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INDEPENDENCE — After 11 years of investigating, law enforcement agencies have narrowed down the evidence enough to indict two suspects in connection with the 2002 death of Galax High School student Brandon Billings.
Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan, Grayson Commonwealth’s Attorney Doug Vaught and Brandon’s parents, Sherry and Kyle Billings, spoke about the recent charges at a press conference at the Grayson County Courthouse on Monday afternoon.
George Albert Harper III, 40, and Chad Allen Reeves, 33 — both from the Galax area and both currently incarcerated for unrelated charges — have been charged with Billings’ murder and with using a firearm in the commission of a felony.
Vaughan was unable to share if or how the two suspects knew Billings, but he confirmed that the two were suspects early on in the investigation.
“There were a number of suspects in the initial pool, and it was our job to follow up on leads and eliminate suspects until we were left with these two,” the sheriff told The Gazette in an interview following the press conference.
Vaughan could not elaborate as to how many other suspects were eliminated.
Billings’ body was found the afternoon of Oct. 6, 2002, by passers-by near the New River in Grayson County. The 18-year-old was in his pickup, which had wrecked in a creek. He had a gunshot wound to the head.
Since then, the sheriff’s department has spent thousands of hours narrowing down the suspect list and gathering enough evidence to find probable cause. Local police were assisted by Virginia State Police, other Virginia sheriffs’ departments and law enforcement agencies from several other states.
Vaughan took the investigation over as a cold case in 2008 from former Sheriff Jerry Wilson, whose work was commended at the conference, as well.
“We appreciate what Sheriff Jerry Wilson and the previous administration had done on the case,” Vaughan said. “We picked it up where they left off, spent thousands of hours on that and was able to gain additional information,” Vaughan said at the conference.
Asked about Reeves and Harper being looked at early in the investigation, Vaughan said that “in 80 percent of cold cases, the killer’s name is already in the incident report, and that was the case in this instance.
“Over time, we were able to build the case and work with Commonwealth’s Attorney Doug Vaught and an investigative grand jury, and was able to get enough to issue indictments.”
In 2011, the case was brought to a special investigative grand jury in Grayson County Circuit Court.
Vaught said the grand jury convened after “the development of new leads and information recently coming to light.”
After nearly three years of meetings and deliberations, the direct indictments against Reeves and Harper were returned on Jan. 3 and announced Jan. 10.
Wilson contacted Vaughan on Monday morning to congratulate and thank everyone who worked on the Billings case. “Sheriff Wilson stated that he has been praying for this case to be solved and he was relieved that the family had some closure,” Vaughan told The Gazette. “[He] told us that we had done a good job and that he appreciated our work... I have a lot of respect for [Wilson] and I appreciate the kind words.”
When asked about search warrants in relation to the case, Vaughan confirmed that there are none available for release at this time. “We have done searches, such as open field searches [during the investigation],” he said.
Records and evidence in the case are sealed by court order, Vaught said last week.
No further information about the case itself, including motive or evidence, has been released at this time. Vaught said in a statement last week not to expect much information before trial.
“In the interest of preserving a neutral jury pool for trial of these cases, no additional comments or evidence will be released prior to the trial of the cases.”
No trial date has been set, nor did Vaught know when a date might be set.
The prosecutor said the Commonwealth would present evidence to seek a first-degree murder conviction, by proof of premeditation or other factors.
The murder indictments against Reeves and Harper were filed as detainers by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Virginia Department of Corrections.
Reeves is in federal prison in Kentucky, so the state charges will not be tried until the completion of his federal sentence, or unless other special arrangements are made, Vaught said. Reeves would then be returned to Virginia to stand trial on the murder and use of a firearm indictments.
Harper is in custody of the Virginia Department of Corrections, “but it is uncertain as to when he will be served and when he would be transferred to the New River Valley Regional Jail in preparation for trial,“ Vaught said.
Early on in the case, the Billings family raised reward money for anyone who would come forward with information about the case. However, the funds were returned to the family in 2012.
There is no new reward anticipated in relation to the new information that led to these charges, Vaughan said.