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W.Va. man charged with murder in girlfriend's death

December 26, 2011

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. — A Morgan County, W.Va., man has been charged with murder after admitting he woke up from a blackout earlier this month to find his girlfriend strangled in their apartment, according to the Morgan County (W.Va.) Sheriff’s Department.

James T. Zell Jr. was charged with murder, the sheriff’s department said in a news release.

His girlfriend, Kelly Elizabeth Butler, 29, was found dead Friday in a cabin in a remote part of Hampshire County, W.Va., where Zell told police he had taken her body, the sheriff’s department said.

The investigation began Thursday after a deputy from the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office contacted Morgan County Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Stapleton with information that a murder might have occurred in Morgan County.

Stapleton and Chief Deputy Wade Shambaugh met with Zell at his home in Tri Lake Park in southern Morgan County, where they asked about Butler’s whereabouts and well-being, the sheriff’s department said.

Zell told the investigators that he and Butler had been in a fight about two weeks before and that she had left. He said he thought she might have killed herself, because she had been depressed and had left her belongings and dog with him, the sheriff’s department said.

“When asked about rumors in Virginia circulating that he had killed his girlfriend, Zell replied that he had said that, but only as a joke,” the release said.

Stapleton and Shambaugh searched Zell’s home and found nothing noteworthy, the sheriff’s department said.

Later Thursday night, Stapleton received information that Zell was contacting family members and telling them he had killed his girlfriend and intended to take his own life, the sheriff’s department said.

Zell was arrested in Chambersburg, Pa., for driving under the influence. At about 2:15 a.m. Friday, Stapleton and Shambaugh went to Chambersburg and interviewed Zell again, the sheriff’s department said.

“A this point, James T. Zell Jr. gave a full confession admitting that about two weeks ago, he and his girlfriend had gotten into a fight after being out at a bar and returning home,” the sheriff’s department said in the release. “Zell stated that his girlfriend had punched him in the face several times (and) at some point he states he blacked out and that when he came to, his girlfriend was lying dead on the floor with fingerprints around her throat.

“Zell maintains in his statement that he does not remember strangling her but knows that he did because there was a tear on her cheek indicating that she had just died, and there was no one else in the home at that time,” the sheriff’s department said. “Zell then states that he loaded her body into his Chevy Blazer and transported her to a cabin in a remote portion of Hampshire County.”

An autopsy on the body is pending, police said.

As of Friday, the extradition process had been started to transport Zell from Pennsylvania to West Virginia, the release said.

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