Witness describes campsite killing

February 19, 2009|By TRISH RUDDER

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. -- The third man charged in the September 2004 murder of Keese Bare testified Thursday he slit Bare's throat and watched while the other two men beat and stabbed him and put him in a fire pit.

Jerome W. Smith, 25, of Frederick County, Va., who is being held at Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, W.Va., testified Thursday in the trial of Vernon L. Kerns in Morgan County Circuit Court.

Kerns, 26, of Berkeley Springs, is charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in Bare's death. Bare's remains were discovered in 2006 at a Potomac River campsite, where his body had been burned in a fire pit.

Smith, who appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit, said Thursday that Kerns picked him up to party at the river lot on Sept. 2, 2004, and Bare was with him.


Smith said they drank a lot of Jim Beam, and Kerns started a fire in the fire pit. Bare said he was tired and went to sleep.

He testified Kerns called Jason Payne to join them. When Payne arrived, Kerns and Payne walked off and started discussing "getting rid of Keese," he said.

"They came over to me and gave me a knife and told me to slit his throat," Smith said.

Smith said they woke Bare up.

"I was behind Keese," he said. "I did not grab his head and pull it back. I pulled the knife up and cut his throat - not a deep cut."

Smith said Bare jumped up and ran toward the fire and said "don't kill me." Payne ran after him and struck him eight to 10 times with a baton. Kerns picked up the knife and stabbed Bare three to five times, he said. Bare fell near the fire and Kerns and Payne put him on the fire, Smith said.

Smith testified Amanda Kerns Ekatah, Kerns' sister, arrived around the same time as Payne, but did not participate. He said Kerns and Payne put a couple of pallets on the body. He said Amanda got some fire starter from her vehicle, and Kerns and Payne put the accelerant on the fire.

"Why did you kill him?" asked Dan James, Morgan County assistant prosecuting attorney.

"I don't know why I killed him," Smith replied.

"Did you know why Vernon killed him?" James asked.

"Keese was going to tell," Smith answered about a credit card theft incident in which Bare and Kerns were involved.

At a separate hearing Thursday, 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gina M. Groh accepted Smith's guilty plea to second-degree murder of Keese Bare. The conspiracy charge was dismissed.

Groh accepted the plea agreement based on approval by Bare's parents. Brian Bare, Keese Bare's father, said they did not want to have to go through another murder trial, and they will have the assurance of a second-degree charge. They want to bury their son's remains, he said.

Smith can be sentenced to up to 40 years and could be eligible for parole in 10 years, Morgan County Prosecutor Debra MH McLaughlin said.

Dorcey Peacemaker testified Thursday that Kerns discussed the fire pit killing when he was incarcerated at Eastern Regional Jail with Kerns in 2006. He said they became friends, then cellmates.

Peacemaker said Kerns told him "we ended up slitting the guy's throat and burned his body. One was holding him and one slit his throat. He always said 'we.'"

Peacemaker said the saying at the jail is "snitches end up in ditches." He said, "Keese was a snitch, according to Vernon, and Vernon was worried he was going to snitch on them and they weren't going to have it."

He said he did not know anything about credit card fraud.

"He was stressed out about the murder," Peacemaker said.

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