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Hammer pleads guilty in triple murder

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — Nearly 16 months to the day after a triple slaying in Grayson County, Frederick Phillip Hammer pleaded guilty on May 22 to five counts capital murder, one count of robbery, one count of breaking and entering with the intent to commit larceny while armed with a deadly weapon, one count of grand larceny and one count of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Hammer, 49, of Crumpler N.C., faced more than a dozen charges — including the five for capital murder — in connection with the deaths of tree farm owner Ron Hudler, his son Fred and farm worker John Miller Jr. in January 2008.

Upon finding Hammer guilty, Grayson Circuit Court Judge Brett Geisler sentenced him to:

• five consecutive life terms in prison without the possibility of parole

• two additional non-capital sentences of life in prison

• additional prison terms totaling 23 years

• fines totaling more than $600,000.

Seven cases based on alternative theories of the facts and law and multiple charges of use of a firearm in commission of a felony were removed from the docket by an order of nolle prosequi, a type of dismissal.

According to Grayson County Commonwealth's Attorney Douglas Vaught, the guilty pleas were arranged last week after the recent discovery of one of the weapons used in the crimes and of money taken from Ron Hudler during the robbery.

According to Grayson Sheriff Richard Vaughan, the inmate was soon to be released from the jail and Hammer had arranged for him to collect the money and rifle from a barn owned by one of Hammer's acquaintances.

Hammer told the inmate he could keep a portion of the money if he would destroy the rifle and return the remaining money to him.

The inmate then wrote a letter to his girlfriend explaining that things were going to be okay when he got out of jail because he knew where he could dig up some money.

Vaughan said that letter was found in the inmate's cell by a correctional officer at the New River Valley Regional Jail. The letter was turned over to Vaughan's office and the inmate was questioned on May 5 by the sheriff's department.

The inmate told investigators of the deal and explained that he planned to go get the money upon his release, although he was going to keep it all.

He also said he had intentions of destroying the weapon.

The inmate never made it to the site — but investigators did.

After obtaining permission to search, the money was unearthed in the location.

A .22 magnum rifle bearing the serial number matching that of a rifle sold to Hammer in the mid-1990s was located hidden under heavy rolls of woven wire fencing.

Vaught told the court on Friday that attached to the rifle was a broken scope with damage matching debris found at the door of Ronald Hudler's house on the date of the killings.

Vaughan said his department spoke with Hammer's defense attorneys May 19, notifying them of the newfound evidence.

The next day, the defense team notified Vaught's office that they were ready to work out a plea agreement.

Prior to Judge Geisler accepting the plea agreement, Vaught expressed that members of the three victims' families were consulted prior to entering the agreement.

“Foremost in our minds was insuring that Hammer would no longer pose a danger to individuals or the community and that the families of the victims could hopefully achieve a degree of closure without a long and painful trail and years and years of appeals following a conviction and imposition of a sentence of death,” Vaught said in a press release issued Friday.

“We believe that the evidence was sufficient, and the crimes so heinous, to support a jury verdict of death if we proceeded to trial.”

Vaught added that they decided against moving forward with a trial due to the expense and consideration voiced by all the members of the victims' families who told him it was best to avoid a long — estimated at four to six weeks — and emotionally draining trial that would most likely have been held next spring or summer.

“They also voiced the sentiment that a sentence of life in prison as an admitted murderer without possibility of parole could be in some aspects worse punishment than death,” Vaught said of the families' comments.

Under Virginia law, death sentences resulting from capital prosecutions are granted an automatic review by appellate courts and defendants are able to appeal in state and federal courts for years after the verdict.

In Vaught's press release, he stated that the sentences given to Hammer under this plea agreement are not subject to such appeals, and for all intents and purposes are final sentencing orders.

Hammer Speaks

Though no prior announcements were made regarding the hearing, The Gazette was inside the courtroom as Hammer pleaded guilty to each count.

Upon Geisler accepting his pleas, Hammer was given a chance to speak before judgment was ruled against him.

“I think you are a hell of a judge,” Hammer began his remarks to Geisler. “You've done a good job and I appreciate that.”

Hammer then turned his attention to Grayson Sheriff Richard Vaughan saying, “I commend you for doing a good job. You had a lot of footwork, but you never gave up.”

Hammer next commended Vaught for his hard work, saying that the community needed more honest people like him in it.

Next, Hammer turned his attention to the Hudler and Miller family members in attendance.

“What happened that day... should not of happened,” he said. “For that... I am sorry.”

Hammer added that he went to the farm that day to take the safe and be gone within minutes.

While there is a lot more Hammer felt needed to be said to the family members, he encouraged them to read it in the book he is working on.

“There are a lot of things you need to know,” he told the families.

Hammer then asked Ashe County, N.C., Sheriff James Williams to keep an eye out for his wife and his home.

“Brenda had nothing to do with this,” Hammer said of his wife, who has been the focal point of several attacks on their home and threatening phone calls.

Hammer then addressed other cases in which he was rumored to have been involved in, including the disappearance of Jimmie Blevins.

“I had nothing to do with those,” Hammer told Williams.

While he knew what he did at the Hudler Tree Farm was wrong, Hammer told Williams that he didn't make things any easier by bringing his name up constantly in those other cases.

He added that, when the results of a recent lie detector test were revealed, it would prove he had no involvement.

“I'm especially proud of my attorneys,” Hammer continued. “I probably deserve to die... Sometimes I wish I were dead for what I did.”

Hammer added that the Hudlers were always very good to him and that, while he had never met Miller, he hoped the two families could find it in their hearts to forgive him.

With no further comments, Geisler accepted the plea agreement, sending Hammer to prison for the rest of his life.

Also included in the agreement was the return of property to Hammer's wife and son-in-law. Among those items were his wallet and its contents, the Ford pick-up truck that was seized for evidence, Hammer's wedding ring and those firearms confiscated that were not involved in the murders.

Swift Justice

This past Sunday marked the 16-month anniversary of the three slayings that occurred Jan. 24, 2008 at the Hudler Tree Farm near the North Carolina state line off Route 16.

Vaught concluded in his press release that from the beginning of the investigation and through the sentences, he was impressed and grateful for the wisdom, hard work and dedication of Sheriff Vaughan and the entire Grayson County Sheriff's Department.

Vaught also thanked the Virginia State Police, the Ashe County Sheriff's Department, the Wythe County Sheriff's Department, the Giles County Sheriff's Department, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Galax Police Department, the Medical Examiner's Office for the Western District of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

“Within three days of the murders, we developed sufficient probable cause to issue capital murder arrest warrants for Hammer, and the relentless pursuit of leads and evidence has provided my office with a truly solid case for prosecution, and is in great part responsible for the speedy and favorable closure of these cases by conviction and acceptable sentencing,” Vaught concluded in his press release. “The spirit of cooperation among our offices could not have been higher or more productive.”