The husband, the wife and the hitman... who wouldn't
It sounds like the plotline of a Lifetime television drama. A young married couple's relationship hits the rocks, they split up bitterly, the husband hires a hitman to kill his former beloved. Don't check your TV Guide just yet, and put that popcorn away; it's the story of Patrick S. Shemorry, a Charlottesville realtor who–- to the shock of those who knew him–- pleaded guilty to murder-for-hire on September 22 in federal court.
"He was personable, charming, witty," says Ellen Pratt, who worked with Shemorry at Keller Williams Realty, where the 28-year-old Shemorry was employed for a year in 2008.
"I can't make it fit with the Patrick I knew," says Pratt, recalling a workplace sense of humor that once led Shemorry to enter his fluffy cat into an office "cutest dog" competition.
Indeed, Shemorry–- with his round, bearded face, dark brown hair, and glasses–- looks more scholar than villain. His Facebook page is peppered with seemingly happy pictures of him and his wife, the woman he now acknowledges he wanted to die.
His wife, Starla Knight, appears with him on Facebook, smiling and hugging. Among the latest images of the seemingly happy couple, a February snapshot of the pair apparently sitting atop Humpback Rocks, the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway destination. In March, a jubilant post on Shemorry's Facebook homepage (which seems to have been shared by Knight), suggest someone in love.
March 11 at 11:59am: "...is getting Starla something to eat. He'll be back soon."
And two hours later, "...just posted pics of Starla playing Rambo. She's crazy!... and that's why I love her."
But according to the complaint filed in federal court, by the time of those posts, the relationship was less than three months away from its TV movie-esque climax.
During the Tuesday hearing at which Shemorry pleaded guilty to one count of murder-for-hire, details of his life leading up to the crime emerged.
In March, according to the courtroom testimony, Shemorry and his wife traveled to New Orleans. It was a vacation, but also a chance for the couple to investigate the possibility of moving down to the Big Easy. While there, Shemorry and Knight met a new friend whom they invited back to Charlottesville. The new friend, known only as Witness One in the criminal complaint, accepted the invitation, but the couple's problems were brewing.
By April, the marital relationship had soured to the point that Shemorry asked his wife to move out– a decision that stunned some of their friends.
"They were happy, then suddenly, they were getting a divorce," says Kristy Hearns, who was a neighbor on the seventh floor of the high rise condo at 1800 Jefferson Park Avenue. Hearns and her boyfriend, Tony Dixie, say they never understood how Shemorry and Knight met Witness One– or why he came back to live with them. (According to testimony from FBI agent John Pittman, the three met when Shemorry and Knight sought drugs in New Orleans.)
Despite their confusion about Witness One, Hearns says she and Dixie "clicked" with their down-the-hall neighbors Shemorry and Knight. The two couples socialized on several occasions following the return from New Orleans, listening to music and having drinks in Shemorry and Knight's condo.
After the couple's abrupt separation, Knight returned to New Orleans while Witness One stayed in Charlottesville with Shemorry, who, Agent Pittman testified, began repeating an unusual request: He wanted his wife dead, and he wanted Witness One to kill her.
Such a deed would come with a price tag, of course, and Shemorry, who was no longer with Keller Williams, may not have had large bundles of cash to dole out. In fact, in May–- about the time the government alleges he was actively plotting a murder–- Pratt says Shemorry called her for career advice and talked of having difficulty finding work.
Even without a job, according to the complaint, Shemorry had several ideas for compensating Witness One: in addition to $1,200 to cover travel expenses and murder materials, he'd also temporarily hand over the keys to the two-bedroom, Jefferson Park Avenue condo, which the couple had purchased two years earlier for $167,000 and which Shemorry planned to sell. Finally, he'd help Witness One generate ongoing cash flow by providing "large amounts" of cocaine and marijuana to sell.
While the offer may have been as generous as Shemorry could afford, he was getting a bargain compared to what other notorious husbands have paid to have their wives killed. An Illinois court heard an assertion in May that Drew Peterson, the former police officer suspected in the deaths of his third and fourth wives, solicited a hitman for $25,000 prior to his third wife's death in 2004. In late August, a Lake City, Florida man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for offering $60,000 to an undercover policeman posing as a hitman.
While information about American contract killings are hard to find, an Australian study looked at 162 such cases and found the most common reason was the "dissolution of an intimate relationship." According to a CNN.com article on that study, payments received by a hitman ranged from $380 to $76,000, with an average of $12,700.
Despite Shemorry's more modest offer, Witness One agreed to the terms–- but concealed a key term of his own: He didn't actually intend to follow through with the crime. Instead, he made a recording of a chilling conversation with Shemorry, played in court.
"Kill her," Shemorry repeats repeatedly, as blues rock plays in the background. "This is war," he adds ominously. "She's a casualty."
Armed with the damning tape, Witness One traveled to New Orleans where he played the recording for a stunned Starla Knight, according to Agent Pittman's testimony. Then he returned to Charlottesville and shared the tape with the FBI, whose agents soon had him wired for a second taped conversation–- this time with both audio and video.
The grainy black and white motion pictures–- shot outside the house of Shemorry's new girlfriend on May 26–- clinched the case against Shemorry, who expresses no remorse as Witness One follows through on a ruse.
Witness One alleges that he did the deed.
"One pop, one pop," Witness One tells Shemorry.
"Where'd you put her remains?" Shemorry asks.
"The lake," answers Witness One. "Tied her up with some chains I bought for the [unintelligible], put some cinder blocks in there, walked out to a little piece of water, and put her out there. That b__ch dropped so easy, man, my stomach dropped."
After sharing his bogus tale of "success," Witness One engaged Shemorry in a discussion about expanding their drug operation. Shemorry promised on tape the pair would go to Richmond that night to pick up 10 pounds of marijuana– and Witness One even asked Shemorry if he had second thoughts about killing his wife.
"She disgraced everything," Shemorry replies. "She disgraced herself, family, me, you... She wrecks people."
Later on in the conversation, Shemorry can be heard telling Witness One, "We did what we had to do."
Dressed in the striped uniform of the Central Virginia Regional Jail in Orange, where he has been held since his June 23 arrest, a shackled Shemorry–- noticeably thinner and with neatly trimmed hair and beard–- spoke softly as he entered his guilty plea and stared down at his lap as the grim recordings played to the sparsely occupied courtroom downtown.
His attorney, U.S. Public Defender Andrea Harris tried to poke a few holes in character of the prosecution's star witness. During a brief cross examination of FBI agent Pittman, Harris focused mostly on Witness One–- a heavy user of alcohol and drugs, Pittman admitted, who had consumed a bottle of vodka and four or five shots of Jack Daniels during the time the secret videotape was shot.
Harris also revealed that Witness One, known to several of Shemorry's acquaintances as "Darius Hampton," had assumed the identity of a cousin and is in custody relating to charges in Virginia and another state. And she shed some additional light on how Shemorry and Knight first befriended Witness One in New Orleans: he'd allegedly first gained their sympathy by telling them his fiancee and two children had been murdered. Agent Pittman testified that the story wasn't true.
Shemorry's neighbor Hearns says she'd heard the same story, and believes that Shemorry had almost "adopted" Witness One.
"Patrick was taking care of him like he was his child," says Hearns, who says even with the guilty plea and the taped confessions, she's having a hard believing what's happened.
"The Patrick I know wouldn't do anything like this," she says.
The terms of the plea allow Shemorry to avoid a second charge of solicitation to commit a crime of violence and call for a prison term of between nine and 10 years. That's about the same sentence handed down in Albemarle Circuit Court to another local would-be wife killer.
Kurt Kroboth, a former Charlottesville financier infamously donned a terrifying Halloween mask in the wee hours of November 1, 2004 and attempted to kill his soon-to-be ex-wife Jane–- first by staging a suicide for her–- complete with medical chloroform. When that failed, he attempted to throw her over a second-story railing in their spacious former home.
Jane Kroboth, however, successfully fought him off, and her husband eventually pleaded guilty to two felonies–- attempted murder and breaking and entering with intent to commit murder while armed with a dangerous weapon. Sentenced to 45 years with 35 suspended, Kroboth is eligible for release in late 2014.
Shemorry's sentencing is scheduled for December 9 at 11:00am.
–last updated 6:23pm, Tuesday, September 22