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HILLSVILLE — A Carroll grand jury will consider a charge of first-degree murder against a 31-year-old Woodlawn man during its September term.
The case involves the Feb. 8 death of 45-year-old Delphie Willey.
Jesse James Owens appeared in Carroll County General District Court on Tuesday for a preliminary hearing on charges of first-degree murder, use of a firearm, possession of ammunition and possession of a gun by a non-violent felon.
Owens had previously been found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and driving under the influence in a July 5, 2004, accident that caused the death of a 24-year-old woman, according to court records. Owens also had been charged with possession of ammunition by a felon and public swearing in Buchanan County on April 12, 2012.
Testimony from Carroll County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Seth Greer indicated that Owens’ motive in the shooting arose from Willey dancing with another man at a get-together that day, based on a statement made by the defendant to the investigator.
Three bailiffs stood around Owens as he sat at the defense table in gray-striped jail garb, and another bailiff stood between Owens and eight observers and Wiley’s family members on the prosecution side of the courtroom.
Witness Nathan Dowell described the scene at Owen’s home at 90 Boot Jack Drive, where he, Owens and Willey had been hanging out and drinking that day.
In response to questions from Commonwealth’s Attorney Nathan Lyons, Dowell said the three had been eating and drinking liquor and beer for three or four hours Feb. 8.
The carousing included going out on Owens’ front porch and shooting a .22-caliber Marlin rifle. The witness said the three people had shot the gun six times between them.
They went back inside to get out of the cold to eat and drink some more.
Dowell got a call on his cell phone from his son and he went back outside to talk.
When Dowell came back in, he overheard Owens and Delphie Willey talking about Valentine’s Day.
At that time, Owens told Willey that he loved her and she was “his snowflake,” and Owens gave her a necklace with black onyx in it and went to put it around her neck, according to Dowell’s testimony.
What happened after he put the necklace on her? Lyons asked.
“There was a rifle stuck up,” Dowell said, and Owens “pulled the trigger.”
What happened to the female, the prosecutor asked. “She fell.”
“I went all to pieces,” Dowell said as he answered further questions. “Jesse said, ‘Everything will be alright. We just killed a deer.’”
Dowell told the court that Owens asked him to help move the body to his Chevy Silverado. Dowell went so far to put a socks on his hands, but then said he didn’t go through with it.
He testified that he tried to leave Owens’ home on foot but got lost in the woods. Dowell said upon returning he encountered Owens in the driveway, by which time the accused had taken Willey’s body to his Silverado by himself.
Owens caught up with Dowell in the driveway and offered him a ride.
Dowell testified that he refused and walked instead until an unidentified person picked him up on the road and dropped him off at a home on Bronco Road. From there, Dowell called the Carroll Sheriff’s Office to report what had happened at 90 Boot Jack Drive.
In response to the cross examination from defense attorney Jonathan Venzie, Dowell said he couldn’t immediately call authorities on his cell phone because it had died.
Venzie asked the witness if anything had been amiss at Owens’ home at the point in the evening when Dowell’s son called. “The drinking was pretty intense, you were pretty drunk,” Venzie said. “But no fights, no anger, no argument?”
Dowell confirmed this was true.
Owens Makes Statements to Investigator
Carroll Investigator Seth Greer first testified about the police response to the scene and the collection of multiple items of evidence there.
When he arrived, the investigator saw what appeared to be a significant pool of blood in the driveway and drag marks and blood trailing back into the home.
The trail led to a large pool of blood inside, not far from a gun cabinet, a .22 shell casing and a bloody light switch on a wall between the kitchen and living room.
Deputies also found a live cartridge on the front porch near the drag marks.
Lyons introduced photos from the investigation to illustrate the evidence to the court, as well as the recovered gun still wrapped up in brown paper and tape and several shell casings at the hearing.
After learning Hillsville police had arrested Owens at an apartment in town, Greer interviewed the accused at the sheriff’s office in the early morning of Feb. 9.
He asked Owens about the items that had been found at his home and the whereabouts of Willey.
Greer also went to the scene where a pedestrian had found a body in the vicinity of Brushy Fork Road later on Feb. 9.
Authorities at the scene found that the victim had a head wound, Greer testified. The state forensics lab in Roanoke later confirmed it was a gunshot wound and the cause of Willey’s death.
Greer interviewed Owens again, when the accused showed up to court on Feb. 13 on the initial charges of possession of a weapon and possession of ammo by a felon.
At that time, the investigator served an arrest warrant for first-degree murder on Owens.
Greer asked to speak to Owens that day, and the defendant went into more detail about what happened at his Woodlawn home.
In the beginning, though, Owens characterized the shooting as an accident when the dancing at the party caused the rifle to fall over and go off.
The investigator said he explained that the .22’s trajectory made that story unlikely. Owens changed his story and said he shot Willey in the head.
Owens told Greer that Willey had expressed an interest in having a sexual relationship with Dowell, according to the investigator’s testimony.
Owens had gone out on a beer run, and he returned to find Willey and Dowell “dancing and rubbing” on each other.
Owens considered Willey his girlfriend. He told Greer in his Feb. 13 statement that seeing Willey and Dowell dancing had angered him.
“’I pulled out a f****** gun and shot her,’” Greer testified that Owens told him on Feb. 13.
Owens also told the investigator that Dowell had helped put the body in his Silverado, Greer testified. The defendant also said that he attempted to clean up the blood with a mop, but was unsuccessful.
Carroll Investigator Donnie Spangler testified about processing Owens’ Silverado for evidence.
Evidence collected from the truck included a Natural Light beer can, a black ball cap, Brahma boots size 10.5, a black glove and a camo glove, a black-handled knife, a red substance, a black coat and DNA swabs from different areas of the truck.
Analysis of the DNA samples from the blood in the truck eliminated Owens as the donor, but could not eliminate Willey.
After the prosecution rested its case, Venzie provided no evidence from the defense.
Judge E.M. Turner III noted that the evidence presented at the hearing was sufficient probable cause to take the charges against Owens to the grand jury.
The grand jury will hear the case and decide whether to issue formal charges and send the matter to trial.