WSET-Lovingston Woman Acquitted of Murder, Convicted of Arson and Larceny

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WSET.com – ABC13

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Blackwell found not guilty in fatal arson, guilty on charges from two other fires

From: News and Advance, Lynchburg, VA

Posted: Wednesday, March 12, 2014 10:00 pm

Justin Faulconer

Linda Blackwell

LOVINGSTON — A jury on Wednesday found a Nelson County woman not guilty of first-degree murder and arson in connection with a fatal fire at her Lovingston home, but convicted her of arson in two other blazes.

Linda Campbell Blackwell, 58, had been accused in the death of James Shelton Sr. from injures sustained in the Aug. 2, 2009 fire at her home at 18 Creekview Lane.

The jury convicted Blackwell on two counts of arson related to fires in 2012 and 2013, as well as three counts of obtaining money by false pretenses. After deliberating further, the jury recommended she serve 11 years and 3 months and pay a $3,000 fine.

Prosecutor Anthony Martin said Linda Blackwell, a Nelson native and former county court services employee, intentionally set the fires to collect insurance money. Blackwell’s attorney, Paul Valois, argued the fires were an “unfortunate series of accidents,” and no evidence linked his client to arson.

The verdict and sentence recommendation came on the sixth day of Blackwell’s trial, which featured testimony from fire and forensics experts. The jury deliberated for more than six hours in a 24-hour span before reaching the verdict. Judge J. Michael Gamble set sentencing for May 27; he can sentence Blackwell to less time than recommended by the jury but cannot exceed it.

Linda Blackwell, who has maintained her innocence throughout the proceedings, initially did not react to the verdict but cried during the jury’s deliberation on sentencing in the courtroom as family and friends consoled her. James Shelton Jr., the victim’s son, said he was pleased “a little bit of justice” had been done.

“I’ll take a small piece of the pie compared to the whole thing any day,” he said.

When asked his thoughts on the jury’s recommended sentence, he responded: “That’s not up to me,” but said he appreciates the time prosecutors, investigators and jurors put into a “very difficult case.

“They did an excellent job presenting what they did,” Shelton said. “It’s a good day.”

Valois complimented the jury for their attention and diligence but added he was disappointed by the guilty verdicts. He said he remains convinced his client is innocent, and maintains no evidence at any time linked her to the crimes. Several family and friends testified in court Wednesday to Linda Blackwell’s character and Valois said she has no prior criminal record. April Campbell, her daughter, said she is trustworthy and Blackwell’s sister described her as a caregiver.

“There is no doubt in my mind,” April Campbell said. “I trust her with my children and that’s the greatest possession in my life.”

Martin asked the jury to consider the turmoil her actions caused Shelton’s family and first responders to the three fires. He said circumstantial evidence, common in such cases, connected Blackwell to arson and defrauding insurance companies. “Fire is dangerous, fire burns, fire kills,” Martin said. “We have to protect the public. Sometimes we also have to protect people from themselves.”

The 2009 fire started at about 1:25 a.m., according to Linda Blackwell’s testimony, and completely destroyed the house. She testified she couldn’t find a phone and rushed to the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office nearby to get help while her husband, David Blackwell, and James Shelton Sr., a longtime friend staying at the home, exited the structure. Shelton reentered the building and David Blackwell went in to pull him out. David Blackwell was injured in the blaze.

None of the experts who testified could pinpoint a cause of the fire. Martin said the scene was destroyed and, for reasons not explained in court, an investigation dropped. In February 2012, a month after Martin took over as Nelson’s Commonwealth Attorney, the second fire at Blackwell’s home broke out in the kitchen while she was at a doctor’s appointment in Lynchburg. Martin said after the trial that fire is what initiated the investigation into her involvement.

The May 2013 fire began in an upstairs room. Martin said it was suspicious that Linda Blackwell took her dog to the garage, which she hardly ever entered, and stayed there for a while, before the fire was noticed and reported. Martin said several times during the trial her suspicious actions gave the fires time to burn.

Following the verdict, Martin said he felt justice was done and the jury’s decisions were based on the evidence and took into account the defendant’s age and lack of criminal history. Arson investigations are difficult to prove as most fires are presumed accidental, he said. “It was a very complex case,” Martin said.

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Blackwell testifies in her own defense in murder, arson trial

linda blackwell

From: News and Advance, Lynchburg, VA

Posted: Monday, March 10, 2014 1:11 pm

Justin Faulconer

LOVINGSTON — The night before a fatal house fire in 2009, the Blackwell family celebrated a birthday, complete with fried chicken and birthday cake, Linda Campbell Blackwell testified Monday.

Within hours, the festive atmosphere was gone, replaced by chaos as fire tore through the manufactured home at 18 Creekview Lane in Lovingston. Blackwell is on trial in Nelson County Circuit Court, charged with one count of first-degree murder in the death of James Shelton Sr., three counts of setting fires to an occupied dwelling for blazes on the same property in 2009, 2012 and 2013 and three counts of obtaining money by false pretenses.

She has pleaded not guilty to the charges. She took the stand Monday as the last witness for the defense in the fourth day of the trial. The evening before the blaze, Blackwell said her family celebrated the birthday of her stepson, “little David,” who had turned 13. When the celebration was over, Linda Blackwell, her husband, David Blackwell, and his longtime friend, James Shelton Sr., watched a John Wayne movie before going to bed, she testified.

Then the fire started.

Blackwell, 58, said she awoke at about 1:25 a.m. to “popping” noises. She got up to investigate and notice flames shooting out of the kitchen in the laundry room area, she said. There was no way to get to a phone in the kitchen, and her daughter had her cellphone, she said. Her first thought was to go the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office about a mile or two away for help, she said.

Her husband told her to go, and she was familiar with the area after working in the court system for a number of years. Blackwell collects disability and said she has not worked since 2008. “I drove to the sheriff’s office as rapidly as I could,” Blackwell said. “It felt like forever, but it had to be a matter of minutes.” She ran into the sheriff’s office screaming for help, before she drove back in time to see the roof cave in, she said.

“I was shaking really bad,” Blackwell said.

She found her husband lying in a fetal position under a chestnut tree, in pain from burns sustained in the fire, she said. Shelton also was under the tree, badly burned and asking for water. David Blackwell had a large blister on his hand, and his throat was swollen, she said.

“David couldn’t talk to me,” she said. “I kind of went into a state of shock.”

The two men were airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center. It took months for David Blackwell to recover; Shelton died two days later. Blackwell said she didn’t sleep for days following the fire. Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin said in his opening statement last week Blackwell had financial motivations for setting the fire that, according to the indictment, “accidentally” killed Shelton, as well as the fires in 2012 and 2013.

He said her accounts of events in the three incidents did not add up for investigators. She was arrested Oct. 1, 2013 following a lengthy investigation. When asked by her lawyer, Paul Valois, if she started the fires or killed Shelton, she replied: “Absolutely not.” She also denied obtaining profit from the fire as well as defrauding Allstate and Liberty Mutual insurance companies.

She testified she had no idea how the fires started. She said from speaking to an investigator, she suspected the 2012 fire was caused by a dishwasher. She was in Lynchburg at the doctor’s office when that fire sparked, she and family members testified. The fires in 2012 and 2013 partially damaged the home.

During Martin’s cross-examination, Blackwell’s voice indicated frustration at some of his questions. He asked why she didn’t give a responding firefighter at the sheriff’s office her address and other actions she took, such as moving a vehicle away from the house before getting into her car to leave.

“Mr. Martin, have you ever been in a fire?” she asked. “I was badly shaken. My home was on fire.”

Several representatives of Allstate and Liberty Mutual who testified said Linda Blackwell was “evasive” at times with information. She testified she cooperated “to the best of my ability” with investigators.When questioned by Valois on her finances, she said her account has decreased since the fires. David Blackwell also took the stand Monday and described the events of the 2009 blaze. Shelton, who Linda Blackwell testified was a smoker, lived there as a guest.

“He liked our company,” David Blackwell said. “He enjoyed being there. It was fine with us if he stayed there.” He said Linda woke him when she heard noises in the kitchen, saying “Oh my gosh! We got a fire.” Shelton was a “night owl” who liked watching television, so David Blackwell expected him to be awake, he said.

David Blackwell testified he did not call 911 because he couldn’t find the cordless phone. He said his wife left to get help, and he and Shelton were out of the house. Grabbing a water hose, he said he tried to fight the flames from outside and did so until the water pump quit. After that he ran around the house but didn’t see Shelton.

“I couldn’t find him,” he said. “I pretty much knew he went back in.”

David Blackwell re-entered the home and saw fire in the kitchen “coming across like crazy.” He ran to Shelton’s bedroom where he saw him standing over his dresser grabbing something that was not described in court. “I said ‘Jim, we got to get out of here,’” David Blackwell recalled. Linda Blackwell broke into tears during parts of her husband’s testimony. David Blackwell said he knows of no evidence she had any part in starting the fires.

Valois made a motion to dismiss the case on lack of evidence, which Judge J. Michael Gamble denied. Valois said there is no eyewitness, confession or a “single shred of proof” of arson by his client. “We’re dealing with an entirely circumstantial case,” Valois said.

Martin argued circumstantial evidence has merit in such cases. He said a fire broke out in a brand new home that recently passed a building inspection. He said Blackwell told a stepdaughter a day before the 2009 blaze she dreamt about fire, and it could be argued “she was thinking about fires” in planning.

He also mentioned a smoke detector that did not have a battery, her emotions “turning off and on” at the time and attempts to obtain receipts for family members for claims “that shows an intent to defraud an insurance company.” Blackwell on Monday denied seeking any receipts from family members. The trial resumes today at 9:30 a.m. with closing arguments expected.

 

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Prosecution puts on final witnesses in arson, murder trial

From: News and Advance, lynchburg, VA

Posted: Friday, March 7, 2014 12:54 pm

Justin Faulconer

Lina Blackwell

LOVINGSTON — Investigators and analysts with expertise in fire scenes were the final prosecution witnesses to be called to the stand in the first-degree murder trial of Linda Campbell Blackwell.

On Monday, the defense will present its case.

Blackwell, 58, is accused of setting a fire in Aug. 2009 at her home at 18 Creekview Lane in Lovingston that killed James Shelton Sr. The indictment against Blackwell says Shelton’s death was accidental.

Nelson Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin has said an unintended death as a result of a violent act such as arson can result in a murder charge. She also faces three counts of burning an occupied dwelling and three counts of obtaining money by false pretenses.

Blackwell’s lawyer, Paul Valois, said she is innocent of the charges and did not have the intent or capabilities to start the Aug. 2009 fire that destroyed her home and two subsequent blazes in Feb. 2012 and May 2013 that partially damaged the rebuilt home. Martin has said in court Blackwell had a motive to claim insurance money, pointing out she received more than $820,000 in two claims.

Derek Kidd, a volunteer firefighter for the Lovingston Fire Department, responded to all three fires at Blackwell’s residence. He testified Friday the 2012 blaze appeared to have “minimal exterior damage” and the 2013 fire was limited to an upstairs room. He said in a response to a question from Martin that he had never responded three fires at the same residence before. Kevin Eggleston, of Liberty Mutual Insurance Company that served her in the 2012 and 2013 fires, testified he never had responded to two fire claims at the same house.

“The fact there was another fire was certainly a concern to us,” Eggleston said Friday. Several insurance company representatives who testified said in court it was hard to get “straight” answers from Blackwell during the claims questioning process and she was evasive at times. Her third request for a claim in the 2013 was denied, Martin has said.

The 2009 fire injured Blackwell’s husband, David Blackwell. Shelton was taken to the hospital and died two days later from severe burns. David Blackwell’s ex-wife testified Wednesday Linda Blackwell told her she suspected a breaker box was the cause of the 2009 fire, a dishwasher sparked the 2012 fire and an issue with an entertainment center in an upstairs room caused the final blaze.

A forensic investigator with expertise in electrical systems testified Thursday he did not see any indication the breaker box caused the 2009 fire. Richard Merck, a fire scene investigator, has said in court he did not conclude a defective dishwasher caused the 2012 fire. Merck said Friday he looked at electrical wiring following the 2013 fire and did not find an electrical defect.

An investigation into the 2009 fatal fire never was completed and a former commonwealth attorney did not pursue prosecution for reasons not stated in court, according to testimony from Virginia State Trooper Gary Hack. Brian Childress, a special agent with Virginia State Police, arrested Blackwell in October 2013. He responded to the two later fires and testified Friday Blackwell was sitting in a chair in her yard when he arrived in May 2013.

“She said all she could do was sit in the yard and cry because it happened again,” Childress said. He interviewed her in May 2013 and again in August and she denied starting the fires and replied “absolutely not” when asked, he said. Childress said her reaction or lack thereof when she was arrested surprised him.

“She was real stoic,” said Childress. “She didn’t say anything.”

On two occasions during the trial while questioning Hack and Childress, Valois made mention of Randy Allen Taylor, a Lovingston man who Valois said lives across U.S. 29 from Blackwell. Taylor has been convicted of arson in Albemarle County and now faces a murder charge in Nelson in connection with the disappearance of missing teenager Alexis Murphy. Taylor, 48, awaits a jury trial in May for charges pending.

Valois asked Hack and Childress if they spoke to neighbors, made specific mention of Taylor and brought up previous convictions unrelated to the Murphy case. Hack and Childress said they did not interview Taylor in relation to the Blackwell fire investigation.

Martin objected to the mention of Taylor and said he did not believe it was relevant. Martin said Taylor has no connection to the Blackwell case and described questions by Valois as “a fishing expedition.”

Blackwell’s jury trial is set to resume Monday in Nelson Circuit Court.

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Trial continues in arson, murder case in Nelson County

From: News and Advance, Lynchburg, VA

Posted: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 11:15 pm

Justin Faulconer

Linda Blackwell

 

LOVINGSTON — After three fires in four years at Linda Campbell Blackwell’s Nelson County home, including one that killed a family friend, prosecutor Anthony Martin said her explanations were not “adding up.” The Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney said Wednesday in his opening remarks during the murder trial that Blackwell, 58, intentionally set the fires to collect insurance money.

“She told one witness ‘now I can have my dream home,” Martin said in court.

Blackwell’s attorney, Paul Valois, argued she was not in a position to start the fires, did not have a motive to do so and did not prosper from the fires as Martin has suggested in court. He said the defense seeks dismissal of the charges against her due to insufficient evidence. Blackwell is facing trial on one count of first-degree murder in connection with the August 2009 death of James Shelton Sr., at her home at 18 Creekview Lane off U.S. 29, just north of Lovingston. Her husband, David Blackwell, was injured in the blaze.

The indictment states the death was accidentally caused by the fire. She also faces three counts of obtaining money by false pretenses and three counts of burning a dwelling. Blackwell, dressed in a blouse and slacks for the trial, pleaded not guilty to the charges. A jury was seated Thursday in Nelson County Circuit Court after a four-hour selection process.

On Aug. 2, 2009, at about 1:30 a.m. Linda Blackwell woke to find a fire had broken out in the house. Valois said she had two options to summon help: go to a neighbor’s house that may be unoccupied or drive directly to the Nelson County Sheriff’s Office about two miles away. She drove to the sheriff’s office because she couldn’t find her cellphone, Martin said. The dispatcher on duty, who also is a volunteer firefighter with the Lovingston fire department, later noticed at the scene she had her cellphone, Martin said.

The house was burnt “virtually to the ground,” Martin said.

Shelton, who stayed with the couple for years, sustained burns over 40 to 60 percent of his body and died two days later at the University of Virginia Medical Center, Martin said. David Blackwell’s injuries left him hospitalized for months. Valois said Blackwell pounded on Shelton’s door that night, but was told by her husband to leave. David Blackwell and Shelton initially had escaped the house unharmed, Valois said.

David Blackwell tried to suppress the fire with a hose, but noticed Shelton had gone back inside. That’s when he ran in to rescue Shelton, and both men were burned, Valois said. Derek Kidd, a volunteer firefighter who was working at the sheriff’s office on Aug. 2, 2009, testified Blackwell was the first person he had ever seen report a structure fire in person at the office. The house was “fully involved” in flames when he arrived and he described the scene as chaotic.

Gary Hack, of the Virginia State Police, testified he interviewed Linda Blackwell at the hospital the day of the fire, examined the scene a few days later, and interviewed the couple and a neighbor. The kitchen area is where the fire is believed to have started, he testified. The investigation was not completed because a former commonwealth’s attorney told him the case would not be prosecuted. Valois asked Hack if he was aware that “convicted arsonist” Randy Allen Taylor lives across U.S. 29 from Blackwell. Hack replied no.

Taylor, 48, is charged with murder in connection with the disappearance of missing Nelson County teenager Alexis Murphy. He is awaiting a May 1 jury trial. According to online court records, he was convicted of arson in February 2005 in Albemarle County Circuit Court.

Martin said Linda Blackwell’s version of the events would change depending on who she talked to. Following the fatal fire, she filed a claim to Allstate Insurance Company and received more than $475,000, he said. In Feb. 2012, after a two-story modular home was placed on the same property, another fire broke out — this time in the kitchen while Blackwell was not home, he said. Blackwell blamed a dishwasher, Martin said, which he added was in “pretty decent shape.”

Her claim to Liberty Mutual Insurance Company was more than $352,000, Martin said. She had medical bills, credit card debt, and had stated: “Once we get insurance money, we can do things, we can go places,” he said. In May 2013, another fire broke out on the second floor of her home, but her $125,000 claim was denied, Martin said.

The trial is expected to last five days, Judge J. Michael Gamble said. Martin is set to call more witnesses today, starting 9:30 a.m.

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PR 100213: Linda Blackwell

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DATE: October 2, 2013
RE: Nelson County Special Grand Jury indicts Lovingston woman
on charges in connection with several house fires.

FROM: ANTHONY MARTIN, COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY
CONTACT: 434-263-7010
Yesterday in Nelson County Circuit Court, a special grand jury indicted Linda Blackwell of 18 Creekview Lane, Lovingston, Virginia on charges of arson, obtaining money by false pretenses, and felony murder relating to a house fire that occurred on August 2, 2009. James Shelton, Sr. died from injuries sustained in the August 2nd fire.
Blackwell was also indicted for arson and obtaining money by false pretenses in connection with two (2) more house fires on the same property at Creekview Lane, one in February 2012 and the other in May 2013.
The indictments follow a Virginia State Police and Nelson County Sheriff’s Office investigation spanning several years.
Blackwell is currently being held without bond in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. An advisement hearing in the Circuit Court has not yet been scheduled.

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PR- 82213 Randy Taylor denied bond, waives his preliminary hearing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DATE: August 22, 2013
RE: Randy Taylor denied bond, waives his preliminary hearing

FROM:  ANTHONY MARTIN, COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY

CONTACT: 434-263-7010
A bail hearing was held in the Nelson County Juvenile & Domestic Relations
District Court this afternoon for Randy Allen Taylor who is charged with
abduction in connection with the Alexis Murphy case.
Based on the evidence presented by the Commonwealth; and the
defendant’s prior record, Judge A. Ellen White, the presiding judge, denied
Randy Taylor’s request for bond and ordered that he continue to be held
without bail.
After bail was denied, the defendant waived his right to a preliminary
hearing on the felony abduction charge meaning that the case will go
automatically to the Nelson County Circuit Court Grand Jury which meets
September 24, 2013 at 9:30 a.m. The grand jury will decide whether to
indict Taylor for abduction.

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PR 81313- Taylor Advisement Hearing

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DATE: August 13, 2013
RE: Alexis Murphy case

FROM: ANTHONY MARTIN, COMMONWEALTH’S ATTORNEY

An advisement hearing for Randy Allen Taylor, who is charged with abduction in the Alexis Murphy case, was held this afternoon in the Nelson County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court.
Judge Kenneth W. Farrar appointed P. Scott DeBruin of Lynchburg, Virginia, to represent Taylor on the abduction charge. Taylor’s next appearance, a preliminary hearing, will be held in the Nelson County Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court on January 9, 2014 at 10:00 a.m.
The preliminary hearing will only determine whether there is probable cause to send the case to the Nelson County Circuit Court Grand Jury for trial.
Taylor remains held without bail at this time.

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Commonwealth’s Attorney says search for Alexis will continue

WVTR.com. Richmond, VA.
Posted on: 1:19 pm, August 12, 2013, by Scott Wise

NELSON COUNTY, Va. (WTVR) – Nelson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Anthony Martin said the search for 17-year-old Alexis Murphy has not stopped with the arrest of Randy Allen Taylor, age 48, of Lovingston, Virginia.
Martin said he could not comment on Taylor’s arrest because he was “ethically prohibited” from making pre-trial statements that could impact an eventual trial.
“I am reminded once again how close and tight knit Nelson County is,” Martin said during a Monday morning press conference. “This has been and continues to be a great example of multiple law enforcement agencies working together.”

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