virginia Avenue in Vinton when a huge cloud of black smoke crossed the road in front of him. The postal worker stopped his car and saw smoke coming from the house at 232 Virginia Avenue.

The man was hearing impaired and couldn't call himself and tried to flag a couple of cars but they kept going. Finally someone stopped and the fire department was called and they arrived within minutes. The first firemen went into the house through an upstairs bedroom window.

The house was filled with smoke and attempting to get out of the thickest part they started crawling around on the floor. One firefighter noticed a man lying on the bed and closer inspection revealed the man was dead of a gunshot wound in his head from temple to temple.

They radioed the information to the outside firefighters and continued into the other bedroom finding two children, both dead, with gunshot wounds to the head. Both had been shot twice at close range, once in the forehead and once from temple to temple.

A fireman, seeing what looked like a blaze downstairs crawled across the living room dragging a fire hose and encountered a badly burned body of a woman on a still smoldering couch. He gingerly sprinkled water on the couch to put out the smoldering and proceeded to the small fire burning at the foot of the stairs leading to the top floor.

The police arrived and secured the area as well as possible, but the crime scene had been compromised out of necessity in putting out the fire. The Virginia State Police Violent Crime Unit arrived and started their investigation. The police and Fire Marshall's office made a video that shows when viewed later that the professionals knew very little about fire and fire patterns. Guesswork and suppositions is what the video shows, instead of professionalism and experience.

In the meantime the coroner determined that the death of the children and Blaine Hodges was the result of gunshot wounds at close range -- a matter of inches or less. Teresa Hodges, the children's mother and Blaine's wife, was strangled to death. Her body, lying on the couch, was then set on fire. She was wearing only a pair of panties and her white cotton shorts were found over by the stairs near the landing.

Now comes the mystery. According to the Medical Examiner of Southwest Virginia, Dr. David Oxley, Blaine Hodges had been dead twelve to twenty-four hours before the others were killed. It was determined that the rest were killed sometime between two and five o'clock on the morning of the discovery.

The police maintained they did not have a suspect but Earl Bramblett was the only person they were looking at as the culprit. The police chief of Vinton Virginia, Rick Foutz, kept pressuring Bramblett to "come in and clear his name" at every opportunity he had talking with the news media. The police clearly thought Earl Bramblett was the murderer, but they kept insisting he wasn't a suspect.

Unknown to anyone at the time, Bramblett had been summoned to the police station on the day the crimes were discovered but believed the police were trying to trap him into saying something incriminating. His defensiveness and nervousness around the police was described as "odd" behavior.

The police came to his motel room and talked to him and he promised to return to the police station. In the meantime, Earl talked to his friend and lawyer, Jonathan Rogers, who told him to stay away from the police and say nothing to them.

The police then went to Bramblett's motel. When Bramblett did not show up as promised, they got the motel owner to open Bramblett's room just as he was returning to the motel in a cab. He told the police to get out of his room and that he was not going to talk to them on the advice of his lawyer.

That should have been the end of it, but later that evening the police got two of the Hodges' brothers to go back to the motel to talk with Bramblett. This time they were wired to record what Bramblett said. The tape is very poor quality and appears that the copy the defense was furnished was altered. When the brother tells Earl what has been poured on the couch to set Teresa on fire, it is garbled in that one spot.

The tape goes on where the one brother is telling Bramblett that Blaine was scared and he has never known him to be afraid before. It also mentions a couple of people that Blaine was doing business with. This tape was never introduced as evidence in the trial even though Bramblett is saying he would gladly help the police if he knew anything and is crying profusely all the while.

It also refutes the prosecutor's statement that "only the killer would know that "speaking of the couch being set on fire" with whatever has been garbled that was poured on the couch before it was set afire.

Shortly thereafter, Bramblett hand-wrote a letter to the Roanoke Times that they published in October 1994 that said "the Blaine Hodges family were my family and Winter and Annah were my daily joys."

The police continued their denial that Bramblett was a suspect all the while searching his motel room and storage locker. Bramblett wrote another letter to the Roanoke Times saying, "I think I counted six or seven total lies by the police," and, "they did not misquote me or misunderstand what I said. They totally fabricated the whole story of when I was in the Vinton Police Department." On his attorney's advice he left Roanoke and for the next two years no one heard from him.

On July 30, 1996 Earl Bramblett was arrested for Capital Murder in Spartanburg, SC, where he had been living since shortly after leaving Roanoke. He was working at a print shop and had bought a house, which he had deeded to his two sons. He was returned to Roanoke and was arraigned for Capital Murder and spent the next full year in the Roanoke County Jail while awaiting trial.

Judge Roy Willett, 23rd Judicial Circuit, appointed the most inept and inexperienced lawyer that has practiced in the Roanoke Valley to represent Bramblett and he in turn hired another lawyer noted for losing what should be easily won cases.

This judge has since been relieved of his duties on the bench, according to newspaper accounts, because of his gruffness and his interest in saving time more than in justice. In any case, the trial was noteworthy because the defense presented no evidence to refute the prosecution's thinly disguised attempt to convict Bramblett on an unnatural interest in the eleven-year-old child.

There was absolutely no evidence to substantiate such a charge and just about any other lawyer would have strenuously objected to such a suggestion.

The coroner's report even stated there was no evidence of either child ever being sexually molested and the report also stated Winter still a virgin. There was also a piece of a revolver found next to Blaine Hodges body on the floor.

The firearm was missing a barrel and the bullets in the victims were fired from a gun with a barrel as evidenced by the markings called lands and grooves. The ballistics expert first said this could not have been the murder weapon and later changed his story to say it could have been the murder weapon and in trial testified it was the murder weapon.

The police had a report of shots fired at 3:30 a.m. on the morning of the murders and that is most likely when the fire was set. The murderer or murderers closed all the windows in the house and the fire was starved for lack of oxygen.

It found a draft through the old coal chute in the basement and heated the house, smoldering and building up heat until it burst marking pens and melted plastic. The heat even burned the hands of the people who discovered the fire when they tried the doorknobs to get into the house and stung their eyes when they broke the front door glass.

The Medical Examiner didn't take into account that the body of Blaine Hodges was upstairs baking for several hours right above the hottest part of the fire. This, by other forensic pathologist, gives an unnatural reading on the time of death. This was never considered to have any effect. The coroner also missed two stab wounds on Blaine Hodges' body.

Teresa's clump of hair was found on the steps leading to the upstairs. This would give an indication that there was a struggle that took place with her attacker but it was never considered. There were certainly no marks on Bramblett. The prosecutor even claimed Bramblett washed and dried his murder clothing in the basement before fleeing the house.

The police set up a roadblock and asked people if they had seen anything the morning of the crimes. They found some seventy-two year old lady who said she saw a red truck pulling from the driveway the morning of the murders. Bramblett drove a white truck but they convinced the woman it was a white truck under "halogen" lights.

The lights they were referencing are actually high-pressure sodium lights that give off an orange glow. The problem was the lights were not installed where the lady saw the truck at that time. So the police waited until the lights were installed at the place the lady said the truck passed her and said she saw the color and then made a video of the white truck under the lights.

Court testimony by a policeman proves the lights were not installed where the lady saw the truck. No objection to the video that was nowhere near the same conditions as the morning of the fire, or to the lights not being installed.

There is nothing in evidence that puts Bramblett anywhere near the Hodges the morning of the murders. There is definitely no confession. There is no motive for Bramblett to kill the Hodges.

There is also no forensic evidence that connects him to the murders. Bramblett was convicted of killing the Hodges because of the innuendo and suggestion by the prosecutor that Bramblett had an unnatural interest in the eleven-year-old Winter Hodges. The defense did not show or tell the jury that the Hodges were the same as Bramblett's own family. They brought up nothing about all the help Bramblett gave the Hodges in their hard times or his gifts of money or the jobs he provided for Blaine Hodges.

Bramblett maintains he went to the Hodges on Sunday the 28th of August 1994 to get his camper top and was going to ask Blaine to help him put it on his truck. When he got there, Teresa and the children came out and she had Earl a cup of coffee. She asked Earl to take them riding and he did so gladly.

She did not go back in the house to tell Blaine, if he was there, that they were leaving. Bramblett said he thought they might be having one of their frequent tiffs. They stopped and got hotdogs and were going to have a picnic on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Sometime that afternoon, Winter told Earl she was afraid and asked him to spend the night. He asked Teresa what was bothering Winter and she told him someone was after Blaine. She said Blaine was taking care of it. They rode around and stopped at several overlooks.

At one time Bramblett and the children played in the creeks and a Park Ranger talked to Teresa and chitchatted for a while. They finally returned to the Hodges and Teresa was supposed to call one of the mothers to make arrangements to pick up Winter because school was starting the next morning.

The house phones were dead so they checked the phones in the house to make sure one was not off the hook and then Earl drove them to a convenience market to call the woman, which she did. On the way back to the house Teresa saw someone in Amway and remembered they had a meeting scheduled that night and she didn't want to have it.

She asked Earl to park down at the end of the block so no one would know anyone was home. When they got to the house Teresa put notes on the front and back doors saying there had been an emergency. Earl was preparing to spend the night on the couch and the kids had gone to bed and Teresa went upstairs to get him a pillow and blanket.

He waited and thought she had forgotten it and started up the steps. Teresa was at the head of the steps and told Earl she thought Blaine might get mad if he stayed. So he left and stayed the night in his truck at his work place. As mentioned previously, staying the night in the truck was something Bramblett did frequently.

That morning he clocked in at his workplace and left to take care of some personal business. He had his son's car towed from his ex-wife's place and got some printing screens for his day's work from a friend's business where they were stored. When he got back to his work place there were messages from the police and the friend he had just seen.

Bramblett marked off his clock in time because he didn't do any work. Later the police would claim he was trying to hide the time. A call to the friend informed him there had been a fire at the Hodges and the other was the Vinton Police asking him to come to the police station. Over the next several days the police searched everything he had and Earl left Roanoke.

If Bramblett's life had not been at stake, the trial could be called a comedy. Bramblett's lawyer went charging across the courtroom without ever saying who he was or what he was doing there and made the statement that the state's evidence wasn't always reliable and sat down. His opening was about one minute.

The judge had already made up his mind regarding Bramblett's guilt and the couple of times the defense objected to anything, the judge intimidated them with harsh words and grim looks.

The prosecution had carte blanche to present anything they wanted to secure a conviction. Bramblett kept asking the judge if he could ask the witnesses questions, but that was denied. The judge told him to talk to his lawyers. They were not about to draw the ire of the judge, so Bramblett was convicted on evidence so flimsy that it wouldn't convict most people of a traffic ticket.

All the evidence that shows Bramblett did not commit this crime is in the court testimony. There is nothing further to look at, although I found the real firearm in the case that the forensic "expert" mislabeled. How a trial for capital murder, multiple murders, can be presented in a court of law in this sloppy a fashion, with evidence this poor, with forensics this questionable, with lawyers this incompetent, with a judge so opinionated and obviously helping the State's prosecution is a disgrace to the judicial system in America.

Bramblett is not a violent person. He is a good-hearted person who has some quirky habits like freedom to go wherever and whenever he pleases, and lived a lifestyle most of us find strange. Still, that is no reason for the police to frame him for multiple murders they did not have the expertise to solve.

The police lied about the fire evidence, truck evidence, firearm evidence and the forensic evidence. This has been proven beyond any doubt. Their own statements prove this. How can they argue with that?

The Virginia Supreme Court rubber-stamps every death penalty conviction, but with this one they went one step further. Justice Christian Compton of the Virginia Supreme Court praised the police work and forensic evidence in gaining a conviction.

He praised everything that is a lie. The Vinton, Virginia Police Chief, Rick Foutz and his lead investigator in this case, Bill Brown, were both fired citing irregularities, one of which was evidence custody. Even Foutz and Brown said it was a "joke."

The trial Judge of the 23rd Judicial District has been "fired" for the very reasons I claim was wrong with him at trial. He was short-tempered and considered time more important than justice. The defense attorney, Mac Doubles, is now awaiting a decision on having been a prosecutor in the Roanoke Commonwealth Attorney's office which had an open-ended case about the missing girls mentioned in the story above.

The State Police Investigator Barry Keesee has multiple convictions of people where he was the only one who heard testimony that was instrumental in putting them away. The Earl Bramblett frame up cannot be allowed in a country we call free and claim equal justice under the law.


Family Friend

By John Grass

CyberSleugths.com

The firemen had successfully beaten back the early-morning blaze and were searching the second floor of the residence for survivors, creeping through heavy, roiling smoke and an overpowering stench, when their flashlights panned across the body of a man laying on a bed. The man's body was partially hidden by a pile of laundry and, incongruously, a torn-down curtain. Working in the weird light, they determined he was dead and set off to continue the search. Abruptly, one of the searchers returned to the body for a second look, then scrambled back to his partner. As he would later explain to a jury, ?I was trying to tell Bobby, you know, that something wasn?t right here; people just don?t bleed from smoke inhalation. They throw-up and things, but they don?t bleed like that.? Minutes later, Vinton Police Chief Rick Foutz had been awakened and was racing through the dark, quiet streets to the scene of a crime that would dominate practically every waking hour for the next three years of his life.

The Town of Vinton, Virginia lies on the south and southeast edges of the City of Roanoke, once the hometown of the Norfolk Southern Railroad. The railroad has moved it?s headquarters to Atlanta, but the huge complex of yards remains. That, and the proximity of I-81, have made Roanoke and the adjoining areas an important trucking and transportation center; United Parcel Service, Kroger, and numerous mail-order distribution companies have built important hubs there, and trucks from dozens of companies rumble along the major arteries at all hours of the day and night. The muscular, industrial appearance can be misleading, however. Roanoke has been selected as an All-American city repeatedly, and with good reason.

The crime-rate is relatively low, and mostly penny-ante; violent crimes are rare. The schools are no worse than anywhere else, and the libraries are very good. The public- and private-sectors usually manage to swallow their differences and work together to advance the interests of the entire community. But the area?s best feature is the exceptional friendliness of it?s people. Leave the thoroughfares and get into the neighborhoods, and one has the sense of having traveled back in time. The streets are clean, the houses well-tended, neighbors stand on street-corners chit-chatting.

People here know their neighbors, and look after them. Further, newcomers are made welcome; on moving-day some neighborhood mother will send over a child bearing a plate of hearty sandwiches, and another will stop by to drop-off his tool-box because ?you?ll need them, and it may be a while before you find your own.? Within a few days the new family will receive a dozen callers, all of them dropping-by just to introduce themselves and invite the family to church.

Nearly always, highly-educated professionals whose careers might flourish in some larger city will explain their decision to live and work in the largely blue-collar Roanoke Valley with the words "It's a great place to raise kids."

Monday, August 29, 1994 marked the end of summer for the valley?s children, for that was the day the new school year began. At approximately 4:50 that morning, a postal employee driving to work observed thick smoke billowing across the roadway. Looking sideways, he saw flames through the first-floor windows of a small, Cape Cod-style residence. He pulled his car to the curb and, along with another early-morning commuter that had stopped, ran to the house. Intending to alert the occupants and unable to open the front door, the men smashed a window; a blast of heat pushed them back. Retreating, they called fire and rescue services, then watched helplessly as the flames continued to feed on the house.

The fire-trucks arrived within minutes, and the fire was quickly extinguished. Then the search for survivors began. Continuing through the second-story after finding the first body, the searchers crept into another room. There, the firemen found the intertwined bodies of two girls lying in a bed. These corpses, too, were bloody. The body of a woman, aflame when the firemen entered the home, lay on a couch on the first floor. She was so badly burned that no one would guess how she had died, and it appeared to firemen that an accelerant had been used to start the fire.

Stunned firemen and police removed the bodies for autopsy, strung police-tape and, shaking their heads with disbelief, wondered just what had been going on inside that house. As the town police called-in local and state personnel and laboratory resources, launching a crime-scene investigation that would last more than a week, neighbors milled on the sidewalks and gossiped. Passing vehicles would slow to almost a crawl as they threaded their way through the thickening phalanx of ambulances, police cars, fire trucks; one of those vehicles, a neighbor later recalled, was a battered, familiar-looking white pickup-truck with a black tailgate.

The deceased were William Blaine Hodges, 41, his wife Teresa, 37, and their daughters Winter, 11, and Anah, 3. Blaine Hodges had been shot once in the left temple. Winter and Anah had each been shot twice in the head; the gun had been pressed against Winter's skull when fired, and Anah had been shot from a few inches away.

Police were forced to consider a lot of possibilities as the investigation got underway.

Murder-suicide? This was the early favorite among police and neighbors, because Blaine Hodges was a convicted felon about to begin a jail sentence. In 1991, Hodges was working as a clerk at the Vinton Post Office. A routine audit found that his cash drawer was more than $4600 short. Convicted of embezzlement in 1993, his appeal had been rejected just weeks earlier and he was scheduled to begin a six-month prison sentence within a few weeks. Further, he had to repay the money he'd stolen and an additional $4600 fine. Perhaps he had snapped at the prospect of separation from his family and removal to a federal penitentiary, to be followed by a long financial struggle.

Revenge? This was a possibility too. Teresa Hodges' brother, Michael Fulcher, was a sometime police-informant, petty criminal, and one-time DEA drug-runner. Had the Hodges run afoul of someone in Fulcher's circle?

An intruder? The family wasn't wealthy.

Investigators methodically began interviewing family, friends, neighbors, compiling the details of the family's final hours.

Blaine and Teresa had turned to selling Amway products following his dismissal from the Post Office, and they believed their little business was about to go zoom. The preceding Friday evening they'd attended a regional meeting of Amway distributors in Charlottesville, Virginia with another couple from the Vinton area, leaving their two daughters with a relative. They'd returned home at about 3:00 AM Saturday.

Blaine picked-up his two girls and returned home at about 11:00 am. Nothing about his behavior struck relatives as unusual.

At about 12:30, an Amway colleague visited the Hodges' house. Blaine and Teresa seemed untroubled to him, too. The only odd thing occurred when he had briefly been alone in the basement with Winter, testing a stain-removal product; a grandfatherly man who'd been painting the rear door had castigated her for being alone in the basement with him. Beginning at 5:05, Blaine spoke on the telephone for about half an hour with yet another Amway colleague; the colleague doesn't recall anything out of the ordinary about the conversation.

At 9:30 that evening, Teresa had a telephone conversation with the mother of one of Winter's classmates; they concluded by agreeing they'd talk late the next afternoon to coordinate car-pooling plans for Monday, the first day of school.

That's the last time the telephone was used. Sunday morning, the Hodges missed church. That evening the Hodges were to host a meeting of Roanoke-area Amway distributors; when they arrived at the house at about 7:00 PM, they found a note written by Teresa that said simply "Had an emergency. Back late Sunday, early Monday."

It is axiomatic that the first hours of an investigation are the most important. Eyewitness accounts are none-too-reliable in the first place, and the significance of physical evidence might not be recognized in time to prevent its inadvertent destruction. Even as a criminal flees, the crime scene is irreparably changed by the investigation, and gossip combined with the innocent tendency to fill the blanks in what one saw may damage memories.

Shocked by the deaths and anxious at the possibility that a quadruple murder may have occurred, police from several jurisdictions poured into the neighborhood in response to the town's request for assistance. Repeatedly over the course of that long, first day of interviews, the Hodges neighbors and friends would tell them "You really ought to talk to Earl." Earl Bramblett was a family friend, a ubiquitous presence at the Hodges home, the man that had chastised Winter for being alone in the basement with Blaine's business associate. Late that afternoon Vinton Police called Bramblett's place of employment, a silk-screening shop; he was unavailable. Bramblett returned the call later that afternoon, and agreed to meet with police that evening.

The interview began shortly after 5:00 PM. When told that the Hodges family had died in a fire, police say Bramblett exclaimed "The sorry son of a bitch! Had a beautiful family. He did them and he did himself." But according to police, no one had yet said anything about homicide or murder-suicide. In truth, Bramblett already knew the family was dead; police would later learn he had called his ex-wife that afternoon to tell her about the fire, and had predicted that the police would "blame it on me."

Further, according to court records, On 08-29-94 Bramblett was interviewed by Special Agent B.R. Keesee with the Virginia State Police and Sergeant M.A. Vaught with the Vinton Police Department. During the initial stages of the interview, the officers attempted to ascertain when the last time was that Bramblett saw Blaine Hodges, one of the deceased. At this, Bramblett blurted out, "Why? Are you going to charge me with murder?" After this, and during the rest of the interview, Bramblett was visibly defensive and evasive. He did, however, tell Keesee that he was at the Hodges residence on the day before the fire. This was confirmed by a neighbor to Special Agent Jon Perry, also of the Virginia State Police.

When Perry questioned Bramblett about this in the presence of Keesee, Bramblett denied being at the Hodges residence that day. When pressed by Keesee over the discrepancy, Bramblett stated, "Why don't you go on and charge me with murder and get it over with?"

By Tuesday afternoon, slightly less than 36 hours after the fire and the discovery of the bodies, the autopsies were complete. As anticipated, the medical examiner found that Blaine, Winter and Anah had each died from gunshot wounds. Teresa had been strangled and, further, the accelerant used to start the fire had been poured directly on her corpse. As investigators wondered why Teresa had died differently than the rest of her family, the medical examiner handed them another startling fact: Blaine had died 12 to 24 hours earlier than the rest of his family, sometime between early Sunday morning and Sunday afternoon.

Police now knew with certainty that they were looking for a killer. Clearly, Blaine could not have been the prime-actor in a murder-suicide, and there was no way that Teresa had strangled herself and then set the fire.

The investigators met that Tuesday to review what they had learned, and to determine what ought to be done next. The next morning, they decided, they'd set up a roadblock to intercept regular, early-morning commuters; perhaps someone had seen something. They agreed, too, that Bramblett's unexpectedly hostile behavior warranted a closer look at him. The roadblock turned-up two intriguing leads. The first came from a newspaper carrier who'd been in the area between 4:00 and 4:30 that morning. She'd seen a burgundy Toyota with New Jersey license plates several times that morning, at several different locations near the Hodges residence.

Sometimes there was just one man in the car, and sometimes two. At one point she'd seen a man carrying a duffel bag get out of the car and run into nearby woods. The second came from an elderly woman who worked at a nearby fast-food restaurant. At about 4:30 that morning, she told investigators, a light-pink truck with a dark tailgate had pulled out of the Hodges driveway just as she was passing the house, lingered behind her briefly, and then sped past her and away.

Much later, police would recreate that sighting using a white truck. At that location, under the light prevailing at that time of the morning, the test truck would exhibit a pinkish tinge.

Meantime, investigators were learning everything they could about Bramblett's past, and some of it was ugly. A successful high school athlete, he'd won a track scholarship. Though he eventually attended three different colleges, he'd never been granted a degree. In 1969 he'd moved to Roanoke to work in a sign-painting shop owned by his father, and soon afterward he'd volunteered to be an assistant track coach at a local high school; it was there that he and Blaine Hodges, then a student, had met and become friends.

Bramblett had welcomed neighborhood youngsters at his shop, and in 1977 two regular visitors - both 14 year old girls - had skipped school and vanished without a trace. Three years later the then-38 year old man was partying with some neighborhood teens when, drunk, he reportedly fired a gun and began crying, saying he wished that he hadn't "hurt Tammy," one of the missing girls. Police questioned Bramblett, but he was never charged with a crime.

In 1984 Bramblett was charged with molesting a 10-year old girl who worked in his shop. The judge in that case threw out the charges when Bramblett provided an alibi showing he couldn't have been at the shop on the day in question. 1984 is the year Bramblett left the business and became a nomad wandering aimlessly about the country, living in motels when he was a few bucks ahead, otherwise sleeping in his truck or staying with friends.

Just then, Bramblett was living in an inexpensive motel south of Roanoke. That Wednesday morning following the fire, a Vinton police officer and Blaine's brother went there at about 9:00 AM; they hoped a family member could induce Bramblett to cooperate. Calm at first, he soon became distraught and blurted-out that he'd written a suicide note. He then became angry at the officer's questioning, but calmed down enough to agree to return to the Vinton police station at about noon for further discussion.

He didn't show, though, so the police returned to the motel that afternoon. When there was no answer at the door the officer, recalling Bramblett's mention of a suicide note, persuaded the manager to unlock the door. Right then, Bramblett arrived at the motel in a taxi and ordered the police to leave, saying he would never help the investigation because he believed they'd twist whatever he said and use it to lie about him. Once again, he asked the police "Why don't you just arrest me for murder?"

That afternoon, two of Blaine's brothers returned to the motel to try again to persuade Bramblett to cooperate with the police. One of them wore a hidden microphone provided by the police. Bramblett, who'd been drinking heavily, declined once again to offer any assistance to the investigators. He said that the lawyer who had represented him when accused of molesting the 10-year old had advised him not to talk with anyone.

Leaving, one of the brothers saw an unfired, small-caliber bullet wedged into the crease of one of the motel chairs.

Confronted with Bramblett's refusal to cooperate, his awareness that the deaths weren't accidental, his mention of a suicide note, and the bullet, Vinton police filed an affadavit seeking a search warrant for Bramblett's motel room; the affadavit was kept sealed to prevent public disclosure of the details of the investigation.

The warrant was executed just after midnight, early September 1st. The inventory lists miscellaneous writings in Bramblett's hand, gathered from different locations throughout the room; four bullets and four bullet casings, from Bramblett's truck; a .22 caliber revolver; and a detective magazine.

Bramblett left town, arriving at his sister's home in Indiana at about 7:30 the following evening. She would later describe him as upset, and say that when she asked if he had an alibi he'd told her only that he'd left the Hodges home at midnight on the preceding Sunday. The murders, he told her, were drug-related. Sometime that evening he happened to glance out a window and see a police cruiser pass the house; alarmed, he abruptly decided to leave, and by 2:30 AM Saturday he was on the way back to Roanoke.

A year earlier Bramblett had mailed his sister two boxes, asking her to store them for him. Now, believing her erratic brother had wandered into the ambit of killers, the presence of the boxes made her uneasy. She and her husband decided to call the county sheriff. He wouldn't open the sealed boxes, but said it would be legal for her to open the boxes and give him the contents. Using the sheriff's pocketknife, she sliced the packing-tape. Inside they found six dozen microcassette recording tapes, hundreds of photographs, and a single sock that may have once belonged to Winter Hodges. The sister gave it all to the sheriff, who promptly shipped it all to Vinton.

Meanwhile, the police continued to learn more about the Hodges family's last hours. A neighbor had seen Bramblett, Teresa, and the two girls in the family's backyard, sitting in Bramblett's white pickup truck, Sunday afternoon.

A forest ranger had encountered the quartet fishing in a creek near the Blue Ridge Parkway later that same day; in fact, he'd sociably asked Teresa whether they were fishing or drowning worms. Drowning worms, she'd answered. At about 4:30, two hours sooner than planned, Teresa called the mother of one of her daughter's classmates from a payphone to discuss the next morning's carpooling. There was a lot of static on the line, and Teresa asked her to call back; she didn't explain why she was using a payphone. The next connection was better, and it was decided that Teresa would do the driving the next morning.

In 1992, around the time that Blaine had been accused of embezzling, Bramblett had begun keeping a diary using a Panasonic microcassette tape-recorder. It accompanied him everywhere, and he made notes continuously: while driving in traffic, walking his dog, speaking on the telephone. As police began listening to the stream-of-consciousness ramblings on the recording tapes sent them by the Indiana sheriff, two themes emerged. First, Bramblett was acutely suspicious of Hodges, believing that Blaine had joined a police conspiracy to entrap him in sexual misconduct with a child order to mitigate the severity of his punishment for embezzling. Second, he believed Winter Hodges was the 'bait.'

On Thursday, September 8th, police searched the dumpster located behind the silk-screening shop where Bramblett sometimes worked. Rummaging through the trash they found additional recording tapes, notes written by Bramblett about the Hodges family, and an illustration with four stick-figures; two of the figures were large, and two were small. One of the large figures, and both of the small figures, had arrows pointing at the head. Vinton police executed a search warrant the next day at a storage locker Bramblett rented in Vinton, seizing assorted photographs and nine additional tapes.

Though newspaper coverage of the crime was intense, police were tight-lipped about the progress of the investigation. The first the public learned of Earl Bramblett was on October 14th, when the Roanoke Times reported that he had written the newspaper a letter denying involvement in the murders, and published excerpts from the letter. The search warrants, he wrote, had been obtained on the basis of lies. "They did not misquote me or misunderstand what I said. They totally fabricated the whole story of when I was in the Vinton Police Department." Referring to the search warrant executed at his motel room September 1st, Bramblett wrote "I saw the handwriting on the wall then. ... They had already showed me they intended to violate the law and the truth in this matter."

The Vinton police promptly acknowledged that Bramblett was under investigation. Noting that the close relationship between the Hodges and Bramblett had spanned more than a decade, Chief Foutz added "If he's not involved, I would certainly think he would want to come forward and clear his name, and help find the person or persons responsible." That remark drew an irate letter to the newspaper; didn't Foutz know, the writer wondered, that it was up to him to find the killer and prove he'd found the killer in court, instead of sitting around in his office waiting for people to walk in and prove their innocence?

The investigators continued their work, sending crime-scene evidence and the gun recovered from Bramblett's motel room to the FBI laboratory in Washingon, D.C., and keeping tabs on his whereabouts. That job quickly grew complicated because Bramblett, evidently deciding that his career prospects had dimmed by identification as the primary suspect in a quadruple homicide, decided to leave the state. Shortly after the Roanoke Times published his letter, he moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina.

At first he lived in a rescue mission and worked out of a labor hall; he eventually found work in a sign-painting shop and moved into a house, sharing it with another single man with a history, like Bramblett, of frequent scrapes with the law. The roommate would later tell police that living with him had been a strange experience, saying that Bramblett slept with a machete next to his bed, would prop exterior doors closed with a big stick, and that he occasionally spoke of two men who were coming to kill them. One night when they'd been drinking he had said "I did something bad in Roanoke but I can't tell you about it."

Though living under suspicion of murder, Bramblett began building a life in his new hometown. He acquired a three-legged dog from a local animal shelter, and named him Lucky; the two would stroll about the neighborhood together, amiably stopping to socialize with neighbors. They'd visit a neighborhood convenience store almost every day, where Bramblett would purchase beef jerky for the dog and a twelve-pack of cheap beer for himself. He started a vegetable garden, setting tomatoes on a window ledge to ripen. He bought a nearby house for his sons, and began fixing it up.

On July 30, 1996, twenty-three months after the fire, Bramblett's peaceful, low-profile new life came to an abrupt end. On that day a Roanoke County grand jury indicted Bramblett on one count of capital murder, three counts of first-degree murder, and other counts related to arson and misuse of a firearm. Within minutes a waiting, multi-jurisdictional team of police officers with drawn-guns burst into the shop where Bramblett worked and made the arrest.

Bramblett returned to Virginia to face trial without protest, waiving extradition. Unable to afford a lawyer, the court provided him a defense team consisting of two local lawyers and a private investigator. Further, the court appointed a psychologist to serve as Bramblett's mental health expert for sentencing, if required.

Upon interviewing Bramblett, the psychologist found him incompetent to stand trial and recommended that "someone else perform an evaluation." The defense filed a motion seeking a competency evaluation in January, 1997, and the court subsequently appointed a second psychologist, and then a third, to evaluate him. Both of those psychologists found Bramblett competent to understand the charges and the proceedings, and to assist in his defense. Accordingly, though the psychologists unanimously diagnosed Bramblett as evidencing a persecutory type delusional disorder, the trial judge ruled during a May, 1997 hearing that Bramblett was competent to stand trial.

It began October 14th, more than three years after the fire, fourteen and one-half months after the arrest in South Carolina. Because investigators had been unusually close-mouthed, the public knew next to nothing about the case against Bramblett; now, they would learn that the case was nearly 100 per cent circumstantial, that it had been built by the tedious accretion of hundreds and then thousands of discrete, unique facts. This is not particularly unusual. Though any one fact in such cases might be whistled-away with a shrug and the question "So what?", a well-prepared and organized case, like an arcade-game attack by marauding aliens, will inevitably wear down even a strong defense. But Bramblett's lawyers would advance the theory that the murders were a drug hit and, after more than 14 months of gestation, weren't ready to deliver.

Jury selection required four days. Ultimately, 68 persons were interviewed, the prosecutors asking each if he or she would be able to impose the death sentence. By Friday the court had a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates, and opening arguments were scheduled to begin the following Monday. On that same Friday, Bramblett's attorneys appeared before a federal judge seeking an order requiring that the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Internal Revenue Service release records that might support their theory that the family had been murdered as vengeance against Teresa's brother Michael, the sometime DEA-informant.

The judge promised to rule on Monday. The prosecutor set forth his case that morning with a statement that lasted approximately 45 minutes. He promised the jurors that they would hear proof of Bramblett's guilt in his own words, by listening to his oral diary. They would learn that he was sexually obsessed with Winter. They would hear him disparage Blaine repeatedly, sometimes crudely, and they would hear him say that Blaine deserved to die. But that wasn't all, the prosecutor promised; the jurors would see physical evidence that unambiguously linked Bramblett directly to the crime scene. The defense attorneys were much briefer, saying that the police had rushed to judgement, "put blinders on," and ignored evidence.

Then began the testimony.

* Teresa's father told the court that, just days before the murders, he had advised Teresa to take away Bramblett's keys to their home. He said, further, that he was going to send someone to change the house locks the very day of the fire. One of Teresa's girlfriends testified that she, too, had encouraged her to take away Bramblett's keys and change the locks, adding "I know that she was afraid." The rules of evidence prevented them from repeating what Teresa had said, however. The Roanoke Times has reported that friends of the Hodges say that Bramblett had expressed an intention to move into the Hodges home while Blaine was in prison.

* A forest ranger told the court of his encounter with Teresa and Anah while Bramblett and Winter fished some distance away. She had said nothing to indicate anything amiss.

* The mother with whom Teresa car-pooled their children told of the strange phone-call from a convenience store instead of the Hodges home.

* Bramblett's one-time roommate told of his remark that he'd done "something bad" in Virginia. His ex-wife told the court of the phone call the Monday afternoon of the fire, when Bramblett had said it would be blamed on him.

* Blaine's brother testified that Bramblett had expressed an interest in serial killers several weeks before the fire, going so far as to give him books about the subject to read. Later, he followed-up and inquired whether he'd read them.

* The sightings of Bramblett's distinctive white truck with the black tailgate on the morning of the fire were recounted.

* A postal inspector involved in the investigation of the embezzlement case against Blaine told of receiving a strange phone call from Bramblett in 1993. He said that Blaine had asked him to help concoct a cover-up, but that he'd refused. He thought the investigator should know, in case anything happened to him. He added that he was speaking on a phone installed by Hodges and his brother-in-law Michael Fulcher, and that it was probably bugged. On one occasion, following a phone call with the investigator, Bramblett told his tape recorder that he probably wouldn't live through the night.

* Neighbors told of Bramblett warning them to stay away from the Hodges family, because they were all going to be murdered by "the drug cartel."

* A forensic scientist testified that firing-pin marks found on a cartridge in Bramblett's truck exactly matched those of the gun used to kill Blaine, Winter, and Anah.

* An FBI metallurgist testified that the chemical composition of the bullets found in Bramblett's possession was identical to the chemical composition of the bullets used in the crime.

* A DNA expert testified that a pubic hair found on the bed between Winter and Anah belonged to Bramblett.

And on it went, for almost two weeks, damning fact after damning fact. Occasionally, the prosecutors would play a snippet of Bramblett's oral diary in order to buttress the testimony given the jury. Near the end they let the tapes speak for themselves, leading the jury on a tour of the helpful family friend's splintered mind.

* "Blaine is trying to buy his ass out of jail by using his daughter as some kind of sexual enticement toward me."

* "She's trying to sexually excite me, and that's exactly what she's trying to do. She has been instructed to do that. Blaine is on some kind of espionage expedition. He's keeping espionage on me."

* "I'm going to make a little recording here and say a few things that I want to put down here for posterity. Because, I'm beginning to realize what a back-stabbing, cheap mother------ I got for a friend. He's trying to set me up."

* "Now, if you think I'm paranoid, listen to this. I'm standing in my kitchen. I know I'm silhouetted in the window from the street side. It would take a rifle to hit me from there. I don't think they would go for that shot. I think they would climb up on the roof and come around on my window and I think Blaine Hodges would be behind it and be doing it. Might do it himself."

* Winter is a "...devious, manipulative, super-intelligent little girl who is sexually sophisticated."

* Speaking of Winter's supposed Mata Hari-like role as a temptress, Bramblett says "...and she's doing a good job of it."

* "I have to admit that it's exciting and it's interesting that a beautiful little girl is just making eyes at me all the time. ... There is just no way I can go back over to that place. And they're going to keep inviting me, because that's their program."

The prosecution finished its case with testimony from a career criminal that had shared a cell with Bramblett while awaiting trial. He told the court that Bramblett had told him he was "addicted to young girls." He claimed, further, that Bramblett had confessed to the murders.

Arguing that the murders were a drug-hit, the defense led off with the newspaper carrier that had seen the burgundy Toyota with New Jersey license plates moving about the neighborhood the morning of the fire. The next witness was a jailed, one-time girlfriend of Michael Fulcher who claimed to have twice smoked crack cocaine with the Hodges in their home.

The defense then played a recording of testimony given in another case by a DEA agent, which verified that Teresa's brother Michael had cooperated with the agency as a sometime pilot and regular informant. The intention of the defense was to buttress it's argument that the family could have been killed in retaliation for Fulcher's activities. They then played a snippet from Blamblett's strange diary, a conversation with Teresa he had secretly recorded. Bramblett speaks first, referring to "games" that Hodges and Fulcher are playing

"Like DEA and whatever it was. I don't know why he would do stuff like that. He told me a couple of things he was involved with. You're putting your life on the line, you messing with people like that. ... I mean, people come in there and wipe your whole family out."

"Yeah, I know. That's what my sister kept saying. My sister, she kept telling me that. She said 'Don't you think any more of your kids than that?' I guess that comes from liking to live on the dangerous side."

"... The first thought that comes to my mind was the jeopardy he was putting his family in."

"He didn't think of that. Who did he think of first? Himself. Or apparently he couldn't help himself."

Bramblett declined to take the stand in his own defense.

In closing arguments, the prosecutors pounded away: the truck seen speeding away from the fire, his truck seen at the scene a few hour later, the inexplicable behavior with the police and refusal to assist in the effort to find his friends' killer, the bizarre diary, the bullets, the DNA. The defense countered by reminding the jury of that strange, suggestive conversation with Teresa, the mysterious Toyota, and the prosecutions implausible timeline. If Blaine was already dead, they wondered, if his corpse was filling the house with a stench . . . why didn't the family know it? Why didn't Teresa tell the ranger that she and her daughters were in danger? Why didn't she exploit that phone call at the convenience store to seek help?

The jury returned a conviction on every count in just over two hours, and the court began to consider the appropriate penalty.

Returning to the theme of Bramblett's obsession with Winter and seeking to demonstrate that he would be a danger to society in the future if allowed to live, prosecutors brought in several women who had contacted them following the murder; all of them claimed that Bramblett had plied them with alcohol and drugs in exchange for sex when they were pre- or young-teenagers. The defense responded with a parade of family members to tell the story of Bramblett's dismal childhood: alcoholic parents, fifteen moves before he reached high school, a life-long history of paranoia, the boy who had to hunt down his mother in saloons in order to get money for food.

The jury was unmoved, levying the death penalty after only 70 minutes of deliberation. He now awaits execution on Virginia's death row.

His lawyers immediately filed an appeal. Further, Virginia statutes require Supreme Court review of the record of every death penalty. The appeal and review were combined into a single cause, and the court's decision was rendered on February 26, 1999. The decision found no grounds for reversal of the conviction or application of the death penalty.


Bramblett v. Commonwealth, 513 S.E.2d 400 (Va. February 26, 1999)

Defendant was convicted in the Circuit Court, Roanoke County, Roy B. Willett, J., of capital murder, murder, arson, and three counts of using firearm during commission of murders of two adults and two children, and was sentenced to death. Consolidating automatic review with defendant's appeal from capital murder conviction, and certifying noncapital convictions for review, the Supreme Court, Compton, J., held that: (1) defendant was not entitled to change of venue based on extensive media coverage; (2) finding that defendant was competent to stand trial was supported by evidence; (3) defendant had no expectation of privacy in boxes he sent to his sister; (4) police officers did not conduct an illegal search of defendant's hotel room; (5) disclosure of rebuttal witness' name and criminal record five days prior to witness' testimony did not violate Brady disclosure rule; (6) convictions were supported by sufficient evidence; (7) finding of aggravating factor of future dangerousness was supported by sufficient evidence; and (8) death penalty was not disproportionate to penalties imposed for similar crimes. Affirmed.

COMPTON, Justice.

Near 4:30 a.m. on Monday, August 29, 1994, Dorothy Ross McGee was operating a vehicle through the Town of Vinton in Roanoke County en route to her place of employment. As she drove past a two-story residence located at 232 East Virginia Avenue, a white pickup truck operated by a white male, who was alone, pulled onto the street from the area of the residence, followed her briefly, and then "shot" past her, exceeding the 35-mile-per-hour speed limit.

About the same time, Robert Scott Arney, travelling on Virginia Avenue past the home, "noticed a large cloud of smoke coming across the highway, very thick." He determined the residence was on fire and, using a radio, reported the fire to authorities. Firefighters and police responded to the scene. Upon entering the burning residence, the authorities found four bodies. In the downstairs living room, the body of Teresa Lynn Fulcher Hodges, an adult, was on a couch. She had died from ligature strangulation and had been doused with gasoline; the body was still burning when discovered.

The body of William Blaine Hodges, an adult, was on the bed in an upstairs bedroom. He had died from a gunshot to the left temple. His body was not burned. The bodies of two children were on a bed in another upstairs bedroom. Winter Ashley Hodges, 11 years of age, had died from two gunshots to the head; the muzzle of the weapon had been pressed against the skin when fired. Winter's body had not been burned.

The body of Anah Michelle Hodges, three years of age, was in the same bed with her sister. She had died from two gunshot wounds to the head; the muzzle of the weapon was within inches of the skin *267 when fired. Anah's body was " covered with soot" and had sustained "mild burns."

The mother and her daughters died during the early morning hours of August 29 and before the fire. Blaine, the children's father, died "many hours before the female victims died," probably during the afternoon of Sunday, August 28. On July 30, 1996, appellant Earl Conrad Bramblett, 54 years of age, was indicted for the following offenses: Capital murder of Winter as part of the same transaction as the murder of Anah, Code § 18.2-31 the murders of Anah, Blaine, and Teresa, Code § 18.2-32 ; arson, Code § 18.2-77 ; and three counts of using a firearm in the commission of the murders, Code § 18.2-53.1 Apprehended on July 30 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the defendant waived extradition. He was brought to Virginia and held in the Roanoke County jail.

Upon pleas of not guilty, the defendant was tried by jury during 14 days in October and November 1997. In the guilt and penalty phases of the trifurcated trial, 98 witnesses testified. The jury found defendant guilty of all charges, and during the penalty phase of the capital proceeding, fixed defendant's punishment at death based upon the vileness and future dangerousness predicates of the capital murder sentencing statute, Code § 19.2-264.4

On December 16, 1997, following a post-trial sentencing hearing during which the trial court considered a probation officer's report, the court sentenced defendant to death for the capital murder. The court also imposed sentences in the noncapital cases in accordance with the jury's verdicts as follows: For each of the three first degree murder convictions, life imprisonment and a $100,000 fine; for the arson conviction, life imprisonment and a $100,000 fine (the court suspended the fine); and for the three firearms convictions, imprisonment for 13 years.

The death sentence is before us for automatic review under former Code § 17- 110.1(A) (now § 17.1-313(A)), see Rule 5:22, and we have consolidated this review with defendant's appeal of the capital murder conviction. In addition, by order entered July 13, 1998, we certified from the Court of Appeals of Virginia to this Court the record of defendant's appeals in the noncapital convictions (Record No. 981395). The effect of the certification is to transfer jurisdiction over the noncapital appeals to this Court for all purposes. Former Code § 17-116.06(A) **404 (now § 17.1-409(A)). We have consolidated those appeals with the capital murder appeal.

As required by statute, we shall consider not only the trial errors enumerated by defendant but also whether the sentence of death was imposed under the influence of passion, prejudice, or any other arbitrary factor, and whether the sentence is excessive or disproportionate to the penalty imposed in similar cases. Former Code § 17-110.1(C) (now § 17.1-313(C)).

Initially, we shall dispose of two appellate issues that require no extended discussion. First, defendant contends the trial court erred by denying his motion to dismiss the capital murder indictment on the grounds that Virginia's death penalty statute is unconstitutional facially and as applied. He argues the statute dealing with the capital sentencing proceeding is unconstitutional because the aggravating factors "are vague and do not adequately channel the discretion of the jury." There is no merit in this contention; we previously have rejected it in other cases and will not revisit the issue here. See e.g., Smith v. Commonwealth, 219 Va. 455, 474-79, 248 S.E.2d 135, 146-49, cert. denied, 441 U.S. 967, 99 S.Ct. 2419, 60 L.Ed.2d 1074 (1979)

Second, defendant contends the trial court erred "by failing to dismiss the indictments due to prosecutorial misconduct." According to Bramblett, the prosecutor withheld evidence in violation of court orders and asked questions during the trial "which he knew were objectionable." This assignment of error is procedurally defaulted because defendant did not ask the trial court to dismiss the indictments on the foregoing grounds. We do not entertain such issues that are raised for the first time on appeal. Rule 5:25.

A proper understanding of the remaining issues raised by defendant requires a brief summary of the facts. The evidence bearing upon the commission of these crimes is undisputed. During the guilt phase of the trial, Bramblett, who did not testify, presented only four witnesses. According to settled principles of appellate review, we will draw all reasonable inferences fairly deducible from the proven facts in the light most favorable to the Commonwealth.

The witness Arney, upon discovery of the fire, found handwritten notes on the rear and side doors of the home. The note on the side door read "Had an emergency. Back late Sunday, early Monday. Teresa."

Upon arrival, the firefighters found fire throughout the structure. Subsequent examination of the premises revealed the presence of petroleum accelerants and gasoline in various areas of the home. Investigators also found that the telephone line had been cut.

Blaine and Teresa Hodges had attended an Amway conference in Charlottesville on the previous Friday night, leaving their children with a relative. Blaine picked up the children on Saturday. A friend spoke with Blaine by telephone about 5:00 p.m. on Saturday. Later on Saturday, a friend telephoned the Hodges' residence but no one answered and an answering machine did not activate. About 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, Teresa left a telephone message with a friend to arrange for the children's carpool on Monday, the first day of the school session. The friend returned the call and talked with Teresa at a number Teresa furnished, which was for a public pay telephone located at a gas station on Virginia Avenue.

On Sunday, a neighbor saw Bramblett with Teresa and the children. Bramblett, Teresa, and the children were seen together in a nearby national forest on Sunday afternoon; the forest ranger who saw them noted a black tailgate on Bramblett's white truck. Another friend went to the Hodges' home at 7:15 p.m. on Sunday; he found the note on the door. Two other friends went to the Hodges' home at 8:45 p.m. on Sunday; they also found the note on the door. They observed the Hodges' two motor vehicles parked nearby, and the home was dark except for a light burning in the basement. They telephoned the house but received no answer and the answering machine did not take the call.

When the witness McGee observed the pickup truck with a "dark" tailgate leave the Hodges' home about 4:30 a.m. on Monday, she thought the truck's color was "sort of **405 pinkish red." The jury was shown a video reenactment of a truck leaving the area where McGee had seen the truck; the reenactment included the burning halogen street lights present when McGee saw the truck. Referring to the video, McGee identified the truck as pinkish-red; that truck actually was white in color.

At the time of these crimes, Bramblett, an acquaintance of the Hodges family for years, drove a 1972 model white pickup truck with a black tailgate. On the morning of the fire, Bramblett, an expert in silk screening, arrived at his workplace at 5:08 a.m. The workplace is 4.7 miles from the Hodges' home, a 12- minute drive in the early morning. Although defendant told his supervisor he had slept in his truck, his hair was neatly combed, he was freshly shaven, and his clothes were clean. *270 Bramblett drove past the Hodges' house at 8:30 a.m. on the morning of the fire; he did not stop. Later, he told his ex-wife about the fire and his belief that the police would "blame it on me."

A year prior to the fire, Bramblett had mailed two packages to his sister, who lives in Indiana. When these packages were opened, with the sister's permission, they were found to contain photographs of the Hodges children and 62 audiotapes of Bramblett's voice. On the tapes, Bramblett expressed a sexual interest in Winter Hodges and his belief that the child's parents were trying to "set him up" or entrap him in a sexual act with her.

A firearms expert testified about weapons, bullets, and casings found at the crime scene, and cartridges found in Bramblett's truck and a storage room he had rented. The expert opined that all the bullets recovered from the bodies had been fired from the same weapon, and that the rifling characteristics were consistent with weapons manufactured by QFI Arminius; an Arminius handgun, its barrel removed, was found in Blaine Hodges' bedroom. The fact that the barrel had been removed made it impossible for the expert to determine whether the pistol had fired any of the recovered bullets. The expert further opined that one cartridge retrieved from the pistol at the scene and one found in Bramblett's truck were fired by the same firearm "to the exclusion of any other gun."

Another forensic scientist analyzed the chemical composition of the bullets recovered. He testified that two of the bullets retrieved from the victims had the identical composition as a bullet found in the storage room. A cartridge found on steps in the home was "analytically indistinguishable" from a cartridge found in defendant's truck. A single pubic hair, described as a "characteristically Caucasian pubic hair," found on the bed between the two children, was determined to microscopically match a sample of Bramblett's pubic hair. Bramblett is white, as were the victims. DNA testing of the hair matched Bramblett.

Tracy Turner, a convicted felon who had been incarcerated with defendant at the Roanoke County jail testified about conversations he had with Bramblett about their addictions. Turner was addicted to drugs, and Bramblett said he was "addicted to young girls."

They discussed the charges the two men faced. Bramblett "said that he had been caught with that girl, the young girl, and that he was caught downstairs with her and that the mother sent them upstairs--sent her upstairs and that he had choked the life out of her."

According *271 to Turner, Bramblett said he "walked around for a little bit and then he went upstairs. He said he went first to the man's room and then he went to the girls' room and he finished the business, took care of his business." Bramblett also told Turner about a "forensic science book" from which he learned that "if you burn a house that it takes the rifling off of bullets, destroys hair samples and things like that." According to Turner, Bramblett said "that's the reason" he set fire to the Hodges' home. Bramblett told Turner **406 his defense would be to suggest that the murders were "a drug hit."

The defendant offered evidence that in the late 1980s, Blaine and Teresa Hodges consumed cocaine supplied by one Michael Fulcher, Teresa's half- brother. During that period Fulcher, who is presently incarcerated, was an undercover "cooperative witness" for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration. Blaine Hodges, a discharged postal service employee, was about to begin serving a six-month jail sentence in September 1994 for embezzlement of postal funds.

Initially, the police believed they were confronted with a murder/suicide, mainly because of the location of the weapon beside Blaine's body. This theory was abandoned quickly, however, when the results of the autopsies showed Blaine died hours before the rest of his family. The investigators also quickly concluded that the fire was not accidental but was "a set fire."

The investigators wanted to talk to Bramblett because of his friendship with the Hodges family. About 5:00 p.m. on the day of the crimes, Bramblett came to the Vinton Police Department in response to a telephone request from Sergeant Mark A. Vaught, an investigator. Vaught told defendant the Hodges family had been killed in a fire. He did not mention how the victims died.

At that point, defendant "seemed to appear to cry for a period of time." Vaught saw no tears. Bramblett then became angry and struck a file cabinet with his fist. A few minutes later, after Vaught had been joined by Barry Keesee, Special Agent, Virginia State Police, Bramblett, during a discussion "just about some general things" said, "Are you going to charge me with murder?"

Near 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, August 31, William F. Brown, Jr., Assistant Chief of Police for the Town of Vinton, accompanied by Blaine Hodges' brother, talked with defendant at the nearby Apple Valley Motel, where Bramblett had rented a room. At first, Bramblett was calm and then he "became ... very emotional. He started crying, shaking real bad. He blurted out, 'Go ahead and arrest me for murder.' " He said that he thought about suicide and that he actually had written a suicide note, according to Brown. After defendant "calmed down," he promised to meet Brown at twelve noon at the Vinton Police Department, but he failed to appear.

We shall now turn to the remaining issues defendant raises on appeal.  He contends the trial court erred by denying his pretrial motion for a change of venue, claiming extensive media coverage of the crimes and the charges against him.  At Bramblett's request, the trial court took the motion under advisement pending selection of a jury.  After the jury was selected, the court denied the motion.  The court did not err.

There is a presumption a defendant will receive a fair trial in the jurisdiction where the crimes are committed.  To overcome the presumption, a defendant must establish that the citizens of the jurisdiction harbor such prejudice against him that it is reasonably certain he cannot receive a fair trial.  Kasi v. Commonwealth, 256 Va. 407, 420, 508 S.E.2d 57, 64 (1998).  The decision whether to grant a motion for a change of venue lies within the sound discretion of the trial court.  Id.

Here, 68 potential jurors were questioned.  Only seven persons were excused because of fixed opinions about Bramblett that would have impaired their ability to serve impartially.  The remaining persons were either unaware of media reports about the crimes or clearly stated their ability to put aside any information they may have heard or read.

The defendant did not overcome the presumption that he could receive a fair trial in Roanoke County.  There was no abuse of discretion by the trial court, especially given the ease with which the jury was selected.  See id. at 420-21, 508 S.E.2d at 64-65.

Next, defendant contends the trial court erred by finding that Bramblett was competent to stand trial.  We do not agree.

In November 1996, Dr. Evan S. Nelson, a clinical psychologist, was appointed by the trial court to serve as defendant's mental health expert for sentencing.  After Dr. Nelson interviewed Bramblett in jail, he became concerned about Bramblett's competency and suggested "that someone else perform an evaluation."

In January 1997, defendant filed a pretrial motion, pursuant to Code § 19.2-169.1, seeking a competency evaluation.  The statute provides for such an evaluation if "there is probable cause to believe that the defendant lacks substantial capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist his attorney in his own defense."

The court then appointed Dr. Joseph I. Leizer, a clinical psychologist, to conduct a competency examination and subsequently ordered defendant examined by Dr. Leigh D. Hagan, another clinical psychologist.

In May 1997, the trial court heard the testimony of the three psychologists and found that Bramblett was competent stating, "I have no question about his competency."  Elaborating, the court said that "as a factual matter," the defendant "has substantial capacity to understand these proceedings against him, and he has substantial capacity to assist his Attorneys in his own defense."  These findings are fully supported by the record.

Dr. Leizer diagnosed Bramblett with a "delusional disorder, persecutory type."  He testified defendant had "paranoid delusions about how evidence is being manufactured against him."

The witness had interviewed Bramblett, listened to many of Bramblett's audiotapes, and read some of the many letters defendant had written.  Defendant told the witness that the police had been "following him for years on end and looking for reasons to arrest him."  Bramblett also believed, according to the witness, that the Hodges family "were involved in an undercover Police sting aimed at him" and that Winter was working undercover for the police, being "used by her parents for that purpose."

Dr. Leizer disagreed with Dr. Nelson's conclusion that Bramblett was incompetent.  Dr. Leizer said that Bramblett was intelligent, witty, charming, verbal, and articulate; that he was able to relate information to his attorneys; that he understood the charges facing him and the adversarial nature of the proceedings; and that he felt his attorneys were working hard for him, acting in his best interest.

Dr. Hagan agreed that Bramblett had a delusional disorder of the persecutory type.  However, he considered Bramblett "meets the criteria for competence."  He opined that defendant "is keenly motivated to work vigorously" with his attorneys on his defense, even though there are disagreements about "the principal focus of the defense."  Dr. Hagan agreed that even though Bramblett "may have this paranoid delusion problem," it "does not render him incompetent or unable to cooperate with his Attorneys."

Next, defendant contends the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress the audiotapes seized in Indiana and by admitting the tapes and their contents into evidence.  When Bramblett's sister received the two packages in August or September 1993, she placed them, unopened, in a cabinet.  Bramblett called his sister in 1993 and asked her to keep the boxes for him.  He said, "In case anything happens to me, you'll have these."

On September 2, 1994, defendant arrived at the sister's home about 7:30 p.m. and left about 2:30 the next morning.  He told the sister the police had questioned him about the crimes "and he felt that they were going to arrest him."

Bramblett related "he was with the mother and the two children and that they had gone for a long drive" the Sunday afternoon before the fire.  When they returned to the Hodges' home from the drive, Teresa thought Blaine was not at home and "she wondered where he was at," according to Bramblett. Bramblett told his sister that he stayed at the Hodges' home until twelve midnight on Sunday.

The sister overheard Bramblett talking with another sister on the telephone; he stated that a Roanoke lawyer "had advised him since he hadn't been charged with anything to leave town and stay away from the police."  Bramblett left the Indiana home abruptly when the sister thought she "saw a policeman outside."

After Bramblett left, the sister was reminded by her daughter about the boxes, which defendant had not mentioned.  She "was afraid to keep the boxes" and "wanted to put these boxes in the hands of someone I could trust," according to the sister's testimony.  The local sheriff was called.  The sister and her husband executed a form consenting to the search of the boxes.  She opened the boxes; the sheriff inventoried and photographed the contents.

In a pretrial motion, defendant moved to suppress the items obtained from the boxes.  He asserted the sister lacked authority to deliver the packages to the police and that the police were required to obtain a warrant before opening the boxes and examining the contents.  Defendant notes that the "tapes contain inculpatory evidence, i.e., Bramblett's inappropriate sexual thoughts and comments concerning Winter Hodges, and reflect Bramblett's belief that Blaine Hodges was involved in some sort of a conspiracy to frame Bramblett for something."

The trial court denied the motion, ruling there was "no evidence . . . to find a basis for unlawful search or seizure."  The trial court was correct.

The sister had boxes addressed to her in her exclusive possession.  Bramblett imposed no restrictions with respect to the contents.  Thus, he had no remaining expectation of privacy in the items.

The Fourth Amendment does not restrict the authority of the police to accept evidence volunteered by private citizens.  See Ritter v. Commonwealth, 210 Va. 732, 739, 173 S.E.2d 799, 804 (1970) (package addressed to son voluntarily surrendered by mother in lawful control of it).  The sister's consent to the search of the boxes was clearly sufficient to authorize the sheriff's actions.

Next, the defendant contends the trial court erred by failing to grant his motion to suppress evidence obtained from the Apple Valley Motel and by admitting the evidence at trial.  We do not agree.

When Bramblett failed to keep his twelve noon appointment at the Vinton Police Department on Wednesday, August 31, the police "had some concerns about his safety," given his earlier statements about suicide.  Two officers returned to the motel, saw defendant's truck parked outside, knocked on the door to his room, and received no response.  Then, they directed the owner to open the door to defendant's room.  When the door was opened, one officer "stepped into the doorway" of the small room while the other officer stood "beside the door."  Neither officer actually entered the room.  At that time, Bramblett arrived in a taxicab and the officers "talked to him briefly."

Later that same day, two brothers of Blaine Hodges decided to go to the motel to talk with Bramblett, believing the police might "clear Earl."  One of the men wore "a wire" at the suggestion of the police.  While in the room, one brother "saw a .22 caliber bullet in the crease of [a] chair."  The defendant's room was searched the next day pursuant to warrant.

The trial court found that the officers saw nothing as they were standing at the doorway to the room and that the warrantless opening of the motel room door was not grounds for suppression of the evidence seized pursuant to the later search warrant.  The trial court ruled correctly.

Even assuming one of the officers briefly entered the room, as the defendant argues, no search was conducted and no evidence was seized.  The subsequent search was conducted pursuant to warrant, which Bramblett never challenged.

Thus, the items seized under the warrant (certain writings, a detective magazine, a .22 caliber revolver, cartridges, and cartridge cases) were properly admitted in evidence.  Also, there is no merit to defendant's claim that the brother who wore the "wire" became "an agent of the Commonwealth."

Next, defendant contends the trial court erred by permitting Tracy Turner to testify at trial.  We reject this contention.

The prosecutor learned in January 1997 about Bramblett's statements to the felon Turner and planned to use him as a rebuttal witness at trial.  In October 1997, the prosecutor was advised that Bramblett "had figured out" Turner was going to testify.  Because of this development, the prosecutors believed Turner's "value as a rebuttal witness" was "diminished."  On "Thursday or Friday" before Turner testified on Wednesday, October 29, the prosecutor decided to call Turner as part of the Commonwealth's case-in-chief.  The prosecutor immediately disclosed Turner's name and his criminal record to the defendant.

Prior to Turner's testimony, defendant moved the court to bar Turner from testifying in the Commonwealth's case-in-chief because of late disclosure of Turner's criminal record.  The trial court overruled the motion, stating the cross-examination would be delayed if the defendant chose, thus giving defendant's court-appointed investigator an opportunity to investigate Turner.

Immediately following Turner's testimony, defendant moved for a mistrial or for an instruction to the jury to disregard the testimony.  Defendant asserted the prosecutor's failure to disclose Turner's criminal history violated the court's prior discovery orders and due process.  The prosecutor had interpreted the discovery order to require disclosure of criminal histories of only case-in-chief witnesses, an interpretation endorsed by the trial court.

The trial court denied defendant's motion, accepting the prosecutor's representation concerning Turner.  The court found that the prosecution "acted in a rather timely manner" in providing the criminal history to defense counsel.  The court repeated its offer to grant defendant a delayed cross-examination "if you learn more" about Turner.

Of course, defendant was entitled to disclosure of exculpatory evidence, including evidence that impeaches the credibility of a prosecution witness, under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 87 (1963).  Robinson v. Commonwealth, 231 Va. 142, 150, 341 S.E.2d 159, 164 (1986).  Evidence of the prior convictions of a witness is impeachment evidence under Brady. See Correll v. Commonwealth, 232 Va. 454, 465, 352 S.E.2d 352, 358, cert. denied, 482 U.S. 931 (1987).

A defendant is entitled to "sufficient time to investigate and evaluate the evidence in preparation for trial."  Lomax v. Commonwealth, 228 Va. 168, 172, 319 S.E.2d 763, 765 (1984).  Here, the defendant had five or six days to investigate Turner's background.  The defendant did not take advantage of the court's offer to postpone cross-examination, and he has not demonstrated any specific prejudice from the timing of the disclosure.  If exculpatory evidence is obtained in time for it to be used effectively by the defendant, and there is no showing that an accused has been prejudiced, there is no due process violation.  Read v. Virginia State Bar, 233 Va. 560, 564-65, 357 S.E.2d 544, 546-47 (1987).  Hence, we hold the trial court did not err in its various rulings connected with Turner's testimony.

Next, Bramblett argues the pubic hair should not have been admitted into evidence because, first, "the evidence was not relevant," and, second, "the prejudicial effect of the evidence far outweighed any probative value."

There is no merit to this argument.  The evidence was relevant to establish Bramblett's presence in the room where the children's bodies were found.  This legitimate probative value far outweighed any incidental prejudice to defendant, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting the evidence.

Next, defendant argues "the evidence was insufficient to support a conviction."  We disagree.

The evidence supporting the convictions was overwhelming.  It was gathered as the result of outstanding police work by town, county, state, and federal authorities.

A further recitation of the evidence we already have summarized is unnecessary.  Indeed, we have not recited many facts pointing to defendant's guilt.  It is sufficient to point out that Bramblett admitted to a jail inmate that he killed the victims and set the house on fire to destroy evidence.  His many statements to police and others clearly show his guilty knowledge of the circumstances of the murders.  He was with the Hodges family just prior to the murders.  A truck closely resembling Bramblett's truck was observed leaving the scene as the fire was discovered.  Bullets, shell casings, and cartridges found in Bramblett's possession matched similar items found in the home.  Defendant's audiotapes and writings demonstrate the motive for the killings.  His clothing, found at his workplace, was stained with the same accelerants used in the arson.  A pubic hair matching Bramblett was found in the same bed as the children's bodies.  Clearly, the jury was fully justified, based on the evidence, in concluding defendant was the killer of the Hodges family and that he set their house on fire.

Finally, we have considered Bramblett's remaining assignments of error, and summarily reject them.  He contends the trial court should have directed a verdict of life imprisonment during the penalty phase of the capital murder proceeding because the jury was misinformed about his prior record in several respects.  Also, he contends the evidence was insufficient to support a finding of vileness and/or future dangerousness, and that imposition of the death sentence was arbitrary.

None of these contentions has any merit.  We will respond, however, to defendant's claim that during the penalty phase "all of the factors used by the Commonwealth to enhance punishment concern events that occurred two decades before the current offenses and thus cannot be properly used as evidence of future dangerousness."

Defendant is referring to the testimony of women who lived in the Bedford-Roanoke area during the late 1970s.  They testified they knew Bramblett during that period, when they were in their early teens.  Each testified that Bramblett furnished them alcohol and drugs, after which he engaged in sexual intercourse with them, and that he required them to perform various sex acts upon him.  The "time gap" of decades affected only the weight to be accorded the evidence, not its admissibility.  George v. Commonwealth, 242 Va. 264, 273, 411 S.E.2d 12, 18 (1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 973 (1992).

Moreover, the factual basis for defendant's contention is inaccurate.  There was abundant other evidence presented on the question of future dangerousness including his recent conduct with 11-year-old Winter Hodges as well as his extensive and long-term planning and execution of the murders, all of which established his dangerousness.

Upon the question of disproportionality and excessiveness, we determine whether other sentencing bodies in this jurisdiction generally impose the supreme penalty for comparable or similar crimes, considering both the crime and the defendant.  Kasi, 256 Va. at 426, 508 S.E.2d at 68.  See former Code § 17-110.l(C)(2) (now § 17.1-313(C)(2)).  In determining whether a sentence of death is excessive or disproportionate in a case like this, we examine the records of all capital murder cases previously reviewed by this Court in which the death sentence was based upon both the vileness and future dangerousness predicates, including capital murder cases where a life sentence was imposed.  Jenkins v. Commonwealth, 244 Va. 445, 462, 423 S.E.2d 360, 371 (1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 1036 (1993).

Based upon this review, we hold that defendant's sentence is not excessive or disproportionate to penalties generally imposed by sentencing bodies in the Commonwealth for similar conduct.  Generally, the death sentence is imposed for a capital murder when, as here, the defendant is convicted of a senseless murder of a young child, Clozza v. Commonwealth, 228 Va. 124, 138, 321 S.E.2d 273, 282 (1984), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 1230 (1985), and when the defendant is also convicted of killing other persons.  See Goins v. Commonwealth, 251 Va. 442, 469, 470 S.E.2d 114, 132, cert. denied, 519 U.S. 887 (1996).

Therefore, we hold the trial court committed no reversible error, and we have independently determined from a review of the entire record that the sentence of death was properly assessed.  Thus, we will affirm the trial court's judgment in both the capital murder case and the noncapital cases.

Record No. 981394 — Affirmed.

Record No. 981395 — Affirmed.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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