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State v. Parks

Court of Appeals of North Carolina

May 21, 2019


          Heard in the Court of Appeals 16 January 2019

          Appeal by defendant from judgments entered 15 November 2017 by Judge Wayland J. Sermons, Jr., in Wilson County, Nos. 15 CRS 1879, 17 CRS 10-11 Superior Court.

          Attorney General Joshua H. Stein, by Assistant Attorney General Peter A. Regulski, for the State.

          Marilyn G. Ozer for defendant.

          ARROWOOD, JUDGE.

         Gregory K. Parks ("defendant") appeals from judgments entered upon his convictions for first degree murder, obtaining property by false pretenses, and obtaining habitual felon status. For the following reasons, we affirm.

         I. Background

         A warrant for defendant's arrest was issued and defendant was arrested on 19 August 2015 for the first degree murder and first degree kidnapping of Isabel Calvo Palacios, who was last seen on 31 July 2015. A Wilson County Grand Jury indicted defendant on one count of first degree murder and one count of first degree kidnapping on 12 October 2015. On 11 January 2017, the Grand Jury additionally indicted defendant for obtaining the status of a habitual felon and on one count of obtaining property by false pretense.

         Pretrial hearings took place in Wilson County Superior Court before the Honorable Wayland J. Sermons, Jr., on 5 and 19 October 2017 to address the many procedural and evidentiary motions filed by the parties, including motions by defendant to exclude expert opinion testimony and motions to suppress evidence. The case was then tried in Pitt County Superior Court before Judge Sermons between 23 October 2017 and 15 November 2017.[1]

         The evidence at trial tended to show that Palacios, a 20-year-old-woman, went to defendant's house on the night of 30 July 2015 to do drugs with defendant. Except for leaving with defendant several times to obtain cocaine, Palacios spent the night of 30 July 2015 and the early morning hours of 31 July 2015 smoking crack cocaine with defendant at defendant's house. During that same time period, Ronald Parker was exchanging text messages with Palacios about meeting to hang out and smoke weed together. Sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 a.m. on 31 July 2015, Parker arrived at defendant's house. Only Palacios' vehicle was in the driveway. Palacios responded to Parker at the door under the carport, but Palacios was unable to let him in because the deadbolt on the door was locked and could only be opened with a key. Parker testified that Palacios was locked in the house. Parker asked Palacios if she wanted to get out but she said she didn't. Parker then left and came back later on Palacios' instructions.

         Parker returned between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. before the sun had risen. Both Palacios' and defendant's vehicles were in the driveway. There were also two men, referred to as Black and Harold, outside of defendant's house. Defendant stated that the men were trying to collect. Defendant called police about the men, but because Palacios did not want to be involved with the police, she exited the house and got into Parker's vehicle. Parker and Palacios drove around until defendant notified them that it was all clear. When they returned to defendant's house, defendant let them in through the door under the carport and locked the deadbolt as he closed the door behind them. Parker recalled that Palacios and defendant were smoking crack cocaine in the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway. Parker and Palacios then went into another bedroom across the hallway, smoked marijuana, and had sex. After they were finished, Palacios left the bedroom and Parker slept in the room for approximately four hours until Palacios and defendant woke him up around 10:00 a.m. Parker left approximately 30 minutes later through the carport door; defendant let him out and locked the deadbolt after he left. There was a baseball bat inside the house behind the door.

         Parker drove around that afternoon smoking and selling marijuana with his cousin, Matthew Jones. They drove by defendant's house several times and Parker thought it was unusual that Palacios' vehicle was still there because Palacios had a little daughter that she usually went home to. At 2:45 p.m., Parker called Palacios. Parker testified that "[a]s soon as it rung she answered and she was screaming for her life, help, help; somebody help me please; he's hurting me; he's hurting me; he's hurting me. . . . I heard a man which I think was [defendant] got on the phone and said, we was just playing; she's all right; she's all right, and they hung the phone up." Parker drove around for a couple more hours and continued to call Palacios; those calls went straight to voicemail.

         Parker and his cousin later went back to defendant's house to check on Palacios. Palacios' vehicle was still there. Parker got out, knocked on the door, and spoke to defendant through the door. Defendant told Parker that some Mexican guys took Palacios. Parker then walked around the back of the house and noticed a broken window and stains on the curtain that Parker said "looked like to me would be blood, smear stains." Parker called 911 at that time and told the operator about the earlier phone call when he heard Palacios screaming, that Palacios' vehicle was still at defendant's house but defendant said she was not there, and that they noticed a busted out window with blood at the back of the house. Parker and his cousin did not wait for police because they were high and had marijuana on them.

         Two Wilson police officers, Edwards and McKenzie, responded to the 911 call and arrived at defendant's house just before 6:00 p.m. on 31 July 2015 to do a welfare check. Defendant let the officers inside and they spoke with defendant in the kitchen area. Defendant told the officers that Palacios left with a Hispanic guy in a pickup truck. Defendant also told the officers that Palacios left her vehicle there because it was running hot. While the officers were talking with defendant, Parker and his cousin returned and Officer Edwards stepped outside to speak with them. Parker said that he told the officer that Palacios was missing and showed them the busted out window and what he thought was blood. Officer McKenzie, who remained inside, asked defendant if they could look around to make sure Palacios was not there. Defendant agreed and, after Officer Edwards came back inside, led the officers through the house allowing them to look in the rooms. It was not a thorough search; they were not "pulling up, getting on the ground, looking under beds or anything like that, just looking in rooms making sure we didn't see anyone." They were not looking for blood evidence or any other kind of evidence. Officer McKenzie recalled there was carpet in the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway and that a broken window in the bedroom was covered. Defendant told the officers that earlier that day, someone tried to break into his house so he broke the window in an attempt to get out of the house. Officer McKenzie also noticed bedding soaking in the hallway bathtub. Once the officers exited defendant's house, they spoke with Parker. The officers walked around the back of the house and noticed the broken window. The officers, Parker, and Parker's cousin then left.

         Later that same evening, at approximately 10:40 p.m., Parker returned to defendant's house with some guys from Palacios' neighborhood to look for Palacios. Palacios' vehicle was still at defendant's house. Both defendant and one of the guys with Parker separately called 911. Two Wilson police officers, Harrison and Sherrill, responded to the call between 10:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. Officer Harrison spoke with the guys outside while Officer Sherrill spoke to defendant inside defendant's house. Officer Sherrill asked defendant where Palacios went and defendant told him that "she had lost her keys and that she had left looking for them." Defendant again walked with the two officers around the house as they performed a welfare check looking for Palacios. The officers looked everywhere they thought a human being could be: in bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, under beds; they were not looking for other evidence. Officer Sherrill recalled that there was red carpet in the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway. The officers told the men outside that Palacios was not in the house, and everyone left.

         Both sets of officers who responded to 911 calls on 31 September 2015 noted that defendant was cooperative and calm. The officers also recalled that defendant never mentioned Palacios bleeding in his house, or that he found Palacios' keys.

         The following morning, on 1 August 2015, defendant picked up Shannon Dunn to smoke crack cocaine. They went and got a crack rock, went back to Dunn's house, and then went to "Quick Pawn," a pawn shop on Tarboro Street. Dunn waited in the car as defendant went inside and pawned a 10 karat gold cluster ring for $25.00 in cash. The ring was later identified as a ring given to Palacios in July 2015 and testing on the ring was positive for blood and Palacios' DNA. After pawning the ring, defendant and Dunn got a second crack rock and went to defendant's house. Defendant locked the deadbolt on the door under the carport behind them and they went back to the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway to smoke crack. Dunn recalled that the bedroom stunk and defendant told her a woman threw up in the room the night before. Dunn testified that she wanted to pick up pieces of the crack rock from the floor after defendant broke the rock, but defendant did not want her on the floor. Defendant told her there was glass on the floor. Dunn also testified that defendant did not want her to use the hallway bathroom. Defendant and Dunn spent all of 1 August 2015 searching for and smoking crack cocaine. On 2 August 2015, defendant called Dunn to ask if her brother would help him put down new carpet. Defendant told Dunn that he had been up all night tearing the carpet out of the bedroom because he was tired of cutting his feet on glass in the carpet.

         At approximately 1:00 p.m. on 4 August 2015, Detective Tant of the Wilson Police Department went to defendant's house to follow up on a missing person's report for Palacios. Defendant arrived minutes after the detective arrived and invited the detective into the house. They spoke inside in the kitchen area. Defendant told the detective that he and Palacios smoked crack cocaine together and that she left to go find money but could not find her keys. Defendant never mentioned that Palacios cut her foot at his house. Detective Tant testified that he told defendant they would do whatever it takes to find Palacios and at that moment, defendant "started shaking so hard that he had to set [a] cup down before he dropped the cup."

         Defendant voluntarily went to the Wilson Police Department main office around 4:45 p.m. on 4 August 2015. Detective Godwin of the Wilson Police Department interviewed defendant. Defendant told Detective Godwin about smoking crack cocaine with Palacios on 30 and 31 July 2015 and that Palacios left around 2:30 p.m. on 31 July 2015. Defendant stated that Palacios lost her keys and that is why her vehicle was still there, which detective Godwin noted was different from what defendant initially told Officer McKenzie. When specifically questioned, defendant stated that he tried to have sex with Palacios but he could not get an erection. After initially stating police would find no blood in his house, defendant shifted his story and said they may find a small amount of Palacios' blood from stepping on glass. Defendant also stated that he broke the window at his house while trying to get out of the window when Black and Harold were at his house on 31 July 2015. Detective Godwin did not notice any injuries to defendant's hands. Defendant did not mention to Detective Godwin that he had removed carpet from his house or that he had cleaned blood from his house.

         That same evening following the interview, on 4 August 2015, a search warrant was obtained and executed on defendant's house. Defendant's house was seized for purposes of the search and defendant never returned to the house. Defendant was cooperative at the time.

         During the search of defendant's house, it was discovered that defendant had removed the carpet from the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway. Red carpet fibers were found leading from the door under the carport onto the driveway and in the trunk of defendant's vehicle. The carpet padding was discovered in a trashcan outside of defendant's house and tests on the padding were positive for blood with Palacios' DNA. A candlestick, a lamp, and a bath mat were also found in a trashcan outside of defendant's house and they tested positive for blood and Palacios' DNA. Blood spots or spray with Palacios' DNA were discovered inside defendant's house on several walls in the bedroom on the left-hand side of the hallway, the deadbolt lock on the bedroom door, pieces of flooring, and on a window. A shirt, clothes hamper, newspaper, and ashtray recovered from defendant's house also tested positive for blood and Palacios' DNA. Palacios' car keys were found behind a statue figurine on a built-in bookcase between the kitchen and living room area. Cleaning supplies including Ammonia, bleach and carpet cleaner were also discovered during the search. The baseball bat seen in defendant's house was never recovered.

         When detectives took medicine to defendant on 6 August 2015 at the motel the police department put him in, they asked defendant about the carpet. Defendant said he put the carpet in his trunk and took it down to a corner where people drop stuff off. Detectives did not find carpet fibers at the corner identified by defendant and were never able to locate the carpet.

         During an interview of defendant on 19 August 2015, after defendant was arrested and charged, defendant told detectives for the first time that he noticed blood in his house on the afternoon of 31 July 2015 and that he cleaned up the blood. Defendant also claimed to detectives for the first time that Palacios had smoked marijuana laced with another drug and cut her hand near the broken window. Defendant asked questions to detectives about the amount of blood discovered in his house after the detectives mentioned luminol was used to find blood evidence. Defendant specifically asked if they "found eight pints of blood in his house[, ]" while indicating that he knew the human body had eight pints of blood. When questioned whether Palacios was killed in the bedroom, defendant indicated that she could have been because anything is possible; but he did not know about it.

         Defendant also admitted to detectives that he traded drugs for sex from girls that came to his house; and that he felt he was justified in hitting the girls if they did not uphold their end of the bargain. The State presented evidence under Rule 404(b) that defendant had been violent with a number of women in the past who had used drugs with defendant and refused sex.

         Palacios was never found despite extensive search efforts by foot, vehicle, helicopter, dogs, dive teams, and internet. No one, including Palacios' family, has heard from Palacios since 31 July 2015. There were, however, several possible reported sightings.

         At the close of the State's evidence, defendant moved to dismiss the first degree murder charge, the first degree kidnapping charge, and the obtaining property by false pretense charge. The trial court found insufficient evidence of premeditation and deliberation to allow the State to proceed on that theory of first degree murder; but found sufficient evidence to allow the State to proceed on the theory of first degree felony murder. The trial court also found sufficient evidence to support the first degree kidnapping and obtaining property by false pretense charges. Therefore, the trial court denied defendant's motion to dismiss.

         On 15 November 2017, the jury returned verdicts finding defendant guilty of first degree felony murder by the commission of attempted second degree rape and by the commission of second degree kidnapping, first degree kidnapping, obtaining the status of an habitual felon, and obtaining property by false pretense. The trial court arrested judgment on the first degree kidnapping conviction, entered a judgment on the first degree felony murder conviction sentencing defendant to life imprisonment without parole, and entered a judgment for obtaining property by false pretense and obtaining habitual felon status ...

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