Thursday, March 22, 2007
Pruitt pleads guilty; sentencing April 10
By SUE WATSON
Michael Wallace Pruitt entered a guilty plea in Marshall County Circuit Court Monday to aggravated assault, kidnapping and sexual battery of a 6-year-old girl in the Laws Hill community last year.
District Attorney Ben Creekmore described the case, which drew lots of media coverage, as “as bad as it gets.”
With hands to his sides at all times during his sworn testimony before Judge Andrew Howorth, Pruitt plead guilty to the three counts in the July 22, 2006, incident.
Pruitt’s court-appointed attorney, John Dolan, was by his client’s side throughout the proceedings as they faced the bench together.
By entering the guilty pleas, Pruitt waved his rights to a jury trial. He is scheduled for sentencing Tuesday, April 10, at the Marshall County courthouse.
Assistant district attorney Lelani Hill presented a summary of factual evidence in the case prepared by the district attorney’s office and law enforcement investigators after Pruitt was fully informed of his rights by Howorth.
The only words Pruitt spoke during the 30-minute proceeding were ‘yes, sir,’ to all questions. He briefly glanced at a row of 17 family members of the victim as he entered the courtroom and appeared grim.
The district attorney said in summarizing facts in the case, that Pruitt’s relationship with a Laws Hill resident ended on about July 7 last year. Pruitt was enraged and made threats against his former girlfriend and her new boyfriend.
The investigation developed Pruitt as a likely suspect to the disappearance of the child, who was reported missing by her parents in the early morning, since Pruitt had been the boyfriend of the victim’s babysitter and had routinely accompanied the girlfriend while she babysat with the victim.
Marshall County Sheriff Kenny Dickerson said shortly after his arrival at the Laws Hill command post area he immediately recognized the seriousness of the task at hand.
“I set up a command post across the road from the victim’s home and immediately solicited help from federal and state authorities,” he said.
Years of contact with supervisors in charge of personnel in the various law enforcement agencies helped launch an intensive and high tech investigation and data gathering, he said.
“I sensed immediately that in all likelihood it would be necessary to track cell phone calls and records which would probably be of great importance,” Dickerson said. “And this sense, in the end, proved to be correct.”
Dickerson credited personnel with the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Northern District Mississippi, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the North Mississippi and Memphis offices for their savvy investigative skills and ability to work cooperatively with his investigative team.
Numerous cell phone calls tracked to the towers in the area made it possible for investigators to piece together incoming data. Dickerson said two or more very credible eye witnesses had identified Pruitt and his vehicle being in the immediate area during the time of the child’s disappearance.
“Once taken into the custody on my command, Pruitt continued to deny having been in the area or having any knowledge of the child’s whereabouts,” he said.
If the case had gone to trial, Hill said the state would prove Pruitt abducted the victim from her residence during the early morning hours and rode around with her in his truck in an attempt to locate his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.
She said the state would also prove at trial that after Pruitt was alerted law officers were looking for the victim, Pruitt took the victim to an abandoned house on Dogwood Road in Marshall County where he shot her once in the head.
After leaving the victim at the scene, the state would show that Pruitt went to a friend’s house, asked the friend to hide the weapon and to provide an alibi, Hill continued.
The state would show proof that Pruitt then left his friend’s house and went to his grandmother’s house, showered and went back to bed until he was taken into custody there by Marshall County deputies.
The victim was found alive after laying in the grass under a tree for an estimated 18 hours.
Hill said Pruitt had made admissions to Sheriff Dickerson, to an aunt, to a sister and to inmates concerning his involvement in the kidnapping, sexual assault and aggravated assault of the victim, including taking pictures of the victim with a black Motorola flip-phone.
In an interview after Pruitt’s court appearance, Dolan discussed the case and offered a time-line he constructed.
Dolan said Pruitt consistently denied to him having sexually assaulted the victim.
He said Pruitt had made numerous taped phone calls to his aunt which supplied a lot of self-incriminating statements. The state was prepared to introduce transcripts of Pruitt’s phone conversations at trial.
“During the course of my investigation I became aware that there was other physical evidence that the state was in the early stages of developing which would be very damaging to my client’s case,” he said.
DNA tests for evidence of sexual assault of the victim by Pruitt were inconclusive, he said.
“But a combination of direct and circumstantial evidence was so strong as to make it likely that a reasonable jury could conclude that he was guilty of the crimes,” Dolan said.
Dolan believes the shooting took place at an abandoned house on Dogwood Road some time around 8 a.m. after Pruitt was well aware that law enforcement was seeking him for questioning. Dolan believes Pruitt had the victim with him for about four hours.
The investigation showed that Pruitt was at Finn’s Bar in the Red Banks area from about 11 p.m. July 21 until about 2:30 a.m. July 22.
He left the bar between 2:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. and was seen at Keel’s Grocery on Highway 310 at Laws Hill Road by two people.
“He said he met with someone at the store and his vehicle was seen independently there by another person,” Dolan said.
Sometime around 4 a.m. Pruitt drove over to the victim’s house. Dolan believes the girl left the house willingly, believing she was going to be taken to the babysitter.
But Dolan believes Pruitt, instead, went looking for his ex-girlfriend with the child in the vehicle with him.
Pruitt’s exact whereabouts for the first two hours after the abduction is unknown, except he appeared to be in the Laws Hill and Harmontown area, based on cell phone records.
Around 6:30 a.m. Pruitt became aware the law was looking for him with respect to the missing child, Dolan said.
Pruitt drove through the western side of the county from south to north to the Dogwood Road area.
Jason Reaves, a friend of Pruitt’s for years, who was later charged with accessory after the fact in the case, lived within one mile of the abandoned house where Pruitt abandoned the victim.
Dolan believes Pruitt went into full-blown panic around 6:45 a.m. before leaving the Laws Hill area, drove to the abandoned house and shot the victim about 8 a.m. and arrived at Reaves’ house about 8:30 a.m.
Reaves was with his two children and his wife was at work. He had no telephone of any kind in his house or transportation.
Pruitt is believed to have arrived at Reaves’ house where he left the gun for safe keeping and asked Reaves to alibi him. He asked Reaves to say he came to his house around 5 p.m. on July 21, stayed, ate and slept and left on July 22 at about 8:30 a.m.
Pruitt left Reaves’ house at about 9 a.m. and arrived at his grandmother’s house at 9:30 a.m. He took a shower.
At that time, Dickerson said he ordered investigator Kelly McMillen to call Pruitt several times at his grandmother’s house to request him to come to the Laws Hill area and talk to him regarding the child’s disappearance.
“Pruitt stated he didn’t want to drive to the Laws Hill command center at the sheriff’s request because he didn’t have a driver’s license,” Dickerson said. “At this stage, continuing to be highly suspicious of Pruitt’s involvement, I commanded deputies of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office to go to the grandmother’s house, take him into custody and bring him to the scene where we were staged.
“Between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., I interviewed Pruitt at the command center with Alan Thompson, with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, and McMillen.
“Pruitt continued to deny having any knowledge of the disappearance of the child.
“It was during this state, officers requested Pruitt to submit to a rape test kit, and Pruitt continued to deny any knowledge and stated before he would volunteer for such a test, he would like to consult an attorney. He did tell me if he knew anything about the child, he would ‘never harm a hair on her head.’ ”
Dolan said, “So, after he lawyers up, they ran a rape test kit on Pruitt,” Dolan said, “and continued to turn the heat up on Reaves.
“Reaves cracked sometime between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and recanted his alibi for Pruitt.”
Despite the fact Pruitt said he wouldn’t talk any more without a lawyer, Sheriff Dickerson went in and talked with Pruitt around 1 a.m. July 23.
“During that conversation, Pruitt admitted to having taken the child and told the sheriff ‘something bad happened,’ ” Dolan said.
Dickerson said Pruitt was questioned into the late hours and would only say to federal officers that what happened was an accident.
Dickerson returned to his office between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. and went into the interrogation room where Pruitt was being questioned.
“I was able to convince him to direct me to the exact location at an abandoned house spot on Dogwood Road, where the child was found in an area of heavy vegetation,” Dickerson said. “We were able to get the child immediate medical attention.”
Dolan said he believes the fact that the day was overcast following numerous hot days helped the injured child survive the heat.
“But for the grace of God and 77 degrees that day, she’d have been dead from exposure,” Dolan said.
Dolan said he believes Sheriff Dickerson made life-saving decisions during the intense 18-hour investigation leading to the location of the victim.
“Regardless of the legal ramifications of the sheriff having talked to Pruitt after he asked for a lawyer, the sheriff did the right thing in the sense that these acts by the sheriff were the only things that would have led to the discovery of the child while she was still alive,” Dolan said.
“Simply put, the sheriff’s actions saved the child’s life.”
Dickerson said the incident is one of the most heinous crimes he has investigated during his 35 years of law enforcement work and nearly 12 years as sheriff.
In an interview with Creekmore after Pruitt pleaded guilty to three counts Monday, Creekmore said good investigative work every step of the way was responsible for settling the case.
“We’re in the posture of now looking forward to the sentencing hearing, our primary focus now,” he said.
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