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Wednesday, 11 December 2013 14:39

Jailer’s love saga comes full circle

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fr vestalWho knows what Anita Vestal saw in Jeffrey Miles, or why she sprang him from jail and ran away with him, or how she justified leaving her husband and four young children behind, possibly forever.

 

He was a young, lanky black man from urban Atlanta with a gangster swagger, accused of a ruthless double murder.

She was a heavy-set Cherokee woman who had lived her whole life in rural Appalachia, came from a good family and had four kids under the age of ten.

Their lives should never have collided. But a tragic and bizarre series of events landed Miles in a jail where Vestal worked. 

Miles’ money had run out during a drug binge and party spree at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, and he went on the prowl for a house to rob. A violent home invasion ended in bloody execution-style murders, with Miles behind the trigger.

But that didn’t matter to Vestal when they peeled out of the Swain jail in her minivan the day of the carefully-planned escape. Vestal had slipped Miles the jail keys, taken over the jail’s control booth to ensure no one else saw him slip away on camera, and then ducked out herself.

Miles stripped off his striped orange jumpsuit and Vestal ditched her uniform and badge. They stuffed them under the back seats, changed into a waiting set of street clothes, stashed in the van by Vestal ahead of time, and headed west.

“Why did she do this? I can’t give you a good reason why. People do things all the time that don’t make any sense,” Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch told jurors in Vestal’s court trial last week. “She just wanted to be with him.”

Indeed, what Vestal did defied all logic, her attorney, Chris Siewers, admitted to jurors.

“For some reason she fell from the sky. Jeffrey Miles charmed her somehow,” Siewers said. “You can go back and debate for hours about why that happened but in the end it doesn’t really matter. You have all been in love at some point in your life. You haven’t done something like let Jeffrey Miles out of jail. But you have been in love.”

As for Miles, no one knows whether he saw Vestal as more than just his ticket out of jail. During the manhunt following his escape, detectives and cops quietly surmised that Vestal was surely dead in a ditch somewhere, left to die once she’d served her purpose.

Vestal’s distraught family even searched back roads and overlooks for signs of her dumped body.

But three weeks later, the two were found — still together. 

They made it to California, where Miles had friends, and had hunkered down in a motel room. Vestal’s truck was spotted by local cops, who were tipped to the possibility Miles might turn up there.

Last week, Vestal was sentenced to three years in prison for the jailbreak that she plotted and executed on Miles’ behalf back in March 2009. Prosecutors had tried to pin Vestal with charges of accessory after the fact to first-degree murders, but jurors found her innocent on those counts (see related story).

“Despite the fact she made a terrible, terrible mistake, she is not a bad person. She had never been in any kind of trouble before that point,” said Vestal’s father, Ronnie Blythe.

She was lucky to be out on bail while waiting trial — with a bond of just $125,000.

“She was never considered dangerous or a threat in any way. What she did was an affair of the heart. As stupid as it may have been, I think that is pretty much what motivated it,” Blythe said. “The court never saw her as a threat, or even a threat to try to run. She said from the beginning, ‘I did it. I don’t know why. I am sorry.’ ”

Vestal was 32 when she first set eyes on Miles in his jail cell. She’s now 37.

Her kids, now 9 to 14, were living with her until last week, when she was escorted away in handcuffs to start serving her brief sentence.

The past four years awaiting trial have been bittersweet for Vestal.

““I just tried to live life, but I knew this was coming,” Vestal said during a court recess last week, talking about her inevitable prison time once the trial concluded. “I’ve come to terms with it. I’m ready for it to be over.”

She and her husband separated shortly after the jailbreak. He left Bryson City, where they lived, trying to start over somewhere away from the finger-pointing and whispering that followed him everywhere he went in the small town.

Vestal didn’t take the stand during the trial, and she wouldn’t talk to the media openly about what happened, or why she did it.

But jurors got a glimpse of what went on inside her head in a recording of a phone call she made to her dad after being arrested in California.

“I don’t know. I just went crazy,” Vestal said to her dad.

Miles, who was 27 when he escaped, will spend the rest of his life in prison serving consecutive life sentences.

The violent home invasion and robberies perpetrated by Miles along an isolated country road in the small town of Bryson City haven’t been forgotten.

“The homicide of Scott Wiggins and Heath Compton shook the whole community,” Welch said during Vestal’s trial. “Jeffrey Miles is the type of person our worst nightmares are made out of.”

 

Infatuation

It’s unclear how Vestal was able to plot the escape without other jailers or inmates being tipped off. Inmates live in bunkhouse quarters, and Vestal regularly entered the group living quarters to carry out her duties. But there were always other inmates around. Cameras were everywhere, and were constantly being monitored from a central control room.

The two apparently passed notes undetected, however. The day of the escape, jailers searched the trashcans in Miles’ cell and found a torn up letter from Vestal.

It wasn’t torn up very well, however, and the jail administrator Ginny Hyatt easily pieced it back together with tape.

The letter outlined how the escape would go down, and showed Vestal’s feelings for Miles.

“Nobody is going to get in the way of our future,” Vestal wrote.

Miles’ friends from Atlanta were also locked up in the Swain County jail on the same charges of first-degree murder. Miles wanted Vestal to break them out as well. But Vestal refused in the end. She told Miles in the letter that she didn’t trust them, and feared one of them would “snitch” on Miles.

“Ain’t nobody going to hurt you never again, I promise you that,” Vestal wrote in her letter.

The letter emerged as critical evidence against Vestal in the trial, used by prosecutors to portray the lengths she would go to for him.

“She couldn’t wait to be together forever with Jeffrey Miles and she did everything she could to make sure that dream of her’s was going to happen,” Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch said. “In a way she got what she wanted because now every time somebody hears the words ‘Jeffrey Miles’ they are going to think ‘Anita Vestal.’ So maybe they aren’t together in person, but they are together in spirit. So in a way she got what she wished for.”

There were signs, albeit subtle ones, of Vestal’s budding infatuation with Miles. Garland Walls, who worked in the jail’s control room monitoring video feeds from cameras mounted throughout the jail, was the first one to notice Vestal fraternizing with Miles.

It was the day of the Daytona 500, and inmates were gathered in the common area to watch the race on TV. Vestal, a shift sergeant at the jail, was in the common area with the inmates. 

It’s not necessarily unusual for jailers to venture into the inmates’ quarters. And it’s not necessarily unusual for female jailers to guard male inmates. 

But Walls witnessed an interaction between Vestal and Miles that he described as “flirtation-type stuff.”

“She was way too close to him in that particular setting. She was backed up against the door. Any time you are like that, you don’t have time to react if something goes wrong in the pod,” Walls testified in court. “They were there for a while and I advised my supervisor at that time what was going on.”

Walls never heard any more about it, but his observations were passed up the chain of command to the jail administrator, Ginny Hyatt. She in turn told the sheriff, Curtis Cochran, and they called a meeting with Vestal.

“We reminded her what Mr. Miles was charged with, the severity of the crimes, and to do her job and let that be that,” Cochran recounted in his testimony during Vestal’s trial. 

Cochran said Vestal didn’t say much in response, other than “OK.”

“She is very quiet,” Cochran said. “To be perfectly honest with you, Anita was a good worker.”

During the jail courtship, the enamored Vestal got a sizeable tattoo as a sign of her devotion to Miles.

The tattoo bore the name of Miles’ gang “Thou Wou” along with the words “Go The Don,” which was Miles’ gang nickname.

“She was in deep with him, ladies and gentlemen,” Assistant District Attorney Jim Moore told the jury at Vestal’s trial, showing them photos of her tattoo. “She is part of them now.”

In court, Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch displayed a pair of Miles’ boxer shorts that he had worn in jail, which were later recovered from the back of Vestal’s minivan. Donning a pair of rubber doctor’s gloves first, Welch held the boxers up to the jury box, displaying the word “DON” written across the front in black permanent marker.

Vestal has a new tattoo now, the initials of her steady boyfriend, Jess McCoy, who has lived with her for the past two years. His red initials on her wrist — J.M. — are coincidentally the same as Jeffrey Miles’.

 

‘Away from there’

Perhaps Miles offered the allure of another life — away from the constraints of a small country town, away from her extended Cherokee family, away from the same friends and people she’d been surrounded with since childhood. Possibly smothered by the limitations of her own life, stretching out the same as it had been since the day she was born, Vestal may have seen Miles as an escape, however fleeting.

In a phone call to her husband after being arrested, Vestal hinted that she’d been unhappy.

“You know how it was before,” Vestal said, according to a recording of her side of the phone call.

And she made a reference to wanting to be “away from there.” On the other end of the line, her husband told her he loved her.

“Still?” Vestal asked.

Moore claimed that Vestal was blinded by her desire to be with Miles and couldn’t bear the thought that he might go  away forever.

“She was never going to be able to see him again. He was going to prison for the rest of his life and the only thing she could do was to break him out,” Moore said.

By all accounts, Vestal comes from an upstanding family in Cherokee. Vestal’s father and mother, both Cherokee, separated when she was young, and she was raised by her father, Ronnie Blythe.

Blythe is a polished and respected businessman who runs Cherokee Office Supply, doing a brisk business with hundreds of companies and clients in the region.

Blythe hopped a plane to California to see his daughter as soon as she was arrested and then drove her truck back across the country. The jail keys had been left under a seat. Once he returned, he hand-delivered the stolen keys from the Swain County jail back to the Swain County sheriff.

Vestal’s uncle, Larry Blythe, is the longtime vice chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Larry even made an appearance in court, sitting through part of the trial in a show of solidarity, a testament to the value of family loyalty in Cherokee culture.

“We certainly still love Anita and didn’t want her to feel like we abandoned her because she had made a terrible mistake,” Ronnie Blythe said. “It is nothing as a parent that you can ever turn your back on your children for. We certainly didn’t cast her out by any means.”

Ironically, Vestal’s family tree also includes Scott Wiggins, one of the men murdered by Miles.

Vestal’s grandmother on her dad’s side and Wiggins’ dad were first cousins. Wiggins’ dad had once been the sheriff of Swain County.

Both families — Vestal’s and Wiggins’ — sat through the trial, just benches apart. And it became apparent they shared more than a common lineage. The same man had inflicted ruin in both families’ lives.  

When the trial concluded, Vestal’s father and Wiggins’ sister locked in a long, sorrowful embrace in the parking lot, clutching each other tightly for nearly a minute before climbing into their cars and returning to pick up the pieces of their respective lives.

 

Mind-boggling

It seems Vestal regretted running off with Miles fairly quickly. 

“I didn’t know how to get myself out of this mess,” Vestal told her husband in a phone call after being arrested in California. “I was trying to figure out a way to call you, but I didn’t know who to call or if the phones were tapped.”

A video recording of Vestal calling her husband after her arrest in California was played during the trial. Vestal didn’t cry or break down. She seemed hollow and detached, as if calling home to check in while away on a business trip.

“Are the kids awake? Are they in the bed or what? Is everybody all right? Is granny all right?” Vestal asked.

Her husband’s side of the conversation didn’t come through in the audio. But he seemed to ask, repeatedly, whether she was all right, and if she’d been coerced or threatened to do what she’d done.

“I’m all right … I don’t know…. I don’t know…. No, I did this on my own,” Vestal said in a series of replies. “We were staying at a hotel since we got out here. I’ve not done nothing. I stayed in the hotel room and that’s it.”

Her voice wavered only once, realizing she had let her children down, and fishing for some sort of affirmation to lessen her own despair.

“I’d been one hell of a mom until about four weeks ago, huh?” Vestal said.

Vestal told her husband she was afraid to come back home, afraid to face people and afraid of what they would say. 

“I know everybody is going crazy down there. I might come back in to Bryson City and they try to shoot me. You know how it is with black people out there,” Vestal said in the phone call to her husband. “Basically what they are going to say is, ‘You are a n——r lover. You helped a n——r get out of jail.’ And that’s what I am scared of coming back there for.”

With Vestal now in prison, her children are being split up among different family members. One will live with Vestal’s father, one will live with their dad, and two will go live with a sister-in-law in Utah.

“It will be good for them. It will get them away from here and away from the circumstances,” said Ronnie Blythe, Vestal’s father.

As for Vestal, she wants to start over herself — in a new town. When she gets out of prison, she will be 40.

“She indicated she would just like to start over, in a new place, a new start,” Blythe said. “It has been a real difficult time for us and for her, and for the people involved. We are glad it is over.”

 

 

Vestal dodges long prison term

Anita Vestal, a former Swain County jailer, was sentenced to only three years in prison last week after a jury convicted her for carrying out a jailbreak and running away with an inmate who was in custody, charged with a brutal double murder.

But Vestal faced the prospect of more than 20 years had the jury also convicted her of more serious charges — namely several counts of “accessory after the fact” for the crimes committee by the man she helped escape.

Ronnie Blythe, Vestal’s father, said the family had been tormented by the thought of Vestal going away for accessory to murder.

“We were very concerned about the big charges placed against her. We were beside ourselves with worry about that. We always felt they were unfounded charges,” he said.

Prosecutors argued during the month-long trial that Vestal knew what Jeffrey Miles had done when she carried out his jailbreak — and thus should go down as an accessory.

“She knew good and well what Jeffrey Miles had done. But all she cared about was being together forever with him,” said Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch.

Trying to tie Miles’ heinous crimes to Vestal, prosecutors attempted to rekindle the fear and outrage that had swept through the small town following the murders.

“Even total strangers are not safe when Jeffrey Miles is around. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill death. This is a brutal execution-style murder in your own home when your doors are locked and you are supposed to be safe,” Welch told jurors.

She then reminded them of the uneasiness that permeated the community following Miles’ escape.

“After you found out about this escape, did any of you take more precautions? Were you scared?” Welch said. “This is the man who is brutal, who is vicious, who is unpredictable and he is deadly. Ms. Vestal broke everyone’s trust and formed a relationship with this nightmare.” 

But in the end, prosecutors lost the argument that Vestal should be on the hook for accessory. There is a critical legal element they were unable to prove.

There’s no doubt Vestal helped Miles escape. But the lynchpin is whether Vestal knew Miles was guilty at the time.

“Folks, she let him out of the jail,” Vestal’s attorney, Chris Siewers, admitted to jurors. “There is no way to sugarcoat that. You don’t understand what Anita Vestal did, and you don’t like what she did. I am not going to sit here and defend her on that.”

But it came down to one question: Did Vestal know Miles was in fact guilty of the murders, or did she think he was innocent?

“They have to prove that she knew. And there is no evidence of that,” Siewers said. “They want you to assume. But the oath you took as jurors says you are not allowed to assume.”

In an interview after the trial, one of the jurors said they all thought Vestal probably knew. But they couldn’t be sure.

“They couldn’t prove it. They couldn’t prove she knew,” said Juror Timothy Holder.

And so they had to find her innocent on the accessory charges.

“We erred on the side of caution,” Holder said.

The jury deliberated for a day and a half before returning the verdict. There were just two holdouts who refused to budge initially. More than once, the jury sent notes into the courtroom saying they were unable to reach a consensus, but the judge kept sending them back in, and eventually the holdouts were brought over to the majority, Holder said.

“We had to weigh a lot of factors. It was hard,” Jane Rogers, the jury foreman, said in an interview after the trial. “We took it very seriously.”

Rogers said the jurors felt very sorry for the Wiggins family and their loss, however.

“Our heart goes out to them,” Rogers said.

Several members of the Wiggins family sat through Vestal’s trial. It was the third time they’d had to endure the blow-by-blow account of Wiggins’ death in that very same courtroom as the various defendants in the murder case came to trial. Each time, they had to start the healing process again, they said.

“I am glad this part is over,” said Christie Jones, Scott Wiggins’ sister.

Jones said her family was angry at Vestal for what she did initially, but they said locking her away for a long time as an accessory to murder wouldn’t have done anything to heal their grief and pain. 

“You kind of can’t believe somebody can be that stupid,” Jones said.

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