SPARTANBURG, S.C. – A prosecutor wanted to send a man who killed seven people in South Carolina to death row, but the state's lack of execution drugs and the desire of victims' relatives to never see him again led authorities to accept a deal for life in prison without parole for the serial killer.
Todd Kohlhepp pleaded guilty Friday to seven counts of murder for the killings that took place over well over a decade - as he ran a real estate business.
"I just want him to go away," said Lorraine Lucas, whose son's killing, along with three others, was unsolved for 13 years before deputies found a woman chained in a storage container on Kohlhepp's property in Spartanburg County.
Officers went to the property because the woman's cellphone gave a signal last August. As they freed her, she told deputies Kohlhepp killed her boyfriend, 32-year-old Charles David Carter, after they came to his land two months before to help him clean, Solicitor Barry Barnette said.
Kohlhepp raped the woman while holding her against her will, and told her he had also killed a husband and wife in December 2015, burying their bodies on his land. Johnny Joe Coxie, 29, was killed immediately, and Kohlhepp kept 26-year-old Meagan Leigh McCraw-Coxie alive for six days before shooting her in the back of the head on Christmas, Barnette said.
The woman who had been chained up also said Kohlhepp admitted to her that he had killed four people in the Superbike motorcycle shop in November 2003, the prosecutor said.
The owner, Scott Ponder, 30; Beverly Guy, 52; Brian Lucas, 30; and Chris Sherbert, 26 were killed because Kohlhepp thought they were making fun of him. Guy was Ponder's mother and worked as a bookkeeper. Lucas was a service manager, and Sherbert was a mechanic at the shop.
Kohlhepp showed up on a list of customers for the shop, but was never a serious suspect in the case. Instead, investigators focused on a bogus love triangle involving Ponder's wife and Lucas and other leads that went nowhere as possible motives.
According to the plea agreement signed by Kohlhepp, he will serve seven consecutive life terms plus 60 years on kidnapping, sexual assault and other charges. Kohlhepp, 46, will not be eligible for parole, and he also agreed not to appeal the sentence.
More than 50 family members and friends of the seven victims filled the courtroom. About a dozen of them spoke, standing just feet from Kohlhepp. He didn't look at them, and many ignored him as well.
Johnny Coxie's mother said his 7-year-old son held out hope that his father was alive for months after he disappeared. Cindy Coxie said the worst day of her life came when she had to tell the boy that his father was dead.
"He hates you with his little heart," she told Kohlhepp.
Kohlhepp's lawyer, Shane Goranson, said his client hopes the plea agreement begins to bring the victims' families peace.
The woman chained in the container didn't come to court. Her lawyer said she didn't want to see Kohlhepp. But she supported the plea deal because the death of another human being would give her no satisfaction or justice.
'As (the victim) said in one of her first meetings with the solicitor — he's the killer, not me," attorney Alex Stalvey said.
Kohlhepp was eligible for the death penalty, but the plea deal took that off the table.
No one has been executed in South Carolina in more than six years because the state lacks the drugs needed for lethal injections.
"The reality of the situation is this state doesn't have a functioning death penalty," Barnette said.
Kohlhepp moved to South Carolina in 2001 shortly after 14 years in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping in Arizona. Authorities there said the then 15-year-old forced a 14-year-old neighbor back to his home at gunpoint, tied her up and raped her.
Friends and co-workers at Kohlhepp's real estate business said he was a hard worker with some strange habits. He would watch pornographic videos during work and joked on his firm's website that he motivated workers by not feeding them.
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