In True Stories At The Smoky View (She Writes Press, 2016, 325 pages, $16.95), Vrai Stevens Lynde — the “Vrai” is short for Vraiment — finds herself and a 10-year-old runaway boy trapped in a room at the Smoky View Motel near Bristol, Tennessee, during the great blizzard of 1993. Snowbound for several days — the monster storm has completely closed I-81, and the motel desk clerk delivers food to the stranded travelers on a tractor — Vrai and Jonathan begin comparing notes and sharing stories from their life, an exchange of information resulting in a lifelong friendship and a mutual decision to embark on a crusade to right an injustice.
The jury deciding the fate of a former Swain County jailer who helped a murderer escape and then ran away with him to California began deliberating Tuesday morning (Dec. 3).
It was a fairly simple inside job in the end, one easily borrowed from the playbook of any Hollywood jailbreak.
Anita Vestal was just a novice jailer, with less than six months on the job at the Swain County jail. But she single-handedly sprang an inmate charged in a bloodbath of a double murder.
The jury trial of a Swain County jailer accused of springing a murderer from jail more than four years ago will conclude next week with a certain guilty verdict.
The death of Haywood County Sheriff John Phillip Noland — a murder story set against the backdrop of the American Civil War — sounds as if it belongs in the pages of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain.
Seventy-year old Ronnie Evans, a retired engineer with UNC-TV who lives in Franklin, seems an unlikely homicide investigator.
The last of six people accused of playing a role in the murders of two Swain County residents back in 2008 has been put away.
Mark Goolsby of Sylva plead guilty to nine counts of accessory after the fact to various charges, including second-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and attempted first-degree murder. Goolsby received a seven- to ten-year sentence but was credited for time he has already spent in jail awaiting trial. This means that he has a minimum of about three years and three months before he can be paroled.
“I believe the plea accurately reflects what happened as far as his involvement,” said James Moore, assistant district attorney for the case.
Goolsby was one of two Sylva men who in some way participated in the murders of Scott Wiggins and Heath Compton. Goolsby and his friend Dean Mangold were in the Walmart parking lot in Sylva one day when they ran into two strangers from Atlanta who were looking for more drugs two-days in to a partying-spree at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel. The two area boys followed them back to their hotel room at Harrah’s where they proceeded to smoke weed and take the illegal drug ecstasy.
Later, the group left the hotel room, planning to rob Wiggins and Compton, whom they believed dealt drugs. Goolsby stayed in the vehicle and did not actively participate in the robbery and murders, according to testimony of others in the case.
Goolsby testified last month against co-defendant Tiffany Marion, who was then found guilty of a myriad of charges and sentenced to more than two consecutive life sentences without the opportunity for parole. He was also prepared to testify against Mangold, who opted to plead guilty and make a deal with prosecutors rather than stand trial.
“He (Goolsby) did that without any kind of plea deal,” Moore said. “I take that as meaning something.”
Of the six defendants, three pleaded guilty; the fourth committed suicide in jail; and the fifth was found guilty following a jury trial last month.
The only related case left is the trial of Anita Vestal, a jailer in Swain County who helped the ringleader in the murders, Jeffrey Miles, escaped from the Swain County jail in 2009. As of Tuesday morning, no trial date had been set for Vestal. It is also unclear whether she will stand trial or try to make a plea deal.
When a two-day partying and gambling binge left five Atlantans broke and out of drugs, a mission to replenish their stash and an off-kilter moral compass triggered a deadly and chaotic sequence of events — one that culminated in a home invasion and the execution-style murder of two Swain County residents.
A rash decision to leave Atlanta in the middle of the night to hit Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, eventually running out of money to get back home, a chance meeting in a Walmart parking lot with local boys — had the deck been stacked differently leading up to the ill-concocted robbery, the chips may not have fallen like they did.
Since the murders three years ago, exactly what played out on that fateful night has been a mystery, known only to detectives, the young Atlanta thugs and the two murder victims, Scott Wiggins, 33, and Heath Compton, 34.
That changed this month, when one of the suspects was brought to trial in Swain County, offering the first public dissection of the fatal course of events.
Of the six suspects charged in the murders, three had pleaded guilty. Another committed suicide in jail. The last two had held out, denying their involvement and claiming to be mere bystanders.
One of those, Tiffany Marion, 29, was on trial for three weeks, ending with a guilty verdict Monday. (see related article.)
The following account is a combination of testimony that played out in court in recent weeks. The story begins with two friends, Tiffany Marion and Jada McCutcheon, on their porch in Atlanta just before climbing in a van for a joy ride with friends.
Both Marion and McCutcheon, who was 19 at the time, met attending the Everest Institute in Georgia for massage therapy.
While smoking cigarettes outside McCutcheon’s apartment one night, her then-fiancée Jason Johnson pulled up in a gold mini-van and the two girls hopped in. Marion was introduced for the first time to Jeffrey Miles, who would later become the chief perpetrator and triggerman in the murders.
McCutcheon called Miles ‘papa’ because he cared for her. She said she would do anything he told her to.
After cruising around the Atlanta-area smoking weed and taking ecstasy, Miles suggested that they go to a casino, Marion said.
It was well after midnight when McCutcheon, her boyfriend Johnson, Miles and the recently introduced Marion, and a fifth guy known as Freak set out on the more than 150-mile trip to North Carolina — a drive that Miles apparently had made many times before.
During her testimony, Marion said she agreed to go to a casino but did not know that the group was referencing Harrah’s Hotel and Casino in Cherokee.
“I thought it would be fun,” Marion said. “They never mentioned what casino or where.”
The decision was rash judging by what Marion brought on the trip — nothing but a small Coach purse. Before leaving Georgia, the group had not made plans to stay in North Carolina overnight.
Marion and Miles entered Harrah’s Casino just before 8 a.m. Tuesday, according to a time-stamped security tape. Marion was sporting a white shirt, white skirt and once inside the casino, donned Miles’ black jacket. Miles was similarly dressed in a white t-shirt, white basketball shorts and a black and red baseball cap. The video showed the two sitting at a Blackjack table.
Although Marion said she did not know how much Miles won, it was in the thousands because he gave her a $1,000 chip, which she promptly cashed in.
“He said it was mine. ‘This is yours to keep,’” Marion said.
Miles’ winnings totaled about $2,700, according to the casino’s records. A female worker at the casino approached Miles and spoke to him as if she recognized him, Marion said. She told Miles that he had played enough to earn a three-night stay in one of rooms in Harrah’s Hotel — room 942.
By this time, the rest of the group — McCutcheon, Johnson and Freak who were not old enough to enter the casino — had rented a room across the road at the Days Inn where they stayed that night. Marion and Miles took advantage of the free hotel room offered at Harrah’s. Miles repeatedly returned to the casino to gamble. And, at one point, he lost what money he had won and asked Marion for the $1,000 he had given her.
Marion had stated in a previous interview with law enforcement officials that Miles and she were never intimate. However, on the stand, Marion said that she and Miles had sex in the room two or three times Tuesday and Tuesday night.
At some point the next day, Johnson, McCutcheon and Freak all packed into the complimentary room Miles had at Harrah’s, where the “chilled,” watched TV, took ecstasy and smoked marijuana.
By Thursday, their second day in Cherokee, the money and drugs started to run out. That day, “the guys were in and out,” McCutcheon said.
Some time Thursday, Johnson and Miles drove to Walmart in Sylva and scouted the parking lot, eventually encountering two local boys, Mark Goolsby and Dean Mangold. Exactly what Johnson and Miles told them isn’t clear, but there was some talk of drugs, and later that night Mangold would eventually lead them to Wiggins’ house where the hit went down.
When Miles and Johnson showed back up at Harrah’s, the two white boys were with them and joined the party. Marion and McCutcheon said they had never seen the two boys before and did not even know their names until after the crime took place. McCutcheon simply referred to them as “the white boys” most of the time.
“They seemed like they were cool, whatever,” McCutcheon said.
Goolsby and Mangold hung out in the hotel room with the five Atlantans, partaking in the ecstasy and marijuana.
While in the hotel room, the group talked about “hitting a lick,” which means “to go to somebody’s house and take their shit,” McCutcheon said.
One of the white boys told them about a good house to rob, she said. It was about 20 minutes away, heading out of Cherokee and into rural Swain County, down a windy country lane and then a gravel road where Wiggins’ house was set in the woods.
That is when everyone, the two white boys and the Atlanta crew with the exception of the boy known as Freak, piled into the van and left the hotel for Wiggins’ home.
Taking direction from one of the white boys, Miles stopped the van in a wooded area a short distance from the house but well screened from anyone who might be inside. It was a well thought-out move, as the house was equipped with a closed-circuit security camera, a live feed trained on the driveway.
Miles grabbed and loaded a sawed off shotgun from the van, and Johnson had an unloaded gun that McCutcheon said looked like a machine gun. They then huddled around the van and planned out how the robbery would go down, exactly who would do what once they got inside, before heading up the hill to the house with their guns and empty black duffel bags in hand.
McCutcheon, Johnson, Miles and Mangold walk up to the house while Marion and Goolsby stayed in the van. However, Mangold stopped before they reached the house, McCutcheon said. Either Johnson or Miles kicked in the front door to the house. Then, pointing their guns at Wiggins and Compton, the invaders corralled them in an office-type room. Compton was shoved into a recliner-like chair, and Wiggins was told to lay face down on the floor.
“We don’t want no problems,” McCutcheon said, recalling the victims’ words.
McCutcheon said her job was then to collect anything valuable. She began grabbing items and putting them into the black duffel bags that they had brought with them. While in the other room, McCutcheon said, she heard what she thought was a shot and returned to the room where her accomplices were holding Compton and Wiggins, only to find Compton still seated in the chair with a bullet hole in his forehead.
“He (Miles) felt like he had to do it,” McCutcheon said.
McCutcheon once again began gathering valuables from throughout the house, including guns, ammunition, a flat screen TV and cash, and tossing them into the bed of Wiggins’ white Ford truck in the driveway, which they also planned to steal.
It is somewhat unclear how long after Compton’s death Timothy Waldroup, who knew the victims, stumbled upon the scene. Waldroup, a drug addict, reportedly told his sister that he was going to Wiggins’ house to buy crystal meth. However, he soon found himself held captive as well. At some point, he was ushered into the bathroom and told to get in the tub.
While Miles watched over Wiggins and Waldroup, Johnson decided to sit in a black Ford truck in the driveway and make sure no one else disturbed them.
At some point, McCutcheon was outside packing the white truck with stolen goods, and she heard another shot. McCutcheon went back into and saw Wiggins with “a big ass, fucking hole in the back of his head,” she said.
Then, Miles handed her the sawed off shotgun that had killed both Compton and Wiggins and told her to watch Waldroup who was sitting in the tub while he finished up. Miles grabbed a silver pistol from the house, McCutcheon said, and when he returned from packing the truck, he shot at Waldroup three or four times as he remained in the tub.
Miles told McCutcheon to cover the house in flammable cleaning supplies so they could torch the house, she said. As she did so, Waldroup stumbled from the bathroom and fell into the aquarium in the living room. He pleaded with them not the burn Wiggins’ home, McCutcheon said.
At some point during the crime, the two local “white boys” Mangold and Goolsby ran away on foot. Marion walked up to the house, found Johnson sitting in the black truck and told him to hurry up, that the white boys had run off and they should all get out of there. Marion said she then went back to wait in the van.
Eventually, a calm McCutcheon returned to the van alone and told Marion that they needed to meet Miles and Johnson back at Harrah’s. Miles jacked the white truck with all the stolen goods and headed to the hotel. Johnson, meanwhile, drove away in the black truck but soon ditched it on the side of the road, perhaps due to mechanical problems.
That left Johnson on foot, not far from the scene of a deadly robbery, a black man from Atlanta in the nearly all-white countryside of Swain County.
He walked from house-to-house, knocking on neighbors’ doors asking to us the phone. One of the residents called the sheriff’s office to report the suspicious character and a deputy soon cruised by. He found Johnson walking down the road — but unaware of the crime that had just been committed, the deputy gave him a courtesy lift back to Cherokee.
When McCutcheon and Marion get back to Harrah’s, they pulled up alongside Miles. Marion jumped into the stolen truck he’s driving to ride back to Atlanta with him.
McCutcheon refused to leave without her fiancée Johnson, who had yet to make it back. McCutcheon went back up to the Harrah’s hotel room to wait, where Freak had stayed that night, and fell asleep. When she awoke, she found Johnson waiting in the lobby of Harrah’s. By 11 a.m. or earlier, the remaining three had left for home.
It wasn’t until 11:30 a.m. Thursday morning that the crime was discovered. One of Wiggins’ neighbors had spied Waldroup in a ditch along the road, slowly bleeding to death. Waldroup had managed to stagger from the living room to the road the night before, but hadn’t made it far before collapsing. Police arrived at the scene and soon realized that Wiggins and Compton were murdered.
At first blush, the case seemed cold. A robbery and murder with no leads. Except one: the out-of-towner who was given a lift to Harrah’s in Cherokee by a deputy in the early hours of the morning. Shannon Ashe, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, was assigned to follow-up the lead.
Unfortunately for law enforcement officials, the maids had already cleaned the hotel room that the suspects stayed in — room 942. And, there was little to no evidence to be collected.
“With it being cleaned and everything, it looked pristine,” Ashe said. “There was nothing unusual found within Room 942.”
Luckily, the casino has state-of-the-art surveillance, and investigators quickly pieced together descriptions of their suspects.
Two days after the murders, police found the gold Honda van at an apartment complex in Decatur, Ga. Johnson was inside, but they knew he couldn’t have acted alone.
The next day investigators found Marion and McCutcheon in the living room of her apartment with a light tan Chihuahua in their lap that had belonged to the murdered Wiggins and Compton.
Also in the apartment were black trash bags of stolen goods from the robbery, including a Radio Shack scanner with Wiggins’ name written on the front, prescription pill bottles in either Wiggins’ or Compton’s name and a Visa card belonging to Wiggins.
Officials separated the two suspects and began asking questions, while others searched the bags that sat on the living room floor.
After about 45 minutes, they received information that fellow suspect Jeffrey Miles was only three miles away at a Wendy’s. They quickly concluded their search of the apartment, arrested Marion and McCutcheon, and left to apprehend Miles.
It’s been three and a half years, but the prosecution and victims’ families have received little respite. The arrest of the players, a jailbreak, a trial, two suicides and three guilty pleas have punctuated the years.
• Waldroup survived despite being shot multiple times, and he quickly became the star witness for the prosecution. But, before the case came to trial, he died of a drug overdose, an apparent suicide, while being held in jail on unrelated charges.
• Miles briefly escaped from jail in Swain County thanks to an inside job. He befriended and wooed a female jailer, Anita Vestal, who helped him escape in March 2009. Swain County residents were on high alert keeping an eye out for the escaped murderer. The two made it all the way to California but were eventually caught after a month or so.
In late 2010, Miles pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping, attempted first-degree arson and escape. He received two consecutive life sentences followed by a minimum of 189 months.
• Mangold, one of the “white boys,” pleaded guilty to attempted murder, three counts of first-degree kidnapping, two counts of second-degree murder and two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon. Mangold received a minimum of 12 years and 7 months.
• His compatriot Goolsby will be tried later this year and faces the following charges: two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, first-degree burglary, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping and 9 counts of accessory after the fact.
• Johnson and McCutcheon were supposed to get married the Monday after they were arrested. But, instead, Johnson eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, three counts of first-degree kidnapping and attempted first-degree arson. He was given two consecutive life sentences and a minimum of 189 additional months.
• McCutcheon hanged herself in 2009 while awaiting trial in prison.
“Every time I close my eyes, I see two freaking dead people that somebody shot,” McCutcheon said.
To hear Diane Wiggins tell it, her little brother Scott Wiggins and little sister Christie Jones were spoiled, got away with everything and always caused trouble.
“It’s like they were always into something. I never got away with anything. You two got away with everything, especially Scott,” Diane said, sitting outside a Swain County courtroom with her sister last week.
The trip down memory lane was bittersweet. As they recalled good times from their childhood, they were haunted by the reality of what was playing out behind closed doors of the jury room. Wiggins was murdered, execution style, in a home invasion by thugs from Atlanta three years ago. As the two sisters reminisced, they were waiting for jurors to conclude a three-week trial and return with a verdict for one of the seven defendants allegedly involved in the robbery and shooting. They targeted his home because they believed he sold drugs.
When Scott was young, he threw rocks at his grandpa’s rooster, which retaliated by spurring him below the eye. But, he didn’t learn his lesson and ended up in the hospital after chucking rocks at a hornet’s nest.
Being 20 years his senior, Diane took on a more motherly role. She took her brother to basketball camp and took both her siblings to Disney World.
“I think I was more like a mother, “ Diane said. “I sent him to camp, and I did those sort of things with him.”
But, as he grew older, the relationship evolved into friendship. Diane even helped him build his house. In 1996, Scott built a home on the rural John Henderson Road on property that his father had given him. He asked Diane, who ran a cabinet business at the time, to build the cabinets for his new home and constantly called her for answers and advice.
“He about drove me nuts,” Diane said.
Christie Jones and Scott were only a few years apart and had the typical sibling love-hate relationship. But, when they weren’t fighting, they were thick as thieves. Jones described him as “funny,” “mischievous” and “adventurous.”
She recalled the times they would cart around the house in their miniature, battery-operated toy cars, one right after the other. And, despite the age difference, their mother used to dress both Jones and Scott alike whenever they were supposed to have their pictures taken.
“We used to be treated like twins,” Jones said. “If one got something, the other got something,” even not so good things like the chicken pox.
Both were still young when their father, Dave Wiggins Jr., served as Swain County Sheriff.
“They grew up in the back of the sheriff’s car,” Diane said.
Scott played basketball and football for Swain County High School before graduating in 1991. He loved NASCAR races, Jimmy Buffett, camping and horseback riding. Scott also had, what some would consider, a rather strange love — vacuum cleaners. In fact, he loved it so much that as a child that his family bought him a vacuum cleaner for Christmas.
Although he wasn’t big on hunting, Scott collected guns, in addition to Native American baskets. In college, he studied criminal justice and radiology.
Scott held down several and varied jobs through out his life. At one point, he worked at Harris Regional Hospital and his father’s company, Wiggins Oil Co. While still working for his father, he began working in the excavation business and flipping houses.
He lived in his personalized home with Heath Compton, 34. The two were in a long-term relationship, said Compton’s mother Linda, Mcburney. However, Compton was planning to move back to Virginia Beach to live with his family.
Similar to Scott, Compton was also outgoing, Diane said. He came to Western North Carolina to work as a whitewater rafting guide and teach skiing and snowboarding lessons at Cataloochee resort. Like Scott, Compton also loved animals. Collectively, they had a couple of Chihuahuas and a number of Labradors. They also shared a love of water. He and Scott would hang out on Fontana Lake in Compton’s houseboat.
Diane chuckled recalling one of Compton’s favorite pastimes — sitting on the couch, snuggled under a blanket, watching the Lifetime Movie Network.
“Scott would get so mad at him” because they usually had other plans, Diane said.
Jones was on her lunch break from work when she first heard that something might be amiss. A neighbor had picked up correspondence on the police scanner, and her husband Eric wanted to know if he should pick her up from work. Figuring that it was nothing, she declined his offer but called her daddy, the former county sheriff.
He was the one to relay the news — intruders had busted into Scott’s house, stolen items and murdered him and Compton. Jones was in shock, not able to comprehend how or why it happened.
Only adding to the heartache was that fact that she would have to be the one to tell her big sister, Diane, who was working at Lowe’s when she received the call.
“I about passed out,” Diane said, adding that she couldn’t drive she was fraught with emotion.
SEE ALSO: Woman convicted in Swain County Murders
Even now, she will find herself suddenly breaking down while driving, and she cringes anytime she sees a murder on the news, knowing what those families are going through.
“We are scarred,” Diane said, adding she sometimes wakes in the middle of the night.
When Scott was murdered, nearly everything changed — and not just emotionally for the Wiggins family. His dad was forced to shut down the oil business because there was no one to drive the truck and deliver the product to customers. And, Scott’s house was rented. Though, Diane said she considered living there herself.
“I sort of wanted to move in it,” Diane said. “I just feel like I am closer to him there.”
The three-week trial of Tiffany Marion for her role in the 2008 murders of two Swain County men ended with a guilty verdict this week, despite Marion’s claims of being a bystander along for the ride.
Marion, 28 of Decatur, Ga., was found guilty Monday of two counts of first-degree murder, attempted murder, two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon and first-degree burglary. She received to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, followed by another 278 months.
There were allegedly six involved in the murder — a foursome from Atlanta and two local boys who led them to the house of Scott Wiggins and Heath Compton. Three defendants pleaded guilty; a fourth committed suicide in jail. The final suspect, Mark Goolsby of Sylva, will be tried later this year.
During the trial, Marion testified that she did not know her friends were planning to rob and murder Wiggins and Compton and that she had remained outside in the van during the crime.
Marion’s story was corroborated by the other suspects, who testified that Marion stayed outside during the crime. Prosecutors didn’t attempt to dispute her claim, but successfully argued that her involvement nonetheless rose to the level of first-degree murder.
Marion said she didn’t realize plans for a robbery were in the works when she and her friends left their hotel room at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and headed out for Wiggins’ home. Marion said she thought they were merely going to buy drugs.
Marion claims she was lying under the covers when one of the local “white boys” hanging out with them announced that he wanted to smoke more marijuana and knew where they could buy some. When she saw her friend Jada McCutcheon leaving, she grabbed her stuff and headed to the van with them.
“I wanted to smoke with them,” Marion said. “I didn’t want to be left out.”
Marion sat in the passenger seat and listened to the music that played loudly over the radio as Jeffrey Miles, who was later deemed the triggerman in the murders, drove.
“I was real mellow, real laidback, zoned out,” Marion said.
The van came to a stop and several passengers hopped out. Within a couple of minutes, Marion said, she realized that she was the only one left in the van except for Goolsby.
“I pretty much couldn’t see anything. It was dark,” Marion said.
Marion stayed in or near the van chain-smoking cigarettes. And, “I don’t remember anyone talking about crime,” Marion said.
In McCutcheon’s various retellings of the night, she always said that Marion stayed by the van. However, McCutcheon said, “I am pretty sure everybody knew” about the robbery.
Marion has maintained that she never saw any guns during the trip to North Carolina, did not hear Miles load the shotgun outside the van and never heard any shots while she sat in the van.
She did not know how long the others were gone, but Marion said it was hours, during which she smoked and slept.
“It felt like I was in the van for a while,” Marion said. “It felt like hours.”
Suddenly out of the darkness, the other local boy who had gone up to the house, Dean Mangold, came running toward the van, yelling and breaking the deadly silence.
“It sounded like he said, they were shooting. ‘Get out of the car,’” Marion said.
Marion testified that she thought Mangold was hallucinating as a result of the ecstasy they’d been taking, and she did not hear any gunshots. When Mangold and Goolsby asked her to run away with them, Marion said she decided to stay with the van because she did not trust the two strangers and was afraid they might rape her.
After the boys left, Marion once again fell asleep in the van. She awoke and decided to stumble toward what seemed to be the lights of a house, hoping to find McCutcheon. As Marion approached Wiggins’ house, she told her friends that the white boys had run off and urged them to hurry up.
“You all need to come on and come on now,” Marion recalled telling them.
Marion returned to the van and later returned to Georgia where she continued to hang out with the group.
She was arrested several days later in an apartment filled with stolen goods from Wiggins’ home, even his dog. But, she claimed she never knew murders had taken place that night.