In Warren County Superior Court on Oct. 23, Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. denied a defense motion that District Attorney Mike Waters be disqualified from prosecuting a case against Lester Henry Kearney, 35, of Littleton, because Waters was his defense attorney in a 2013 case.

Kearney and co-defendant Kevin Burton Munn, 32, of Warrenton face charges that include first-degree murder in connection with a deadly home invasion and fire at the Lake Gaston home of John and Nancy Alford in 2018.

Last week, Hight also delayed until next month a decision about Munn’s request to have his previous guilty plea overturned.

The men are accused of breaking into the Alfords’ Wildwood Point Subdivision home. According to law enforcement reports, Mrs. Alford was kidnapped by one suspect and forced to withdraw money from a bank before driving the suspect back to her home. There, the couple were beaten and bound, and left to die after their home was set on fire. Mrs. Alford died at the scene. Her husband managed to escape and was hospitalized after being airlifted for medical treatment.

Investigation and arrests

On the morning of March 9, 2018, Roanoke Wildwood and Longbridge volunteer fire departments responded to a call to Wildwood Point Subdivision at Lake Gaston. When they arrived, firefighters found a home, later identified as that of the Alfords, fully engulfed in flames.

The Warren County Sheriff’s Office and N.C. State Bureau of Investigation began an investigation. The investigation and search for suspects involved a number of additional law enforcement agencies, including the N.C. State Highway Patrol, Haywood County Sheriff’s Office and Roanoke Rapids Police Department.

Munn was taken into custody on March 13 in Warren County, and Kearney was arrested March 14 in Halifax County. Both were charged with first-degree murder. The Highway Patrol credited Warren County Trooper P.L. Settles with arresting Munn after stopping a vehicle for speeding and recognizing the driver as the wanted suspect.

Law enforcement reported that the suspects escaped in Mrs. Alford’s silver 2011 Mercedes, which was later found abandoned and burned in Haywood County. According to The Mountaineer newspaper in Haywood County, the vehicle was spotted in the town of Crabtree on March 11, 2018. Several community residents contacted law enforcement after seeing a vehicle moving erratically as it traveled near Interstate 40. Haywood County sheriff’s deputies pursued the Mercedes in what developed into a high-speed chase before the vehicle evaded law enforcement and left the area.

Kearney and Munn were later charged with multiple other crimes related to the case.

During a probable cause hearing the following month, Mr. Alford identified Kearney as the man who entered his home.

Accessory after the fact charges

In April 2018, Kristina Saferite, 37, of Warrenton, Munn’s sister, was charged with felony accessory after the fact in connection with the Alford case.

According to court documents, she was accused of picking Munn up after he destroyed evidence and of continuing to conspire with him to destroy evidence.

Munn gave testimony about his sister in court last week.

Guilty plea and potential death penalty case

Munn appeared before Judge Henry W. Hight, Jr. in late April 2018, entering guilty pleas to two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the deaths of Vance County businessman Tommy Ellington in 2017 and of Nancy Alford.

As part of the plea agreement, Munn agreed to cooperate with authorities in further investigation of the Ellington and Alford cases, and to testify in court in exchange for serving two consecutive life sentences instead of facing the death penalty.

In May 2018, the district attorney told the newspaper that it seemed appropriate to proceed with the case against Kearney as a potential death penalty matter after conferring with the Alford family and law enforcement.

Witness and family threatened

In February of this year, Judge Alma Hinton denied defense motions to set bond for Kearney and to move him from Central Prison in Raleigh to another facility.

The testimony included documents presented as making threats to have Munn’s family killed. As Hinton heard the motions, two documents were presented: a letter that Waters said was mailed to the Warren County Clerk of Court’s office and a document presented in court as written by Kearney.

The writer of the letter identifies himself as an Ernest M. Roach, an inmate in Central Prison, and states that he was housed in the same block as Munn the previous year. Roach claims that Munn confessed that he killed Mrs. Alford and set fire to the Alfords’ home.

Roach claims that Munn told him that he did not know Kearney at the time the two were arrested, and that Munn said he had no one to pin the murder and arson on until investigators brought up Kearney’s name.

In the other document, written to “9 Shots” with instructions to “flush when done,” Kearney blames Munn for his imprisonment and gives instructions that Munn be told to write a letter “saying how he lied on me and that he don’t even know me…clearing me & owning what he did like a man…write in detail the crimes he done, that he lied on me because the cops gave him the idea.”

The letter threatens to have Munn’s family killed if Munn does not write a letter clearing Kearney of wrongdoing in the Alford home invasion. The document includes Munn’s home address and a photograph showing two children with a notation, “Kill them both and his mom, sister & father!!”

Case moves closer to trial

In July, Judge John M. Dunlow recused himself from future proceedings in the Alford case due to a relationship with the victim’s family. However, Dunlow granted several general motions from Kearney’s attorney Thomas Sallenger of Wilson to allow trial preparations to move forward.

Dunlow granted a request that Kearney be transported from Central Prison in Raleigh where he is housed to the Warren County Sheriff’s Office at times when Sallenger needed to review video evidence with Kearney.  

Sallenger told Dunlow that meeting with his client for such review was difficult because Kearney was imprisoned out of the local area. In granting the request, Dunlow ordered Sallenger to arrange transportation for Kearney and meeting dates with the Warren County Sheriff’s Office.

Autopsy report released

The North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner released Mrs. Alford’s autopsy report on Oct. 15, concluding that she died as the result of homicide.

According to the report, Mrs. Alford sustained blunt force injury to her head, causing lacerations, skull fracture, contusion, or bruise of the brain, and hemorrhage on or around the brain.

The autopsy described evidence of soot in Mrs. Alford’s trachea and bronchi, the passageway into the lungs. A blood toxicology report indicated a 60 percent saturation of carbon monoxide, described as a lethal level and suggestive that Mrs. Alford was alive at the time of the house fire.

Oct. 23 motions: Lester Kearney

Last week, in trying to have the DA removed from the case, Kearney’s attorney told the judge that Waters, while previously representing Kearney as a defense attorney, received confidential information about Kearney’s background that would not have been provided to a prosecutor. Sallenger asked the judge to recuse, disqualify and remove Waters and the local district attorney’s office from the case for that reason and because having Waters now serve as prosecutor in the murder case would represent a conflict of interest and would appear to be a conflict of interest to potential jurors and the community.

Sallenger said that jurors would question why Waters would seek the death penalty against Kearney when Waters represented him a few years ago. The attorney also said that because Waters got to know Kearney on a more personal level during the previous case, Waters could not remain objective in prosecuting the murder case.

“There is no more serious matter than in this case,” Sallenger said, adding that allowing Waters to serve as prosecutor would violate Kearney’s fair justice rights.

Kearney took the witness stand and testified that, in the 2013 case, Waters told him that he should be happy that Waters had been appointed as his attorney because if he were the prosecutor, he would prosecute the case to the fullest extent.

Waters later took the witness stand and testified that he did not make the statement that Kearney alleged he had made and would not have made such a statement to a client.

Assistant District Attorney Melissa Pelfrey told Hight that there was no evidence that Waters received any information from Kearney that would not be readily accessible through court records.

After Hight denied the defense request, Kearney asked if he could address the court. Kearney maintained his innocence in the Alford case, saying that Mr. Alford was mistaken when he identified Kearney during the probable cause hearing as the person who entered the Alford’s house. Kearney also questioned how Waters could be allowed to prosecute the case against him.

“How is this fair? How is it not prosecutorial misconduct?” Kearney said.

Oct. 23 motions: Kevin Munn

Munn’s attorney Mary Darrow of Raleigh asked Hight to allow Munn to withdraw his previous guilty plea and have the case against him proceed to trial. She said that at the time Munn gave his plea, he felt he was being pressured by his previous attorney to make a guilty plea to avoid the death penalty and did not fully understand the court process.

Munn testified on the witness stand that he made his plea in haste because his previous attorney made him feel like he should do so in order to avoid the death penalty and to prevent his sister, Kristina Saferite, from going to prison on accessory after the fact charges. He said that his attorney and his family suggested that if Saferite went to prison, she would never be able to receive another disability check.

Munn testified that Kearney threatened him and his family through letters, verbal communication from other inmates and, on at least one occasion, in person. Munn said that he asked Saferite to pick him up in Haywood County soon after the date of the fire at the Alford home, and that she did not know anything about what had happened.

Munn told the judge that, at the time he made his guilty plea, he had not seen enough of the evidence against him to make a decision about whether to plea or to have his case advance to trial. Munn maintained his innocence, saying that he never entered the Alfords’ house.

Waters previously indicated that the district attorney’s office would prosecute Kearney’s case as a potential death penalty matter. Last week, Waters said that if Munn’s guilty plea is overturned, he would also pursue the death penalty in that case.

Hight continued the motion until Nov. 12, asking Munn to review the evidence compiled against him and seriously consider whether he should withdraw his plea.

At the conclusion of the day’s proceedings, Waters told the newspaper that he hopes that the case will go to trial early next year.