Abril case tops crime stories of decade
Published 8:39 pm Monday, December 28, 2009
Editors note:This is the second in a series of articles examing the top local stories over the past decade.
There was no avoiding the case against Chris Abril, however much people may have wanted to look away.
Abril was the Columbus chief of police and a candidate for sheriff of Polk County when, on Monday, August 28, 2006 a Polk County grand jury handed down a True Bill of Indictment charging him with five counts of statutory rape.
If the charges were not explosive enough, local politics quickly threw fuel on the fire. It was only three months until the election. The Polk County Democratic Party publicly questioned the timing and backed Abril to stay in the race.
“Considering how much he has given to this community over the last 20 years, that is the least we can do for him,” party chairman Margaret Johnson said.
A native of Peru, Abril had moved to Polk County in 1985. He had been a police officer, husband, father, active community volunteer, soccer coach and Spanish interpreter for law enforcement agencies.
More than 200 supporters were on hand at a campaign rally Aug. 31st at Stearns Gym. “Im not capable of committing any such crimes,” Abril told them. “I am truly innocent.”
Some were openly accusing Sheriff David Satterfield of rekindling an ancient, disproved case just to sabotage his opponent.
Capt. Chris Beddingfield of the Polk County Sheriffs office spoke out. Beddingfield told reporters that the case had resurfaced when the family renewed its complaint. The victims mother had been outraged at seeing “Abril for Sheriff” signs go up, he said.
Beddingfield said when it came up, deputies intentionally referred the matter to the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) for investigation without Satterfields participation or knowledge, specifically to keep him out of it.
District Attorney Jeff Hunt also punted the ball away. He said he referred the SBI investigative report to the N.C. Attorney Generals office since he had to work with both Sheriff Satterfield and Chief Abril every day.
Judge Zoro Guice Jr. tried to bring back decorum, proclaiming at the first administrative hearing on Sept. 14, 2006 that, “Politics has absolutely no involvement in this matter.”
But some continued to doubt that. The charges stemmed from incidents going back to 1987 and 1988, involving two girls under the age of 13. The SBI had investigated one victims story in 1989, but District Attorney Alan Leonard at the time had found the evidence gathered “insufficient” to prosecute.
However, a second victim came forward with corroborating stories when the SBI relaunched its investigation in March, 2006.
After the indictments were handed down, the original complainant went public to answer the publics accusations against her.
“When this first came out, I was still a child… and easily dismissed,” she said. “I will not be dismissed this time. I have lived with this secret and felt the shame for too long.”
If elections mean anything, a majority of voters dismissed the allegations anyway.
Abril was elected sheriff on Nov. 7, 2006 by a margin of 622 votes. He went on to serve a rocky term, with high rates of turnover, allegations of staff misconduct, and exceedingly poor relations with the county administration.
Meanwhile, the rape case was still making its way to court. Judge James U. Downs on March 19, 2007 denied the prosecutors motion to move the trial out of Polk County. The trial began 16 months later in the just-reopened Polk County Courthouse.
Pre-trial motions were heard on Friday August 1, 2008. By the following Wednesday, the judge had declared a mistrial and ordered a new venue after Abril was found to have contacted a potential juror.
As it turned out, there never would be a trial.
Abril resigned as Sheriff on Sunday, Nov. 16, 2008 and pled guilty the next morning in Waynesville to two counts of felony solicitation to take indecent liberties with a child.
Judge Guice sentenced Abril to 120 days of house arrest and three years of supervised probation.
Upon leaving the courtroom, Abrils defense attorney Stephen Lindsay said Abril pled guilty only to improper words, not conduct.
The victim also spoke. “Three generations of my family have been affected by this,” she said, “and I pray to God that it stops with only those three.”
* * *
Three local men went missing during the past ten years, never to return.
Jim Cockman was last seen Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2004 as he was leaving at 10 a.m. to meet a couple that had promised to buy his GMC Suburban. He had displayed the car on a vacant lot near the intersection of Hwys. 14 and 11 in Gowensville and was to meet them there.
When he failed to attend a 2:30 meeting he had scheduled that day, he was reported missing. Ominously, his green Jaguar was found, with its door open, sitting at the vacant lot.
Cockman, 71 at the time, a former CEO of Sara Lee, was a highly respected philanthropist, foster parent and businessman with world-wide interests.
Since moving to Gowensville from Greenville, S.C., he had become president of FENCE, a member of the Tryon Rotary Club and the Hospice board of directors. he had purchased the old Tryon Federal buildings in downtown Tryon and had big plans for them.
When it was learned Jim was missing, people fanned out, did searches and passed out fliers. A $50,000 reward was offered. The story made national news over the weekend.
Nine days later, on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004, the search ended.
Jim Cockmans body was found in a Pigeon Forge, TN storage unit. David Edens, 36 at the time, and Jennifer Holloway, 28, of Sevierville, TN were arrested and quickly admitted to abducting and killing Cockman.
It turns out they had lived in Green Creek for a couple years and the woman had worked at a Green Creek convenience store.
FBI investigators tracked the pair down when a sketch of a “person of interest” matched Holloway. They also traced Holloways cell phone, the one used in conversations with Cockman about the GMC Suburban.
Edens waived his right even to come to the courtroom when the trial began in June, 2006. There was no real question of guilt in the trial. It was all about the death penalty.
After 11 hours of deliberation, the jury could not decide and so the judge sentenced Edens and Holloway to life without parole.
* * *
Thomas Amburn left his residence on the west side of White Oak Mountain for a hike on Monday, April 19, 2004.
When he didnt return, the immensity of that mountain and the precious nature of human life became clear to the community.
On Tuesday morning, 35 persons began searching for Amburn. By Wednesday, the team had grown to 150, members from every public safety agency in Polk County and from others in surrounding counties. There were ten dogs on the ground and helicopters above using heat sensing equipment at night.
Columbus Fire Chief Geoff Tennant reported the search and rescue teams were using a grid system to scour a 1,000-acre area of White Oak, much of it treacherous terrain with caves and areas heavily overgrown in brush and briars.
“It is kind of a needle in a haystack situation,” Tennant admitted.
When despite all the effort Amburn was not found, some wondered if he had gone off to Tennessee.
A team of 25 hikers conducted a “final effort” search again a year later, on Sunday, April 17, 2005. Still nothing.
It would be two and a half years before the Amburn family finally learned what happened to Thomas that day. His remains were found by a deer hunter near the top of White Oak Mountain, approximately 25 yards or so from a four-wheel trail.
Rescuers expressed amazement that Amburn, a 51-year-old diabetic who had recently had foot surgery, could have climbed that far up the mountain.
“I guess it will never really be understood why he died,” his wife, Deborah Amburn said. “It gives me a little peace of mind knowing he was doing what he loved.”
* * *
Jay Clark V had been missing from his Columbus home since Jan. 7, 2006, but the family was not initially worried.
He had gone away before. However, when he failed to attend his fathers funeral in August 2006, the family became alarmed.
Capt. Chris Beddingfield of the Polk County Sheriffs Department searched Clarks last known Polk County residence on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2006. When they returned the next day they found Clarks body. Foul play was suspected.
By Friday, Clarks sister, Ida Hays Clark, and Trent Allen Miller had been arrested and charged with first degree murder.
On Nov. 16, 2009, Miller pled guilty to second degree murder and was sentenced to 13 years in jail. Ida Clark, charged as an accessory, is still awaiting trial.