Originally created 02/11/00

Witnesses describe trauma



AIKEN -- It was a horrifying first day on the job for Wanda Gamache in 1996.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services employee had worked in the North Augusta office just four hours Sept. 16, 1996, when a gunman with a grudge entered the building and changed her life forever.

Ms. Gamache was the first to reach caseworkers Jimmy Riddle and Josie Curry after the gunman, David Mark Hill, forced his way into a workplace cubicle, shot them in the head and casually walked away. Caseworker Michael Gregory also died in the attack.

In tearful testimony that silenced an Aiken courtroom Thursday, Ms. Gamache said the experience changed her.

"I cannot work with children again through the Department of Social Services because I've got the belief that if I try to help (a family), there'll be this parent that will kill me," Ms. Gamache testified, speaking in spurts as she struggled to talk. "The doctor says I have post-traumatic stress."

Ms. Gamache wasn't the only one who brought the courtroom to tears.

Solicitor Barbara Morgan spent Thursday providing jurors with gripping and graphic testimony about the deaths of three DSS employees, including firsthand accounts from victims' families of the aftermath of Mr. Hill's killing spree.

Jurors convicted Mr. Hill of the triple murder Tuesday, and now Ms. Morgan is asking them to sentence him to death. She wrapped up her case Thursday. The defense presents its case for life imprisonment starting this morning.

Prosecutors say Mr. Hill was upset because the North Augusta DSS office had taken custody of his quadriplegic daughter and twin sons.

On Thursday morning, forensic pathologist Dr. Joel Sexton used crime scene photos and lifelike clay busts of the three victims to describe the bloody death of each.

One by one, Ms. Morgan pulled out the models of the victims' heads, holding them in front of the jury box while Dr. Sexton described how bullets from a .40-caliber pistol shattered the caseworkers' skulls and caused their deaths.

The pathologist described how Michael Gregory was killed in the DSS office's bathroom and suffered two shots, one to the groin and one to the head. The bullet wound to the head killed him almost instantly. The jury viewed photos of Mr. Gregory sprawled on the bathroom floor in a pool of blood.

Prosecutors say they believe he was shot after Mr. Hill stumbled on him in the men's bathroom before the other shootings.

Mr. Riddle suffered a single gunshot wound to the head. The bullet struck his skull and split into two pieces but did not kill him immediately. Instead, he was paralyzed for hours, his head swelling and causing pressure that surgeons couldn't relieve after he was taken to Medical College of Georgia Hospital.

Ms. Curry likely died instantly from a bullet fired no more than a foot and a half away. From the evidence, Dr. Sexton said it appears she anticipated the gunshot.

"It's just a natural reflex when a person knows that they're about to be shot to bend over in a fetal-type position, in a shielding-type position," Dr. Sexton said.

During testimony from family members, Ms. Curry's husband, James, described how he met his wife on her birthday and enjoyed a 12-year marriage before the shootings. The couple raised two children, Jermaine and Jamaal.

Mr. Curry was working as a carpenter on that rainy day in 1996 when the light on his pager flashed. He eventually found himself at the DSS office, where a stranger told him of his wife's slaying.

"After he explained things to me, my legs just fell from under me," Mr. Curry said.

The shootings have devastated the family, leading Mr. Curry to consider suicide. He wasn't sure how he would raise his sons without his wife.

"I used to get someone to watch them so I could cry," he said. "I didn't want them to see me cry."

Ms. Morgan ended her case with Cecil Crawford, a family member who visited the Hill home in the week before the killings. He spotted a .40-caliber pistol and offered to buy it from his nephew. Mr. Hill refused to sell it.

"He said, `No. The gun is not for sale. I got a purpose for it,"' Mr. Crawford said.

Defense attorneys Robert Harte, Jeff Bloom and Regina Poteat are expected to take the weekend to present jurors a compelling case for mercy. In opening statements Thursday, Mr. Bloom said Mr. Hill's life fell apart Sept. 16, 1996.

"And when he fell over the edge, he took some people with him," Mr. Bloom said.

Mr. Bloom conceded the triple murder was a horrible tragedy, but Mr. Hill's motivation must be viewed in context, he said.

"Mr. Hill cracked under some incredible pressure that no one would want to live under," Mr. Bloom said.

Mr. Bloom referred to Mr. Hill's self-inflicted gunshot wound that destroyed the part of the brain that deals with emotion. "The David Hill you have today with this part of his brain shot out is really not even the same David Hill who committed this horrible act on Sept. 16, 1996," Mr. Bloom said.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.