Testimony underway in capital murder trial of 67-year-old square dancer

Virginia Ann Hyatt in court on Tuesday (Photo by Field Walsh)

A 67-year-old Texarkana, Ark., woman sat quietly as a Miller County prosecutor told a jury she planned and carried out the murder of a fellow square dancer she blamed for the end of her marriage.

Virginia Ann Hyatt faces life without parole if found guilty of capital murder in the Dec. 3, 2013 death of Patricia Wheelington, 59. The two women were both members of the Guys and Dolls Square Dancing Club in Texarkana.

“When she found out her husband was leaving her, love turned into hatred and Virginia Hyatt unleashed a fury on Patty Wheelington,” Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Black said in opening arguments.

Chuck Black told the jury Virginia Hyatt confronted Wheelington on the phone, at her home and at a square dance in the days leading up to the shooting. Friends of Wheelington’s were so concerned they warned her not to open her door if Hyatt showed up at her house again, Chuck Black said.

Defense lawyer John Pickett of Texarkana told the jury the state hastily focused on Hyatt as a suspect without conducting a full investigation.

“There is suspicion here, there is speculation here, there is a lot of conjecture here, but there is no proof,” Pickett said in opening arguments. “There’s no evidence here.”

As Crime Scene Investigator Mark Sillivan testified, the jury viewed photos of Wheelington’s lifeless body as it was discovered on her front porch Dec. 3, 2013. Wheelington was wearing a bathrobe and flip flops and her right hand held a cigarette. Blood splattered and streaked the porch.

Sillivan said it appears Wheelington was first shot as she sat in a chair next to a small table on her front porch and that she tried to reach a door. On the table were a pack of cigarettes, a cell phone, an ashtray and a yellow coffee mug.

Sillivan said no DNA or blood evidence linking Hyatt to the murder was found in Hyatt’s car or in her home. A murder weapon has never been found. However, gunshot residue was discovered on clothing investigators collected from Hyatt’s bedroom at her home on Pineview Street in Texarkana, Ark.

Wheelington’s neighbors, Billy and Betty Norton, said they were eating breakfast at their house across the pond from Wheelington’s when they heard five shots at about 8 a.m. the day Wheelington died. The couple said they shrugged off the gunfire as someone trying to scare away wildlife and only thought something of it when a detective knocked on their door that evening.

Texarkana, Ark., Det. Shane Kirkland testified that Hyatt was identified as a suspect early in the investigation because of what witnesses told him. Kirkland said he spoke to witnesses who went to Wheelington’s home because they were unable to reach her all day by phone.

Circuit Judge Randy Wright ruled that the jury could not hear testimony from Kirkland about what he was told by Ken Caldwell, a close friend of Wheelington’s, because Caldwell died not long after the shooting and is thus not able to testify himself. According to a probable cause affidavit, Caldwell was on the phone with Wheelington when she told him Hyatt was coming up her driveway.

Wright, a judge from a nearby district, was appointed to the case because Miller County’s circuit judges recused.

The jury of nine men and three women is scheduled to hear more testimony beginning Wednesday morning at the Miller County courthouse. If convicted of capital murder, Hyatt faces life without parole. Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Black, who is not related to Chuck Black, previously announced the state is not seeking the death penalty for the elderly defendant.

Continue to check TXK Today for daily coverage of the trial.

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