McGraw takes stand in own murder trial

Published 2:48 am Monday, June 2, 2014

Murder suspect Travis McGraw took the stand Friday, May 30 in what has continued to be a trial full of surprises.

The defense began questioning its witnesses Friday with a fingerprint analyst who left the jury with doubt as to who owned an unidentified fingerprint left on an open cash drawer at the murder scene. The jury also heard a woman who testified that two men tried to get into her vehicle as she travelled up Green River Cove Road the night of Vanessa Mintz’ murder at the nearby Saluda Mountain Lodge.

Prior to McGraw taking the stand, which Judge Tommy Davis ensured McGraw knew the risks of taking the stand and the fact that he is giving up his right to remain silent, jurors heard from former N.C. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) latent print analyst Brian Delmas. Delmas said he found one print on the top of the cash drawer at the Saluda Mountain Lodge and it didn’t match either Mintz or McGraw.

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Delmas said he was not asked to compare the prints to anyone else and also did not enter the print into the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System because the print was not of good enough quality to enter. The print he said, was good quality as far as detail, but was only of the tip of a finger.

Witness testifies of two mysterious men

The next witness for the defense was Sandra Watkins, former Saluda resident, who testified she went for a joyride the night of Feb. 18, 2011 when two men jumped off the bank and tried to get into her vehicle. The surprise witness may have caused the jury and audience to feel like they were traversing through the dramatic trial as Watkins said she was traversing up Green River Cove’s “switchbacks,” or winding road.

Watkins testified she left her home in Saluda that Friday night to ride around, which was not unusual for her to do since there was nothing to do in Saluda. She said she often took drives to pass the time.

Watkins said she went the Holbert’s Cove Road loop, which ends at the top of Green River Cove Road, to rear and side of the Saluda Mountain Lodge.

Watkins said during her testimony that the incident occurred around 9:30 p.m. and she knows she made the 911 call immediately. During cross-examination she said she probably left her home around 8 p.m. and it took approximately 30 minutes to make the drive around the cove. During the state’s witnesses, no time of death was given, but McGraw later testified that he left the lodge around 9:30 p.m.

Watkins described the incident saying she was driving near the top of Green River Cove Road when a young male jumped off the bank and began waving his arms in front of her vehicle. The man began to yell “stop” and to let him in and started yanking on her driver’s door, Watkins said. She said she started to reach over to the passenger seat and noticed another young male at her passenger door trying to get in.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize they meant business,” Watkins said. “I got out of there.”

She said she accelerated and drove to her mother’s home, right next to her house, and called 911. A Polk County Sheriff’s Office deputy later testified that around 9:30 p.m. he went to the area to search for suspicious persons or vehicles and found none.

During cross examination, senior assistant district attorney Alex Bass asked if she identified herself to 911 as Sandra Watkins. Watkins admitted she gave a different last name because she didn’t want to get involved.

“Are you Brandon Case’s mother,” Bass asked Watkins.

“Yes,” Watkins answered.

Bass asked if her son is charged with murder and Watkins said he is. Case is currently awaiting trial and is charged with murdering his friend just outside Saluda in Henderson County.

Bass also confirmed with Watkins that she didn’t see either male carrying a weapon.

McGraw’s demeanor

Darren Cronan, a Polk County paramedic also testified for the defense. He said he arrived and checked for a pulse on Mintz and waited for law enforcement after it was determined to be a crime scene. Bass asked Cronan how McGraw acted once he arrived.

Cronan said it was hard to explain how McGraw acted. He said McGraw appeared “distraught,” and “excited,” but not a happy excited. Cronan also said McGraw was “almost confrontational.”

“If my wife was laying in there I could understand that,” Cronan said. “You’d want to get to her. He was just determined he was going to get to her.”

McGraw’s son

McGraw’s son, Taylor McGraw, now 20 years old, also testified. Taylor McGraw said he worked at the YMCA as a lifeguard at the time and was on a scheduled visit with his father that night. He said his father brought him a Subway sandwich around 6 p.m. at the YMCA before Travis McGraw went to the lodge. Taylor McGraw also said he called his father later to see if he could take his girlfriend home and arrived at Travis McGraw’s house around 10:30 p.m., where his father met him at the door.

Taylor McGraw discussed the parking arrangements at the house, saying he parked in an alcove at the front of the house and his father’s truck was at the side of the house, below near the basement.

Bass confirmed during cross-examination that Travis McGraw changed where he parked about a week before the murder.

Taylor McGraw also discussed two dogs at the house, with one being deaf who barked at every vibration and stayed right next to his room. Taylor McGraw said he went to bed at midnight and his father was in bed at the time and he heard nothing all night. He admitted he was a sound sleeper, but said two noises in succession, such as the door shutting and a car starting would have awoken him.

Travis McGraw takes the stand

McGraw took the stand Friday afternoon with a thunderstorm brewing outside. He was wearing a black jacket, blue shirt and yellow tie and seemed calm. He began by telling about his life; that he grew up in Hendersonville, graduated from East Henderson in 1985, volunteered at fire departments, joined the Air Force and later became a police officer; first at the Asheville Airport and then took a job with the Fletcher Police Department. He spoke of his injuries, obtained on duty with the Fletcher Police Department, and his decisions to have surgeries. He retired from the police department in June 2010.

On Feb. 18, 2011, McGraw testified that he got up and took a shower and later loaded up his shotgun and a box of shells to go practice shooting because his mother had invited him to turkey shoot and he wanted to ensure with his injuries he could handle shooting a shotgun. He said he took his Mossberg 500 pump-action, which the state had testimony earlier in the week that the Mossberg was the gun McGraw used to kill his wife, Vanessa Mintz. The state also had testimony from the SBI that the shell found in the room Mintz was found, was fired from McGraw’s Mossberg shotgun. The defense did not offer any testimony to dispute the SBI’s tool mark findings of the shotgun.

The state also had testimony about finding a shotgun shell the same make as the one found at the crime scene in McGraw’s truck the morning Mintz was found at the lodge.

Defense attorney Tony Dalton prior to McGraw’s testimony showed a surveillance video from a gas station near the lodge that placed McGraw at the gas station between 8:43 and 8:44 p.m. McGraw testified that was him at the convenience store, indicating that he went to the store to get a snack and drink for Mintz and returned to the lodge.

McGraw said because he took his son a sandwich, he was running late to relieve Mintz’ daughter, Jessica Freeman at the lodge, but arrived around 6:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.  He said his wife called him around 8 p.m. and said she was finished with a business meeting and was really excited about a new partnership. He said he watched television and changed clothes waiting on Mintz to arrive. He said Mintz asked him to go to the truck stop and he went and returned, with the two talking about some issues with his back while Mintz’ friend, Heidi Latham was still there.

McGraw said around 9:30 p.m., Latham left to go to her room at the lodge, his son had called to ask about taking his girlfriend home and he told him to be at his house by 10-10:30 p.m. McGraw said while Mintz was changing clothes he closed the blinds and put the “closed” sign out as was a normal routine.

“Around 9:30 or so I told her (Mintz) it was time for me to head out,” McGraw said on the stand. “We said our goodbyes. I told her good luck at the meeting in the morning.”

McGraw said he arrived at home shortly before 10 p.m. and he knows that because the 9 p.m. television shows were still on. McGraw said he took two Percocets, a Flexeril and one Lyrica before his son got home around 10:30 p.m. He said he went to bed with his laptop and was hoping the pain medication would kick in. Around 12:30 a.m., McGraw said he got up and took another Percocet and an Ambien, which he chased with a shot of alcohol (two fingers high) and went back to bed. He said he woke up around 7 a.m. to the sound of construction vehicles down the street and woke up his son to join him at Cracker Barrel for breakfast with his daughter, Taylor’s sister, who was at her mother’s house.

McGraw said at Cracker Barrel, they finished eating and hadn’t paid yet when Jessica Freeman, Vanessa Mintz’ daughter, called him.

“That dropped me when she said ‘cold to the touch,’” McGraw said. “You don’t get cold to the touch unless you are outside in cold weather.”

McGraw said he gave Taylor money to pay the bill and left for the lodge. He said his gas light was on in his truck, so he stopped and got gas.

He said when he got to the parking lot he saw law enforcement vehicles, fire department vehicles, EMS and family vehicles. He said in his 20 plus years of public safety, “you don’t have that many vehicles unless the situation is dire.” He said Freeman was screaming at him “why weren’t you there,” and he didn’t know what to say to her. McGraw said he kept wanting to go in to see Mintz but emergency personnel kept holding him back behind the yellow tape.

He said he was told by Mintz’ family members that his wife was gone.

“I pretty well broke down right there,” McGraw said becoming teary. “I think I collapsed at one point in time. On my knees in disbelief.”

McGraw’s testimony is scheduled to continue Monday morning beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the Polk County Courthouse, including cross-examination by Bass.

McGraw faces first-degree murder charges with a possible life sentence without parole if found guilty.