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State v. Pulley

November 7, 2006

STATE OF NORTH CAROLINA
v.
EUGENE RICKY PULLEY



Appeal by defendant from judgment entered 29 October 2004 by Judge W. Osmond Smith, III in Caswell County Superior Court. Heard in the Court of Appeals 28 March 2006. Caswell County No. 03 CRS 152.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Martin, Chief Judge.

Published opinion

Defendant Eugene Ricky Pulley appeals from a judgment, sentencing him to life imprisonment without possibility of parole, entered upon his conviction by a jury for the first degree murder of his wife, Patty Jo Pulley. We find no error.

The State offered evidence at defendant's trial tending to show the following: In May of 1999, defendant and Patty Jo Pulley were married and living in Ringgold, Virginia. Defendant was employed as a youth pastor and music director with the River of Life Church in Ringgold. His wife cleaned homes and gave piano lessons.

On the morning of 14 May 1999, defendant drove his wife to a home she was to clean. He returned to pick her up sometime laterthat afternoon. A neighbor, Bethany Sudduth, called to ask for a ride to a school play and spoke with defendant, who told her Patty Jo was not feeling well. Later the same afternoon, defendant called and asked Bethany's mother, Judy Sudduth, if she had seen Patty Jo. Still later, defendant called and told Judy Sudduth that his dog had gotten loose and had chased a squirrel; he asked her to keep an eye out for the dog. Soon after, Judy Sudduth heard defendant calling the dog and went outside, where she saw defendant climbing an embankment. He had a red wound on the left side of his face.

In the late hours of 14 May 1999, defendant began informing people that Patty Jo had disappeared. He went with Rev. Sudduth, the pastor of the River of Life Church, to search for her. The following morning, several members of defendant's church joined the search and, at approximately 2:00 p.m., Richard Gardner found the Pulleys' red truck on River Bend Road, a short distance off of Highway 62.

Defendant's scratches drew suspicion. He told Pittsylvania County, Virginia, investigator William Bagley that he had scratched his face while searching for his wife. However, he told another witness that he had scratched his face while looking for his dog, and a third witness that his dog had scratched his face while playing. A pathologist testified that the scratch marks on his face, as shown in photographs, appeared more like fingernail marks than briar marks, though he did have scratches on his arms which were consistent with briars. Defendant also had bruising on hisright upper arm that was consistent with a "grab mark." There was evidence that Patty Jo had gotten some false fingernails prior to 14 May 1999.

The State also offered evidence tending to show that between 8:30 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. on the evening of 14 May 1999, Robert Rowland and Dale Purvis were traveling together on Virginia Highway 62, also known as the Milton highway, on their way to Purvis's home on River Bend Road. It was raining and was dark enough to drive with the headlights on, though it was not entirely dark. The two men observed a man walking along the road not far from the River of Life Church. The man reminded Purvis and Rowland of a friend of theirs. Rowland observed the man for ten to fifteen seconds. Purvis and Rowland thought about offering assistance but decided that Rowland would offer help once Rowland picked up his car at Purvis's house and made his way back up the road. When the men turned on to River Bend Road, they saw a pickup truck sitting beside the road. The truck had not been there when the men left Purvis's house earlier that same evening. Both Purvis's house and the place where the truck was parked were in North Carolina.

On approaching the man for a second time, Rowland pulled up beside him, brought his vehicle to a complete stop and offered the man a ride. The man refused the offer while turning his head away from Rowland. Rowland asked if the man's car was broken down and continued to offer assistance. The man persisted in his refusal of any help. During this exchange, Rowland and the man were somewhere between ten and twelve feet apart. Rowland described the man asheavy set and white, taller than himself, with light black, possibly brown, colored hair. After a little more than one minute, Rowland continued down the road. Over defendant's objection, Rowland identified defendant as the man he had seen on the side of Highway 62 on the night in question.

William Steven Keel, a self-employed resident of Ringgold, was a neighbor of the Pulleys and also an acquaintance of Rowland. Keel testified that sometime shortly after Patty Jo Pulley's disappearance, he learned of the encounter between Rowland and the man on the Milton highway on the night of Patty Jo's disappearance. Keel went to Rowland's house and showed him a photograph of defendant, which had been taken from a church directory, and asked if the man pictured was the same man Rowland encountered on the highway on 14 May 1999. Rowland indicated that he was "85 percent certain that it was him."

There was evidence that prior to Patty Jo's disappearance, Rev. Sudduth had become concerned about defendant suffering from "burnout" and had offered him a sabbatical and a reduction in his involvement in the affairs of the church. Defendant reacted angrily and declined the opportunity. After Patty Jo's disappearance, during the summer of 1999 following defendant's return from a church-related trip to Texas, Rev. Sudduth and other ministers of nearby churches, as well as one of the elders of the River of Life Church, called a meeting with defendant to discuss some improper credit card charges which defendant had made on the church credit card. At that meeting, defendant disclosed that hisrelationship with Patty Jo had become strained because he had suffered from erectile dysfunction. In September 1999, defendant resigned from the church and moved to Lebanon, Virginia. On 18 December 2002, skeletal remains identified as those of Patty Jo Pulley were found in Caswell County, North Carolina, near a bridge over Hyco Creek near the place where the Pulley's truck had been discovered roughly nineteen months earlier. A nylon cord was knotted and looped around the top of the rib cage near the neck area. In the opinion of the medical examiner, Patty Jo Pulley died as a result of violent injury or trauma, most likely asphyxiation.

The State also offered evidence through the testimony of Samuel Scott Harold, who was an inmate at the Caswell County jail while defendant was incarcerated there awaiting trial. Harold testified that defendant told him that Patty Jo Pulley had found out that defendant was having an extramarital affair, had followed him and had confronted him. Defendant confessed to Harold that he had strangled Patty Jo and had driven around for a period of time trying to dispose of her body. He placed the body under a low- lying bridge.

At the close of the State's evidence, defendant moved for dismissal of the charges for insufficiency of the evidence and for lack of jurisdiction. The motion was denied.

Defendant offered evidence which tended to show that he and Patty Jo had married in 1982 and moved to Ringgold and joined the River of Life Church staff full time in 1994. They were both involved in the music ministry of the church, and though Patty Jowas not paid, she contributed her efforts to that ministry and to youth and outreach activities. They were a very happy and loving couple and participated in a number of mission trips together. Because of defendant's meager salary, the couple struggled financially, which caused strains upon their marriage, as did other factors. Defendant had spent money making phone-sex calls at one point, and in 1994, he had become involved in a romantic, though not sexual, relationship with another woman with whom Patty Jo was acquainted. He confessed the affair to Patty Jo and she forgave him, though he acknowledged that for a time there were issues of trust. In addition, defendant had occasional sexual dysfunction which strained their relationship.

Defendant also had relationship problems with Rev. Sudduth, which came to a head in March 1999 when Rev. Sudduth asked defendant to reduce his workload at the church. Defendant wanted to go on a mission trip to Romania, but Rev. Sudduth would not permit him to go at church expense. Though defendant was angered at the denial of his request, he and Patty Jo went at their own expense.

In early May of 1999, while Patty Jo was on a trip to Maggie Valley with other church members, defendant experienced a feeling during prayer that an attack was about to be made upon Patty Jo or their marriage. The same evening, he received a telephone call from an anonymous caller that Patty Jo was having an affair. When she returned, he told her about these events, but made no accusations. On 14 May, defendant took Patty Jo to her job cleaning a house, and then he spent the morning working with Richard Gardner, the church administrator, in preparation for an upcoming conference, putting beds together and moving mattresses. He also did some errands. In mid-afternoon, he received a call from Patty Jo. She told him she was getting a bad cold and asked him to come and pick her up from her job. He picked her up between 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. and they went to their home. After bathing, Patty Jo told defendant she was going into town shopping to get some items for the church conference. She left home driving the couple's pickup truck. Richard Garner testified that he saw both vehicles at the house about 6:00 p.m., but a few minutes later, both were gone.

Defendant testified that he had planned to go to a local high school play. Before leaving, he took his dog outside and the dog ran after some rabbits and got away from him. He called Judy Sudduth and asked her to look out for the dog, and then he went out to look for the dog. While doing so, he tripped and fell into some briars, scratching his face. When he found the dog, he took her home and cleaned up. He left to go to the play after 7:00 p.m., driving their van.

Because he was tired, defendant left the play before it was over. As he left, he spoke with Jamie Shackleford, whose child had been in the play. He got to his home between 10:15 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Neither Patty Jo nor their truck was at home. He took the dog on a walk and watched television for a little while. WhenPatty Jo did not return, defendant became worried and made some telephone calls to places where he thought she might have gone. He also called Judy Sudduth. He then drove into Danville to look for her, and being unable to locate her or the truck, called 911 to report her missing. He then went to find Rev. Sudduth and the two men searched for Patty Jo during the night.

The next day, other members of the church joined in the search, and the truck was located on River Bend Road. Defendant went to the location and, upon arrival, ran toward the truck calling his wife's name. In the days following Patty Jo's disappearance, defendant appeared to others to be distraught, emotional, and in shock.

Defendant also offered the testimony of two witnesses, one a forestry expert and the other a criminologist, that the scratches on his face were consistent with briar scratches and did not appear to be the result of fingernail scratches. Defendant testified that the bruises on his arms were caused by his lifting the mattresses earlier on 14 May. Defendant denied telling Scott Harold that he had killed Patty Jo.

I.

Defendant contends the trial court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence of Rowland's pretrial identification of defendant and his in-court identification of the defendant. "On a motion to suppress evidence, the trial court's findings of fact are conclusive on appeal if supported by competent evidence." State v. Campbell, 359 N.C. 644, 661, 617 S.E.2d 1, 12 (2005), cert. denied,__ U.S. __, 164 L.Ed. 2d 523, 126 S.Ct. 1773 (2006). Findings of fact not specifically assigned as error are "deemed supported by competent evidence and are binding on appeal." State v. Sutton, 167 N.C. App. 242, 245, 605 S.E.2d 483, 485 (2004). If the trial court's conclusions of law are supported by the findings of fact, they are conclusive on this Court. State v. Tuttle, 33 N.C. App. 465, 468, 235 S.E.2d 412, 414 (1977).

After a voir dire hearing, the trial court entered an order containing findings of fact and denying defendant's motion to suppress. The fifth finding of fact, related to Rowland's observations on 14 May 1999, has not been assigned as error by the defendant, thus the facts contained therein are deemed supported by competent evidence and are binding on review. See Sutton, 167 N.C. App. at 245, 605 S.E.2d at 485. The finding, in sum, established that on 14 May 1999, Purvis and Rowland initially saw a man on the side of Highway 62 approximately one tenth of a mile from the River Bend Road intersection. Rowland observed the man for ten to fifteen seconds, including the time approaching and passing him in Purvis's car. Purvis and Rowland remarked that the man looked like a friend of theirs nicknamed "Too Slow." Continuing down the highway, Purvis and Rowland saw a pickup truck on the shoulder of River Bend Road. Thinking the man must have broken down, Rowland told Purvis he would stop and pick the man up while traveling back up Highway 62. On his return trip, Rowland brought his vehicle to a complete stop, opened the door and asked the man if he needed a ride. Rowland continued to offer assistance for a little over aminute. Rowland and the man were approximately ten to twelve feet apart. The man was a white male wearing a white shirt. Rowland described the man as "heavy set, being taller than Rowland, with light black, maybe brown, hair, kind of long in the back, kind of flat across the top." It was misting rain and the man was wet.

Defendant has assigned error to other of the trial court's findings, however. We have considered them in seriatim and conclude that each is supported by competent evidence.

The findings in dispute include the trial court's sixth finding of fact that, based on Rowland's observations from 14 May 1999, Rowland was certain he spoke with the defendant on the night in question. Rowland testified with certainty on voir dire that the person he encountered and spoke to was defendant, stating, "[w]ell, I'm sure that's who I was talking to." Defendant also assigned error to the seventh finding of fact, that Keel showed defendant's picture to Rowland without first revealing the identity of the photo's subject. When asked if Keel initially informed him that the picture was of defendant, Rowland ...


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