Jury finds Kerns guilty of 2004 slayingThird man pleads in Keese Bare murder case
A Morgan County jury took less than two hours to find Vernon L. Kerns, Jr. guilty of first degree murder and conspiracy on Monday afternoon, following a week-long trial in Morgan County Circuit Court.
The 26-year-old Kerns, also known as "V.J.," was the third person to be convicted in the 2004 murder of Keese Bare. He will be sentenced by Circuit Judge Gina Groh on April 6.
During a break in trial testimony last week, Jerome "B.J." Smith pled guilty to second degree murder in the case.
Smith, 25, faces up to 40 years in prison for the killing and, as a condition of the plea bargain, was required to testify against Kerns. He will be sentenced on May 18.
Last May, Jason M. Payne, 26, was found guilty in a jury trial of second degree murder for his role in the slaying.
Kerns, Smith and Payne are all first cousins, and Prosecuting Attorney Debra McLaughlin stressed their family ties during her opening remarks to the jury.
Another family member – Amanda Kerns Ekatah – was also present when Bare was murdered at a campsite along the Potomac River on September 2, 2004. Bare's body was then burned to avoid detection.
Ekatah, who is Kerns' sister, testified against both Kerns and Payne, but has not yet been charged in the case.
Different accounts of what happened on the night of the killing were the basis of the cases presented by Prosecutor McLaughlin and Defense Attorney Sherman Lambert.
The defense also made an issue of why an informant, John Gue, came forth after 19 months to tell police what happened to Bare, Until then, he was simply thought to be missing.
During the trial, relatives of Bare and Kerns, and at times dozens of Berkeley Springs High School students, were present in the courtroom in the former North Berkeley Elementary School multipurpose room.
As happened during the Payne trial last year, some of the accused persons' relatives apologized to Bare's parents for what took place in 2004.
Keese Bare was last seen on September 2, 2004. At the time he was under investigation for fraudulently using credit cards stolen from mailboxes, which he called "mailbox shopping," according to testimony.
Several witnesses said the motive for the murder was the fear that Bare would tell police about the stolen credit cards, implicating Kerns and perhaps others.
Lt. Tim Stapleton of the Morgan County Sheriff's Department said he talked to Bare early on September 2. They discussed Bare coming in for questioning about the thefts.
Tiffany Munson, who was Bare's girlfriend at the time, said she believed Bare had left the area to avoid arrest and prosecution. She tried to call him repeatedly after September 2, to no avail.
During the investigation, Munson provided Stapleton with bills for the cell phone used by Bare. Throughout the trial, phone records were used as a way of figuring out where Kerns, Bare and Amanda Ekatah were at various times and who was talking to who.
Break in the case
Lt. Stapleton said that he, too, believed Bare had run off until he was contacted by John Gue on April 7, 2006.
Gue told the jury that he had hoped to remain anonymous, but police later informed him that he would have to testify.
Gue, 43, called Kerns "my best friend" as a way of explaining why he waited more than a year and a half to go to the police.
Gue said Kerns originally told him that he had killed Bare a day or two after the murder, but he hadn't believed him.
A few days after that, Kerns asked if he could bring Jerome Smith and Amanda Ekatah to Gue's house to talk about it. Smith, in particular, was having trouble dealing with what had happened, it was said.
Gue said they told him that Smith had cut Bare's throat, Kerns had stabbed him many times and Payne had beat him with a police baton. Then they burned Bare's body in a campfire.
Kerns and Smith returned to the scene the next day with more wood and continued to burn what was left of the body, Gue said.
Gue maintained that he didn't tell anyone because of his close friendship with Kerns. He said that, later, Kerns also threatened him if he told.
He said he called Stapleton in April 2006 because he could no longer live with what he knew.
Defense Attorney Sherman Lambert tried to paint a more sinister picture of why Gue finally broke his silence after 19 months.
Lambert pointedly questioned Gue about drug use. Gue admitted he had shared his prescription pain pills with Kerns and that they sometimes crushed percocet pills and snorted the powder. He denied giving drugs to Kerns' sister.
Gue also denied a sexual affair with Kerns, but when Kerns took the stand in his own defense, he alleged the two were lovers.
Kerns said Gue had told the police about the murder after they had had an argument over drugs and money and were not talking.
Even after that, Gue retained a friendship with Kerns, who did not know that Gue had contacted police.
When Kerns was later in the regional jail, Gue called him several times a day, according to testimony.
Finding the remains
After the tip from Gue, police went to what was referred to as Lot #17 along the Potomac River, near the Hancock Bridge.
The campsite was used by the killers without the knowledge of the family that leased it.
Deputies Stapleton and Tony Link described going through the campfire pit and a nearby ash pile and finding bone fragments, a knife blade, a belt buckle and car keys that turned out to be Bare's.
Later, a second "dig" was conducted by Dr. Douglas W. Owsley, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institute.
Dr. Owsley spread out bone fragments to show the jury and described how he had compared fragments with x-rays that had been taken of Bare's head, neck and back in the 1990s.
He said no teeth were found, so he could not match dental work.
Several witnesses testified that Kerns had removed the teeth from the ashes so they could not be matched.
Owsley said he could not be sure of the cause of death, but he had no doubt that the charred remains were Keese Bare's.
Many heard about it
The state presented a string of six witnesses who claimed Kerns had told them in 2005 and 2006 that he had killed Bare, though sometimes the victim's name was not mentioned.
Among them was Dorcey Peacemaker, who had been Kerns' cellmate at the regional jail in mid-2006.
Kerns told him that someone else had slit a guy's throat and that he had taken part in beating the man and burning his body, he said.
Peacemaker, too, gave the motive as Kerns' belief that Bare would "snitch."
He quoted a jailhouse saying, "Snitches end up in ditches."
Amanda Ekatah's version
Three accounts of the murderous night were given by those who were there.
Amanda Kerns Ekatah said her brother woke her up with a phone call on the night of September 2, Kerns said he had been partying with Jerome Smith, Jason Payne and Keese Bare at the river lot and they were too drunk to drive home, she said.
Ekatah, who was nine months pregnant at the time, said she got to Lot #17 after 12:30 a.m. There was a fire burning and loud music playing.
Soon after she arrived, Kerns told her that they were going to kill Bare because of concerns that he would implicate others in the stolen credit card scheme, she said.
She said Kerns and Payne stood alongside Bare while Smith "pulled his head back and pulled the knife across his throat."
Bare fell to the ground, but then got up and started running toward the fire pit. Kerns and Payne ran after him. Kerns stabbed Bare and Payne beat him on the head with the police baton, she said.
Ekatah described Bare pleading for his life and calling out, "Please don't kill me, I have kids." He also promised not to tell anything to the police.
Ekatah maintained there was nothing she could do to stop the killing, but that she did tell Payne to quit beating Bare on the head. She maintained that she had no role in the murder.
"When they were finished, they drug him to the fire,"
Ekatach said she was afraid to tell anyone what had happened because Payne said, "That's what happens to people that snitch and that if I did, he would kill me and the baby."
Jerome Smith's version
Jerome Smith's account of the night began with him being picked up by his cousin Vernon Kerns, who had Keese Bare with him.
They drank whiskey at the river lot for hours and eventually Jason Payne and then Amanda Ekatah showed up.
At one point, Kerns and Payne went off and talked. When they came back, "they handed me a knife and said to me I had to slash Mr. Bare's throat," Smith testified.
He said he only made a superficial cut and that Bare first fell, then got up and ran off with Payne and Kerns following him. Payne hit Bare eight or ten times with a baton and Kerns stabbed him three to five times, Smith said.
Then, Kerns and Payne dragged the body to the fire and piled wooden pallets on top of it.
He agreed that Ekatah did not take part in the attack on Bare, but said she did get lighter fluid out of her car to use on the fire. Ekatah, on the other hand, denied bringing the lighter fluid.
Smith said he did not return to the scene the next day, but that Kerns told him that he was going to go back with more wood for the fire.
Asked by Prosecutor McLaughlin why they had killed Bare, Smith replied, "I don't know why."
Vernon Kerns' version
When Vernon Kerns took the stand, he maintained there was no conspiracy to murder Bare. "There was no discussion about killing anybody," he said.
He said he didn't actually see Jerome Smith cut Bare's throat, but that he saw Bare running away with Jason Payne chasing after him.
Payne beat Bare on the head with a baton until the baton bent. "It had brains and blood on it,"
He claimed Payne then said to him, "Ain't you f–– going to do anything?"
"I picked up the knife and stabbed him a few times," Kerns said, and then they put the body on the fire.
Amanda Ekatah got lighter fluid from her vehicle to fuel the fire, he said.
Payne threatened all of them that he would kill them if they went to the cops, Kerns said.
He said that he was scared, because "I may be the next one to go in the fire."
Payne was still feeding the blaze when the others left, Kerns said.
Kerns said he felt the others had conspired against him.
Defense Attorney Lambert picked up Kerns' themes in his remarks to the jury.
He argued that since the cause of death could not be determined, it was unclear whether Kerns had actually killed Bare when he stabbed him, or whether Bare was already dead.
In the middle of the trial, with the jury out of the room, Lambert even asked Judge Groh to dismiss the case on those grounds.
"The state has not established that the deceased was alive at the time of death," Lambert said.
The judge refused to dismiss the charges.
In her closing remarks, Prosecutor McLaughlin pointed out that Kerns, Smith and Payne all participated in planning and carrying out the murder.
"We'll never know which was the fatal blow, but they all acted together," she said.
She also asked the jury to think hard before returning any verdict that included a provision for mercy.
When they returned their verdict on Monday afternoon, the jury of six men and six women made no suggestion for mercy.
They found Kerns guilty, as charged, of first degree or premeditated murder and conspiracy to commit the crime.
Reporter Kate Shunney contributed to this article.