The Nebo man on trial for the murder of 39-year-old Christopher English in 2015 took the stand in front of the jury to offer his side of the story.
On Monday, Jerry Ryan Echols, 34, told the jury his recollection of what happened in the hours between June 16 and June 17, 2015. While addressing the jury, Echols’ posture and tone was relatively calm, with the occasional break in his voice as he described more confrontational aspects.
Around midnight on June 17, Echols claimed that his girlfriend Shirley “Cricket” Hollifield prepared to leave their home on Wheeler Drive in their Saturn SUV to purchase gas. The vehicle itself, as described by Hollifield and in State’s evidence, was operating with muffler issues and routinely made loud noises.
“It sounded like a lawn mower,” Echols remembered.
During the night, Echols said he received a text by Hollifield claiming that an unknown person had walked up to her vehicle at the end of the drive way, frightening her. Upon returning home, Hollifield met with Echols at their home to describe what happened. Hollifield, Echols said, was in hysterics.
“She was sobbing pretty bad,” said Echols. “I’d never seen her that upset. So my concern for her was very high at the time. What had made her so scared? Why was she so scared and what bothered her to where she couldn’t talk to me about it? So she’s crying, upset, shaking, and I’m trying to ask her what happened, what’s going on, why are you so upset, and she tells me some guy in the driveway tried to pull her out of the car and scared her really bad.”
From there, Echols said he and Hollifield drove in his vehicle – a Saab, instead of the SUV, Echols claimed, because he didn’t want to wake her grandparents down the street with the SUV’s bad muffler – to confront the person who had scared her and talk to him. As the two pulled up to Pinnacle Heights Drive, Echols said Hollifield pointed out English, coming out of a wooded area, and said he was the man who accosted her.
Corroborating Hollifield’s statements, Echols claimed that, while in the car, he attempted to talk to English and confront him about what happened earlier. English then, he claimed, approached the vehicle, began talking around “radios”, got on his hands and knees and began growling.
“When you’re talking to him, are you upset?” asked defense attorney Sam Snead.
“I’m definitely upset,” said Echols, “and concerned, and I was real scared at the same time. I’ve never seen a man get down on all fours and start growling. That’s usually what dogs do.”
The confrontation escalated, as Echols claimed that he stepped out of the car and repeatedly tried to talk to English one-on-one, to no avail, before the situation turned physical.
“I don’t know whether he hit me first or I hit him first, but I pushed him. He approached the car and I was trying to keep him away, so I asked him what his problem is, he’s talking radios and growling and not making any sense. He’s scared. I push him, he pushes me, I punch him. I wrestled him to the ground. I ended up on top, and I push him off the ground several times and tell him to quit. He responds by growling and not saying anything other than growling.”
“How did that make you feel?” Snead asked.
“Even more scared,” Echols replied.
A toxicology report presented earlier that day in court confirmed that English’s blood and urine tested positive for methamphetamine and amphetamine at the time of his death; however quantity amounts were not verified.
As the scuffle continued between the two, Echols claimed that he ultimately released English and began stepping backward toward the car to leave.
“I start stepping backwards. He gets up, gets on all fours, hands on the ground, feet on the ground, starts growling and starts running towards me. As he’s coming towards me, I notice he’s going into his pants and I dunno if he has a weapon or I don’t know what he has. It’s dark, I can’t really see that good, but I know he’s approaching me and not to shake my hand.”
As Echols spoke more specifically about the shooting itself, members of both the English and Echols family were visibly or audibly upset.
“I had a gun. I shoot twice. I had six bullets in the gun, I shoot twice,” said English. “And after I shoot twice, I figured that would be enough for him to stop or for me to get away. And he doesn’t even slow down. He keeps coming at me. So, at this point, I’m actually moving backwards towards my vehicle and he’s still running at me, so I ended up shooting him three or four more times, and retreat in my car.”
From there, Echols said he dropped Hollifield off at her home, while sheriff’s deputies and EMS later arrived to the scene. Echols claimed that he did not return to the scene, but was able to view ambulance and cruiser lights from nearby.
Two days later on June 19, Echols recalled that he left his residence in the Saturn SUV to drive to the store and turned from Pinnacle Church Road onto NC 226. During this time, a police vehicle occupied by McDowell Detective Paul Alkire and SBI Special Agent Van Williams, stationed at Pinnacle Church Road, pulled in behind him and turned on their lights. Echols continued to drive and sped up.
“How fast were you going?” said Snead.
“Seventy,” Echols replied.
“What was the posted speed limit, or did you know?” Snead asked. “How long did you do that?”
“Three miles,” said Echols.
Echols finally pulled over on Dysartsville Road and stepped out of the vehicle.
“I wasn’t trying to run. I was gathering my thoughts on what had happened and I was going to talk to the police.”
A subsequent search of the SUV uncovered the .380 handgun used the night of the shooting, reloaded with bullets, as well as trace amounts of marijuana. He was later charged with first-degree murder, fleeing to elude, possession of a firearm by a felon, driving while license revoked without impaired revocation and possession of marijuana up to ½ ounce.
During cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Kent Brown began probing with multiple questions about Echols and Hollifield’s prior knowledge of English and erratic behavior disclosed in taped interviews with the Sheriff’s Office, including alleged accounts of the victim previously attempting to lure Hollifield’s child and other children into the bushes with candy.
“So when you drove down there, you were looking for Chris English, correct?” Brown asked.
“I was looking for the man who approached her vehicle,” said Echols. “I did not know Chris at the time.”
“The fact of the matter is Cricket told you that it was Chris English who upset her about her son, she told you that, right?” Brown said.
“She said it was some man,” Echols responded.
“And you had already had it in your mind that Chris English, this man that you were going to go confront, was the one you believed who was upsetting your family?” Brown asked.
“It was the one who approached her vehicle,” said Echols.
“And who was the same one who she thought was messing her kid, right?” Brown continued.
“It may have been,” Echols said.
Echols also claimed that his reason for speaking to Smith about the shooting on video was that the officer would take Hollifield and Echols’ mother into custody and take the children to McDowell DSS if he did not comply.
“I didn’t want that to happen. The whole reason this happened was over my family, and it wasn’t nothing that happened with them,” said Echols.
When asked if he had taken any substances prior to the altercation, Echols admitted that he had taken meth that day, but it was “not much.”
Echols also confirmed that within the time frame between the shooting and his arrest that he met with 22-year-old Joshua Ledbetter – who was subsequently charged with accessory after the fact to murder – and confessed to him that he had shot someone and acquired more bullets as well as cleaned the gun.
“You asked him to clean the gun for you, didn’t you?” Brown asked.
“Yes, sir,” Echols said.
“And to get rid of evidence that it had been fired, correct?” Brown said.
“Just to clean the gun,” Echols replied.
Closing arguments and jury deliberation in the trial of Jerry Echols begin on Tuesday.