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W.Va. fire pit killing case rests with jurors

Accused denies role in death, says he heard victim cry out, 'No, no' as his final words

Accused denies role in death, says he heard victim cry out, 'No, no' as his final words

May 10, 2008|By TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.VA. - The case of a Berkeley Springs man charged in the death and burning of a man at a West Virginia campsite in 2004 was given to a Morgan County Circuit Court jury Friday.

The six men and six women began deliberations in the trial of Jason M. Payne at 5:30 p.m. and were still considering charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder at 11:30.

Shortly after 9 p.m. Friday, the jury requested instructions from 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh relating to first- and second-degree murder.

Payne, 26, is one of three men charged in the Sept. 2, 2004, killing off Keese Bare.

Vernon Kerns, 25, also is charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder. His trial is scheduled for September.

A third man, Jerome W. Smith, 24, was charged last month with first-degree murder.

Bare's remains were not found until 2006. The remains were identified by a Smithsonian Institution forensic anthropologist, Douglas W. Owsley, who testified Wednesday that he had 1,368 bone fragments with which to work.

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Payne testified Friday that when he arrived at the campsite that night, Kerns, Smith, Amanda Kerns Ekatah and Keese Bare, 27, were already there.

Ekatah testified Thursday that Payne and Smith, of Frederick County, Va., are her cousins.

Payne said when he got home from work at about 8 p.m., he went looking for Kerns. Kerns called him and told him to come to the river lot, where Kerns said he was drinking, Payne testified.

Payne testified that he saw Kerns' Ford Explorer when he got to the campsite. There was a fire in the fire pit, and Bare, Smith, Kerns and Ekatah were sitting in chairs near the pit, Payne testified.

The men were drinking Jim Beam, laughing and goofing off. Ekatah, who was nine months pregnant at the time, was not drinking.

Payne said he got a beer because he doesn't drink liquor when he has to work the next day. He said he sat down next to Ekatah and they talked for about 15 minutes. Bare, Smith and Kerns were standing and then went down toward the river, Payne testified.

"I heard a noise when Bare fell to the ground, and Vernon hit him with a club in the head," Payne said.

On Thursday, Ekatah testified that Payne had hit Bare "a lot of times" with a baton.

Payne said Friday he did not see Smith cut Bare's throat. Eketah testified Thursday that Smith pulled Bare's head back and "he slit his throat."

Payne said he heard Bare say to Kerns, "No, no," and they were his last words.

Kerns was hitting Bare as he lay sprawled on the ground, Payne testified.

Payne said he and Ekatah continued sitting in the chairs and about five minutes passed. "I can't remember how I acted or what I said," Payne testified.

Payne said Smith and Kerns dragged Bare to the fire pit.

"I didn't check, but I was pretty sure he was dead. He didn't move for five minutes," Payne said.

Payne said Ekatah sat in the chair.

"I don't remember her screaming out," he said.

Payne said he left when Bare was put on the fire.

"I didn't want to smell it. I went home. I did not kill him, man," Payne said to the courtroom as he cried.

Payne said he knew of the credit card theft in which Bare, Kerns, Smith and Ekatah were involved. Payne said Ekatah told him they were using stolen credit cards and that Bare was going to tell.

Payne said he believes Bare was killed because he told Morgan County Sheriff's Department Deputy Timothy Stapleton on the others.

Payne said he did not go to the police after Bare's death because he didn't think anyone involved would tell and he didn't believe anyone would find the body.

He said he kept quiet to protect Smith and Ekatah.

He also said he was afraid for the lives of his ex-wife and baby.

During cross-examination, prosecuting attorney Debra MH McLaughlin said to Payne, "You murdered for them to protect them."

Payne responded, "No. I was there. I witnessed this. I never murdered anybody. I would not kill someone to protect them."

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