Three defendants charged in connection to the August 2017 shooting death of 40-year-old Harry Lewis “Wesley” Bruner Jr. were recently indicted on new charges.
Superior Court Judge Karen Eady-Williams questioned why 18-year-old Lennon Riley Henderson, 40-year-old Nicholas Francis Smith and 19-year-old Nolan Andre Smith weren’t indicted on these charges in 2017.
The answer? Politics, Special Deputy Attorney General Adren Harris said.
There’s been no new evidence discovered in the case since May 2018, defense attorney Cynthia Phillips-Goelling revealed in Catawba County Superior Court on Wednesday. So what’s changed since then? Nothing, Harris said.
These cases, along with several others, were turned over to the N.C. Attorney General’s Office earlier this year due to conflicts of interest involving 36th District Attorney Scott Reilly’s office.
Harris told the court that when he obtained the files for Henderson, Nicholas Smith and Nolan Smith, the charges were listed but there were no indictments to show for it. After some investigating, he learned that conflicts between former 36th District Attorney David Learner and former Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid were the cause.
“Law enforcement wanted to pursue these charges, but because of politics (the defendants) weren’t indicted,” Harris said. “I was told the previous DA, because of disagreements with the previous sheriff, he chose not to pursue those charges… (These charges) should’ve been presented (to a grand jury) in 2017.”
Henderson was originally charged with the murder of his cousin, Bruner, in 2017. On Wednesday, he learned he is now also charged with one felony count each of first-degree arson, conspiracy to commit first-degree arson, possession of stolen goods and burglary.
Nicholas Smith and his son Nolan Smith were originally charged with accessory after the fact to murder in 2017. Nicholas Smith is now also charged with one felony count each of destroying remains to conceal death, first-degree arson, felony conspiracy to commit first-degree arson and possession of stolen goods.
Nolan Smith’s new charges are one felony count each of possession of stolen goods and altering a serial number on a gun.
Nicholas Smith is accused of helping Henderson set fire to Bruner’s home after the shooting. Search warrants indicate Nolan Smith traded the murder weapon for methamphetamine.
“Never has this happened before in my 10 years on the bench,” Eady-Williams said about the new indictments that could have been pursued two years ago. Typically when defendants are indicted on new charges after their initial charges, it’s due to new evidence, she said.
During Henderson’s court appearance, his new defense attorney Corey Sherrill filed a motion to lower Henderson’s $1.5 million bond.
Eady-Williams denied the motion.
Upset upon hearing the decision and learning Henderson now faces additional felony charges, Henderson’s family, who were wearing #FreeLennon shirts, left the courtroom.
Henderson’s mother Mandy Gamble spoke to the Hickory Daily Record last year. She, along with the majority of Henderson’s immediate and extended family, believe he is innocent.
A bond reduction motion filed in 2018 by Henderson’s previous attorney argued: “It appears the State has charged Mr. Henderson with murder based solely upon self-serving statements by co-defendants, all of whom have significant criminal records and all of whom are related to each other.”
Henderson has been offered a plea deal. He has until his next court date on Jan. 8, 2020 to accept the offer.
He remains in custody in the Catawba County Detention Center.
Nicholas Smith was taken into custody on his new charges on Friday. During his court appearance on Wednesday, his attorney Phillips-Goelling asked the court to reduce Smith’s $50,000 secured bond or make it unsecured.
Phillips-Goelling argued Smith was released on bond on the accessory after the fact charges in 2017 and has proved he has been responsible, citing no missed court dates, attorney meetings and no other crimes.
Eady-Williams decided to reduce Smith’s bond to $5,000 secure.
Smith’s next court date is scheduled for Jan. 8, 2020, where a decision on whether or not he accepts the plea deal offered to him by the state will be accepted.
Nolan Smith and others
Nolan Smith also appeared in Catawba County Superior Court on Wednesday. He was offered a plea deal, but a decision on whether or not he’ll accept the deal won’t be determined until Jan. 8, 2020.
He is currently out on bond.
The following defendants will also have a court date on Jan. 8, 2020, to determine whether or not they accept a plea deal offered by the state. The likelihood of these cases being heard before Jan. 8 is slim due to a case Harris is prosecuting going to trial soon:
» Thomas Alexander Seabrooks, 33, of Rowan County is charged with the 2017 murder of Michael Bryan Gardner. He is currently out on bond.
» Daniel Williamson is charged with one felony count each of murder and assault with a deadly weapon. He is accused of shooting and killing 27-year-old Michael Beltran and injuring then 28-year-old Lisa Vanhoogen in his Conover home in September 2015. A motion for a bond modification was denied in court on Wednesday. However, he is out on bond under curfew and electronic monitoring.
» Jamar Franklin Robinson, 24, of the Catawba County, was charged with one count of first-degree murder of 23-year-old Octavis Sentex Geter in 2015. He is currently out on bond.
» Tony Allen Brittain II, of Claremont, is charged with the murder of Kevin Ray Hefner, 28, also of Claremont. He is being held in the Catawba County Detention Center under a $500,000 bond. Brittain has a tentative trial date set for April 27, 2020.