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Fielder guilty of murder in Berkeley County

November 15, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - A Berkeley County jury found Stephen R. Fielder guilty Wednesday of first-degree murder in the August 2006 death of his ex-wife, Debra Ann Fielder.

The jury recommended no mercy for the 59-year-old Bunker Hill, W.Va., attorney, meaning he could spend life in prison without parole. A first-degree murder conviction automatically carries a state-mandated life sentence.

The panel of eight men and four women reached its verdict after about 2 1/2 hours of deliberations that began Tuesday night.

Fielder showed little reaction as the verdict was read at about 10:30 a.m.

Fielder's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 10.

"Admittedly, this was a very unusual and interesting case," 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge David H. Sanders told jurors.

Jurors were shown graphic photographs that depicted the 47-year-old victim's dismembered and partially decomposed remains, which were found wrapped in garbage bags in three pieces of luggage in Back Creek near Shanghai, W.Va.

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"It's definitely the most gruesome disposition of a body that I've ever seen," Berkeley County Prosecutor Pamela J. Games-Neely said after the trial. "We really pared down the gory stuff."

The defense's objections to the photographs being shown to the jury are expected to come up in an appeal to be filed by Fielder's attorney, B. Craig Manford, with the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia.

"I'm hoping they (jurors) were not swayed by the emotional aspects of it," said Manford, who urged the jury in his closing argument to focus on evidence presented concerning Debra Ann Fielder's death and not on the manner of the body's disposal.

"You've got to get over the dismemberment deal," Manford told the jury Tuesday.

In addition to the images of disfigured and traumatized flesh, jurors also were shown photographs of Stephen Fielder's prairie dog, Max, which a dental expert testified likely caused bite marks on the victim's left ear and two fingers.

On the witness stand Tuesday, Stephen Fielder said his beloved pet was a vegetarian and would never eat meat.

Fielder also testified that while awaiting trial in Eastern Regional Jail, he had come to the conclusion that his ex-wife was on methamphetamine and had plotted to have a family protective order served on him as a means of forcing him out of his own house at 9280 Winchester Ave.

He also admitted to lying to police when asked about her whereabouts in September 2006. He said he didn't tell them what happened because he didn't think they would believe him and he was worried about his clients, who paid him to handle bankruptcy filings. Fielder later admitted that his license to practice law in West Virginia had been suspended before his ex-wife's death, but he continued to practice.

Three days after Aug. 11, 2006, the day Stephen Fielder said his ex-wife threatened to lock him out and then fell down the steps, surveillance video cameras at Wal-Mart in Martinsburg recorded his purchase of gym weights and red, American Tourister luggage.

Games-Neely said Wednesday that the surveillance video recording of Fielder's purchase, a vital part of the state's case, was about to be "written over" by Wal-Mart's security system and might have been lost within a day or so after it was found.

Investigators recovered the video only after West Virginia State Police Cpl. Brian Bean decided to try to track the origin of the luggage through a UPC code still attached.

"It was on a whim that he did it," Games-Neely said.

She credited the luggage company with helping investigators in their effort to identify the victim, which she said almost seemed to have involved "divine intervention."

"Without the bar code, she would still be the lady in the water," Games-Neely said.

Relieved by the outcome Wednesday, Debra Fielder's friend, Linda Johnson, said she and her husband, Dennis, expect to move forward with burial plans when her friend's remains are released. The Inwood, W.Va., couple already have purchased a marker for the grave site where her adoptive father is buried in Winchester, Va., Johnson said.

"I lost two best friends," Johnson said. "Before this thing, we were as close as friends can get. They were family."

Johnson recalled that she didn't recognize her friend from the composite that police released to the public after most of her remains were discovered in Back Creek on Aug. 20, 2006, by two people fishing.

"As soon as they told me it was Deb, I never had a doubt ... because they had such a volatile relationship," Johnson said of her suspicion that Stephen Fielder was responsible for his ex-wife's death.

"I fully believe Deb was tapping on the shoulder of that state trooper (and telling him) 'yo, look at those suitcases,'" said Johnson, who praised the work of police, Games-Neely and her staff.

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