01/16/14 — Two plead in McLaurin case

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Two plead in McLaurin case

By John Joyce
Published in News on January 16, 2014 1:46 PM

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Curtis Ethridge waits for the judge to return to the courtroom in Wayne County Superior Court Wednesday. Ethridge pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping in the September 2012 death of Kennedy McLaurin Jr.

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Jerome Butts pleaded guilty in Wayne County Superior Court to second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping in the death of Kennedy McLaurin Jr.

Two defendants in the Kennedy McLaurin Jr. murder case accepted plea deals in Wayne County Superior Court on Wednesday, agreeing to testify against a fourth suspect.

According to testimony from Jerome Jilah Butts and Curtis Omar Ethridge, McLaurin, 16, fired the first bullet to enter his body the day he died. They say the gun belonged to McLaurin and that he tried to rob them.

Three of the four men charged in the teenager's murder have now entered into plea agreements with the state and have agreed to testify against the fourth man, Leonard Eugene Joyner, 23.

In December 2013, Kevin Smith, 19, pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping. Smith agreed to testify against Joyner in return for a prayer for judgment, meaning he will not be sentenced until after he has testified and Joyner, if convicted, has been sentenced. At the time, Butts, 21, and Ethridge, 20, pleaded not guilty.

But on Wednesday, Butts and Ethridge reversed course and entered pleas of guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping and, like Smith, both men said they will testify against Joyner and be sentenced afterward.

The maximum sentence faced by each of the three defendants-turned-witness is more than 59 years in prison. Joyner faces life behind bars.

Kimberly Best reported her son, also known as Lil' Ken, missing on Sept. 9, 2012. An investigation by Goldsboro police connected the missing teen to a scuffle reported earlier that day in a car on Bain Street.

The fight was initiated by McLaurin, according to Butts and Ethridge's statements to police, excerpts of which were read aloud in court Wednesday by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Delbridge.

The suspects said McLaurin allegedly got into the car willingly. They claimed the teenager was there to sell marijuana. McLaurin instead pulled a gun, the suspects testified. According to the statements, Joyner, seated in the front passenger seat, grabbed the gun, and with it, McLaurin, and pulled him over the seat. Butts was driving at first, but got out and ran around the car to help subdue McLaurin. Joyner then slid over and took the wheel.

The gun, now under McLaurin, was still in play, they said.

Joyner and McLaurin exchanged threats as the car maneuvered through the streets, according to the statement. At a stop light, the struggle resumed and the gun went off. McLaurin shot himself, Butts and Ethridge told investigators.

Joyner then called Smith and told him to get a shovel and be ready. The men allegedly picked up Smith and drove to the Seven Springs area, where Joyner pulled McLaurin from the car. Smith dug a hole. Joyner then allegedly struck McLaurin with the shovel, shot him again and put him in the hole. The three men set him on fire and buried him, according to statements to police.

The men then ditched the car and got into a different one. After some discussion, they returned to the site, dug up McLaurin's body and moved it to another shallow grave, the statements said.

It was there, down a path off Carmack Road in Seven Springs, that investigators uncovered McLaurin's remains two weeks later.

Joyner's first-degree murder trial is scheduled to begin March 17 in Wayne County Superior Court.

Following Wednesday's proceedings, the family of Curtis Ethridge spoke out.

"These boys have never been in any trouble before now. These are good boys, raised in Christian homes," Irish Ethridge said. She is the aunt of the defendant, whom she said was raised by his grandmother.

"They did not intend to go out and do this. And they weren't no gang like everyone has been saying," she said.

She said she wished to express condolences to Ms. Best and her mother, Janice Robinson.

"I'm terribly sorry to his mamma and his grandmamma for what happened to her son, to her grandson. We all go to the same church," Ms. Ethridge said.