Originally created 11/05/99

FBI arrests Trenton man

EDGEFIELD, S.C. -- FBI agents and local law enforcement officers charged an Edgefield County man Thursday in the slayings of his wife and her ex-husband in an alleged murder-for-hire plot in Arkansas.

Etheridge Kneece of Trenton was arrested without incident at 7:15 p.m. at his mobile home at 30 Chipwood Drive near the Aiken-Edgefield county line, Benton County, Ark., Prosecuting Attorney Brad Butler said at a late afternoon news conference.

Mr. Kneece was "the main actor" in Saturday's slayings in Pea Ridge, Ark., of Joann Kneece, 38, and her first husband, James Floyd Suggs, 52, Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Kneece, 60, hired Rose Ellen Cushman, 43, of Windsor and James Arnold Baughman, 42, of Trentonto kill Mrs. Kneece to prevent her daughter from testifying against him at a hearing Tuesday in Edgefield County Family Court, Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Kneece was accused of sexually abusing the daughter of Mrs. Kneece and Mr. Suggs. Ms. Cushman and Mr. Baughman were in police custody Thursday in Benton County.

"There may have been other motivations, but the main one was to prevent testimony" in court, Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Butler said he will petition to extradite Mr. Kneece to Arkansas and seek the death penalty against him, Mr. Baughman and Ms. Cushman. Tuesday's hearing was held to address whether Mr. Kneece's name should be put on a child abuse registry used by day cares, schools and churches to screen potential employees, Edgefield County Court Clerk Modena Stevens said.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services asked for the hearing after allegations were brought in November 1998 by Mrs. Kneece's daughter that her stepfather -- Mr. Kneece -- fondled her. Criminal charges were never brought against Mr. Kneece, but the state agency asked a court to put Mr. Kneece's name on the registry because of the allegations.

According to state social services officials, Mrs. Kneece was not scheduled to testify in that hearing, but her daughter was. Mrs. Kneece could have attended the hearing only as an observer.

Although Mrs. Kneece wasn't going to testify Tuesday, her daughter still planned to attend, and that was the motive for the killings, Mr. Butler said.

"Who was going to get the kid there?" Mr. Butler responded when asked about the link between the testimony and slaying of Mrs. Kneece and Mr. Suggs.

The daughter, 17, was notified of the hearing but did not attend, South Carolina social services officials said.

Judge Kellum W. Allen ruled Tuesday that Mr. Kneece's name would not be placed on the registry, a private list available to businesses only on the consent of the job applicant.

Mrs. Kneece's and Mr. Suggs' daughter reported her parents missing Sunday, when she filed a missing-persons report with Benton County police. Mrs. Kneece had been living with Mr. Suggs since separating from Mr. Kneece about 11 weeks ago.

The bodies of Mrs. Kneece and Mr. Suggs were found Tuesday in a remote area of Mark Twain National Forest in Stone County, Mo., near the Missouri state line.

Ms. Cushman's confession led authorities to the bodies, according to a Benton County arrest affidavit.

Ms. Cushman and Mr. Baughman were picked up by police Monday after a gasoline station attendant in Berryville, Ark., recognized Mrs. Kneece's missing 1998 Ford Taurus at the station and called authorities.

In another confession Tuesday, Ms. Cushman told authorities Mr. Kneece had paid her and Mr. Baughman $30,000 to $40,000 for the slayings, court records show. The $10,000 authorities found in her purse was part of the payment, she told police. The rest was in a secure location in South Carolina.

FBI agents found about $20,000 in South Carolina, Mr. Butler said.

Benton County authorities named Mr. Kneece as a suspect Wednesday and filed the arrest warrant after obtaining new evidence, Mr. Butler said.

Mr. Kneece denied the murder-for-hire allegations in interviews with The Augusta Chronicle by telephone Wednesday night and Thursday morning at his Edgefield County home.

Flanked by family members, Mr. Kneece said Thursday he still had not been notified as a next-of-kin of his wife's death.

After initially arresting Ms. Cushman and Mr. Baughman in Arkansas, police found $10,000 in cash in $100 denominations in Ms. Cushman's purse.

Also found in the suspects' 1998 GMC van were two shovels, a .25-caliber handgun with what appeared to be dried blood on it and Ms. Cushman's diary. The diary detailed attempts to purchase a gun, the pair's trip to Arkansas and observations of Mrs. Kneece during the week before the killings, according to the affidavit.

Ms. Cushman is the former wife of Richard Chapman, the Aiken man shot by sheriff's officials after a high-profile standoff in September 1998, Chief Magistrate Max Meek said.

The shooting resulted from a five-hour standoff that started when Mr. Chapman's estranged wife -- Ms. Cushman -- filed a police complaint accusing her husband of assaulting her with a knife. Mr. Chapman then went to the woman's home on Charleston Highway, but Ms. Cushman fled and called 911.

Sheriff's officials arrived, and the standoff ensued. It ended when Mr. Chapman pointed a gun at authorities and they shot him four times.

He was treated at a local hospital and now is in prison.

Jail records show Ms. Cushman appeared in court a number of times as a victim of Mr. Chapman's abuse and that he was convicted many times of domestic violence, Judge Meek said.

Much of the couple's bickering came over Ms. Cushman's relationship with Mr. Baughman, the judge said.

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


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