Originally created 11/04/99

Deaths linked to sex abuse trial

A South Carolina man and woman are being held on murder charges in Arkansas after a woman and her ex-husband were found dead Wednesday, the same day the slain woman was scheduled to testify in a South Carolina court.

James Arnold Baughman, 42, of Trenton, S.C., and Rose Ellen Cushman, 41, of Windsor, S.C., were arrested and charged with capital murder in Benton County, Ark., in the Sunday slayings of Joann Kneece, 38, and James Floyd Suggs, 52.

An arrest affidavit released Wednesday by the Benton County Sheriff's Department said Mrs. Kneece was killed to prevent her from testifying against her estranged husband, Etheridge Kneece, in a sex abuse hearing.

Mr. Kneece denied any knowledge of the murder-for-hire plot Wednesday night.

"It makes me very angry because it's not true and God knows it's not true," said Mr. Kneece, 60, of Trenton.

He also said the police in Arkansas had not even notified him that his wife was dead.

"I talked to her Friday night and I said `Baby, I want you to come home and I love you"' Mr. Kneece said. "If I can't forgive you, the Lord can't forgive me, and she said she would think about it."

When told of the allegations made by Ms. Cushman that he had paid her and Mr. Baughman to kill his wife, Mr. Kneece said he knew nothing about this and had not even been notified that the two were facing murder charges, only that they had been arrested in the theft of his wife's car.

He said the last time he saw the two was three weeks ago in South Carolina.

The bodies of Mrs. Kneece and Mr. Suggs were found Tuesday, 20 yards apart in a remote area near Shell Knob, a small community near the Arkansas-Missouri border, after being reported missing a few days earlier.

Mr. Suggs was found with two severe slash wounds to the throat and approximately eight stab wounds. Mrs. Kneece's skull was severely fractured.

On Sunday, Benton County police were called to Mr. Suggs' residence at 1616 Weston St. in Pea Ridge, Ark., after the couple's daughter called to report her parents missing.

When police arrived at the residence, they found numerous blood stains on the floors, walls and a couch.

On Monday, police were notified by a convenience store clerk that a car matching the description of Mrs. Kneece's missing 1998 Ford Taurus was at the station along with a 1998 GMC Van.

In court documents, Ms. Cushman and Mr. Baughman were identified as being in possession of the car and Mrs. Kneece's driver's license. Blood was found inside the van along with two shovels, a .25 caliber handgun with dried blood on the handle and a shotgun.

Ms. Cushman told police Mr. Kneece had talked to her and Mr. Baughman about killing Mrs. Kneece in exchange for $30,000 to $40,000, the affidavit said.

Police found $10,000 cash in Mrs. Cushman's purse. She told police Tuesday that the two had been hired to "make sure that Joann Kneece did not testify against Etheridge Kneece ... in a pending court matter in South Carolina."

She said the remainder of the money was in a secure location in South Carolina.

Mr. Kneece denied the sex abuse allegations Wednesday night.

"My wife didn't believe any of that," he said.

In her police interview, Ms. Cushman added that she and Mr. Baughman arrived in Arkansas a week before the slayings, the affidavit said. On Saturday, after watching her residence for nearly a week, the two arranged to meet Mrs. Kneece at her home to discuss the South Carolina court proceedings.

Reach Scotty Fletcher and Mark Mathis at (706) 724-0851 or newsroom@augustachronicle.com.


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