A court proceeding last week featured all the elements of Haywood County’s dark side — one that members of the justice system know all too well, but one that eludes most people’s daily lives.
A murder in May 2020 led to a young man serving a long prison sentence, but that did little to bring back 24-year-old Brandon Carter, who was killed.
Carter’s mother was scheduled to address the court, but was unable to testify — or stop crying — during the administrative session before Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jones described the night of May 4, 2020, when the Sheriff’s Office received three phone calls shortly after midnight reporting a gunshot and a suspicious situation on Ratcliff Cove Road.
When deputies arrived, they found a man, later identified as Carter, lying motionless and partly under a motorcycle.
Near the scene, authorities found Kevin Carey, who was 18 at the time, and Cynthia Gregory, then 39, who admitted they were in a romantic relationship.
Jones recounted the investigation which revealed that Carey, Gregory, Carter and his girlfriend, Renee Patterson, lived in Gregory’s house in the Shadow Woods development.
The deputies learned that Gregory believed Carter was stealing, so she asked him to leave the house.
Jones told the court that Carey drove down the road to make sure Carter was gone, then returned to report to Gregory.
The two returned to the site with a gun where investigators discovered there had been an argument between Gregory and Carter. Carey was holding the gun, Jones said, and the defendant said at one point he thought the safety was on, and at another point that Carter lunged at him.
The shot Carey fired hit Carter in the chin and exited the back of his head, which was later determined to be the cause of death. A neighbor administered first aid but said Carter died quickly, Jones said.
After the shooting, Carey said he didn’t know where the gun was, but later told detectives it was hidden behind a wooden crate in the house, Jones said.
“A few things in his story changed a bit,” Jones said, “but he still identified as the shooter.”
The situation prompted Jones to tell the court that the position of the motorcycle on Carter’s body made it unlikely that he would lunge at the couple. He asked the court why Carey needed a gun if Carter was unarmed and why he was suing Carter if he had already left the property.
In a legal filing accompanying Carey’s guilty plea, defense attorney Bill Jones (no relation to Jeff Jones), urged Letts to consider everything that happened to Kevin Michael Carey that brought him to court this that day.
Through school records, the testimony of two Bethel Middle School teachers, a description of the tragic circumstances of his client’s youth, and details of his relationship with Gregory, Bill Jones paints a picture of a chaotic young life, d a boy who never really had the chance to succeed.
When Carey enrolled in second grade at Bethel Elementary, he wasn’t in grade but progressing, Bill Jones said. At first, Carey missed between eight and 10 days of school a year, but that doubled in 2012-13 after her mother was charged and eventually sent to prison for drug trafficking.
“Kevin was already struggling,” he said, “and his mom turns hard to drugs. His dad worked until he died and it was hard to be available for Kevin. His schooling didn’t get any better.” never give it up.
After Carey failed to pass ninth grade, he dropped out of school, Bill Jones said. He went to stay with Gregory after his mother gave him a custody note, and whom Carey knew because he was friends with Gregory’s son.
“There was no economic or emotional stability, and that left Kevin ripe for the picking,” Bill Jones said, alleging Gregory had controlled Carey with money, sex and drugs since he was a young teenager.
Bill Jones cited information from associates of the two who said Gregory began a sexual relationship with Carey before he turned 15.
Because Carey did not testify about the relationship or the role Gregory played on the night of the murder, no charges could be brought against her, he added.
By Haywood County standards, Gregory is a wealthy woman who received a home worth $500,000, as well as more than $1 million from an elderly man whom she cared for until his death, said Bill Jones.
It was his home in Shadow Woods, a house commonly referred to as “the drug house”, where Carey lived, Bill Jones said. The house was frequented by the “who’s who” of drug activity in the county. You know the names.
Bill Jones said Carey had nothing of his own, no cellphone and no money. When Carey got a job, Gregory sabotaged it by insisting he go to Florida with her, he said.
He said his client told him about a young child of a drug addict who was only called MJ, whom he and Gregory were raising.
“Whenever he met with his client, Bill Jones said that Carey’s main concern was how MJ was doing. Indeed, his client saw his future as being a happy family with Gregory and MJ before May 4, 2020, did he declare.
A fateful night
Bill Jones recounted the events leading up to Brandon Carter’s murder, which differed only slightly from the case described by the prosecution, except that it included information about Gregory’s role that night.
All of them were high on methamphetamine, Bill Jones said, and it was Gregory who was convinced Carter was stealing from her and insisted he leave. She also ordered Carey to make sure he left, and when he pointed out where the decrepit motorbike was at the end of the road, it was Gregory who insisted they come back with a gun, said Bill Jones.
Gregory’s son told Carey not to shoot Carter, and Carey replied that he wouldn’t.
“Cindy gets in the truck and Kevin drives,” Bill Jones said. “The gun is on the seat between them. Before they even stop, Cindy is jumping up and screaming, screaming and swearing in Brandon’s face. Kevin walks up with the gun. He told me he panicked and didn’t even remember pulling the trigger. We do not deny guilt. We do not deny second degree murder.
Bill Jones said Gregory faces charges of trespassing and assaulting a government agent for what he called “terrorizing potential witnesses” in the murder case.
He urged the court to consider mitigating circumstances that brought an “uneducated and immature boy” to this point.
The testimony of teachers Sally and Ron Hundley, who both teach at Bethel Middle School, provided insight into Carey’s youth and character.
Sally Hundley said that despite all the students she taught before and after Carey, he was a rare person who she remembered well.
She was aware of his unstable home life, but even though he struggled in class, she said he was always willing to try and was never a problem. In fact, it was Carey who decorated her professor’s office and took an autistic classmate under her wing when others weren’t so nice.
“He’s always been good as gold to me,” she said. “He was a protector.
Ron Hundley taught Carey math in eighth grade and said he was a joy in class. He convinced him to try out for the golf team after seeing he needed some structure in the afternoons.
He got a glimpse into Carey’s family life when he discovered that Carey didn’t have the right kind of clothes to wear on a golf course or had no reliable way to get home after practice.
Ron Hundley provided the necessary clothing and waited with him, sometimes for several hours, until someone was available to pick him up as teachers are not allowed to transport students in personal vehicles and he was too far away so Carey can walk.
At the end of Hundley’s testimony, Carey confronted the victim’s family and apologized.
Bill Jones asked Letts to consider his client’s age, family situation, difficulties at school, and Carey’s much-improved family situation in life when handing down a sentence.
Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jones spoke of the grief that still surrounds Brandon Carter’s family and friends.
“I can’t adequately describe how much he misses his son,” he said of Carter’s mother. “She knows she will never see him again. Mr. Carey will have the opportunity one day to get out of prison and have direct contact with his family.
After reviewing the sentencing table, the district attorney made a sentencing request on Carter’s mother’s behalf that Carey was serving one year in prison for every year Brandon Carter lived – 24 years.
“I listened to Bill Jones’ mitigating factors, and he has a good case for (Carey) admitting wrongdoing and confessing at an early stage,” Jeff Jones said. “The facts of the shooting are clear and undisputed. … I think a second degree murder plea is a fair resolution.
Judge Letts, in accepting the plea of second degree murder, thanked everyone involved for the factual basis setting out the circumstances. He praised law enforcement for their excellent work, thanked the two attorneys for their efforts, and praised the Hundleys for their work as teachers and for their testimony.
“Your brief is one of the best I’ve seen in 22 years as a judge,” Letts told Bill Jones.
To Brandon Carter’s family, Letts said there were obviously things he could express that could ease their loss, but expressed hope that the lawsuit would bring some finality to the family. He told Carey that his apology was important and meaningful as a first step in taking responsibility for his actions.
“Unlike Brandon, you will have the opportunity to still do something with your life,” he said. “With this opportunity, don’t let this tragedy result in the loss of two lives. Consider how lucky you are to have family and friends. That means something.
Letts said that in the circumstances, he did not see that a mitigated sentence was warranted.
Under the state’s structured sentencing guidelines, Letts is sentenced to a minimum of 204 months (17 years) and a maximum of 257 months (21 years, five months) in prison, with credit given for time already purge.
Carey would not qualify for a work release, and Letts recommended mental health and substance abuse counseling, as well as any work or school training programs available to her.