James Willard Thacker plea

ROBERT C. REED/HICKORY DAILY RECORD: Defendant James Willard Thacker pleaded guilty to second-degree murder of Tammy Cloninger on Tuesday afternoon in Catawba County Superior Court. Here, Thacker listens to family members of Tammy Cloninger address the court.

On Feb. 15, 2016, 40-year-old Tammy Cloninger’s boyfriend shot her after an argument outside a Hickory home. Later that day, 32-year-old James Willard Thacker, of Hickory, was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill or inflict serious injury.

That charge was upgraded to first-degree murder during Thacker’s first appearance in Catawba County District Court the next day. It was in that courtroom Thacker learned he’d killed his girlfriend.

In Catawba County Superior Court on Wednesday, Thacker pleaded guilty to the second-degree murder of Cloninger. He will spend 21 to 26 years in prison.

“Methamphetamine won again,” Herbert Pearce, Thacker’s defense attorney, said. Thacker was using meth when he shot Cloninger. He is now clean, Pearce said.

When going over the evidence against Thacker, Pearce said he showed Thacker a picture of Cloninger after she died in the hospital, nine hours after the shooting.

“He broke down and sobbed for 10 minutes,” Pearce told the court. “I think he really cared about her.”

Thacker shot Cloninger once in the arm and it passed through to her torso and exited through her back, Assistant District Attorney Melanie Earles said.

Two members of Cloninger’s family made victim impact statements during the plea hearing.

“There is not a day that goes by I don’t think of her,” Steve Cloninger, Tammy Cloninger’s father, said. Steve Cloninger then shared his daughter left behind two children, an 18-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter and her murder has impacted the entire family.

Tammy Cloninger’s brother Tony Cloninger also addressed the court.

“We came up best friends all our lives,” he said. “I will always miss my sister ... We always had each other’s backs … I don’t know what to do without her sometimes.”

Thacker, now 35, then stood to address Steve and Tony Cloninger and apologize for his actions.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Thacker said, crying. “I made a mistake and I have to live with it. I miss her too … I wish it were me instead of her.”

James Willard Thacker plea

ROBERT C. REED/HICKORY DAILY RECORD: Defendant James Willard Thacker addresses family members of Tammy Cloninger on Tuesday afternoon in Catawba County Superior Court after pleading guilty to second-degree murder of Cloninger.

Superior Court Judge Karen Eady-Williams of Mecklenburg County said this tragedy did not have to happen. She also said she hopes Thacker spends his time in prison becoming a better man.

“You impacted a lot of lives over one second,” Eady-Williams added.

In addition to his prison sentence, Eady-Williams ruled Thacker will have to complete an anger management course and substance abuse treatment.

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Jordan Hensley is the court reporter at the Hickory Daily Record. ​

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