Three people present during a July shooting homicide testified during a preliminary hearing in Sessions Court on Wednesday that the man who allegedly pulled the trigger threatened them if they told anyone.
The three testified they lied to police initially because they were afraid of Justin A. “Puff” Stratton, 30, of Johnson City, who is charged with first-degree murder. Two of the three said they saw Stratton shoot Gary Couch in July on Quarry Road.
“Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” was the way Anthony Phillips described what he heard when he saw Stratton push Couch down, stand over him and start shooting with a handgun. When they got back into the reported stolen vehicle Stratton was driving, Phillips said he was threatened.
“He said, ‘That’s my third. Don’t be my fourth,’ ” Phillips testified.
Couch was killed after he met Ginger Holtsclaw and Ashley Harold for the first time at Numan’s on East Main Street, and then asked them to drive him to his Greene County home. Instead, Holtsclaw testified, she followed orders from Stratton as they talked on the phone and drove to Quarry Road.
The evening started with Stratton, Phillips, Holtsclaw and Harold going to Numan’s together. The guys went in first, but didn’t stay long because Stratton encountered a man he’d had problems with in the past.
Phillips said he followed Stratton out the back door, but was warned off because Stratton said he was angry and didn’t want to get into a fight with his friend.
A short time later, Phillips said a white SUV stopped in the area and Stratton was driving. The two spent an undetermined amount of time driving around town and drinking, Phillips said.
While all that was going on, Holtsclaw and Harold were inside Numan’s. Harold testified that a guy she’d never met before, Couch, approached her and they began talking. He asked Harold and Holtsclaw for a ride home. The trio left, stopping for gas at the Sunoco on South Roan Street.
Stratton and Phillips ended up at the car wash business next door, but Phillips said he was under the impression Stratton was going to buy some “roxy 30s” from a guy.
Holtsclaw testified that she was on the phone with Stratton while she, Harold and Couch were at the Sunoco and was told to go to Quarry Road.
Some of the testimony from Holtsclaw, Harold and Phillips had minor contradictions and they couldn’t remember some details, but all three testified they had been drinking most of the day and the women, at least, were very intoxicated.
When Holtsclaw turned from South Roan Street onto Quarry Road, she said Stratton’s SUV was “right on my back bumper.” When he flashed his headlights, she stopped, she said. Holtsclaw testified Stratton and Phillips got out of the SUV and approached her car. She said she didn’t hear any gunshots, but pulled away as soon as Couch got out of the car.
Harold’s account was that when the vehicle stopped, she heard Stratton yelling for Couch, sitting behind the driver’s seat, to get out of the car, and when he did she looked back and saw a gun.
“I seen him shoot Gary when he stepped out of my car. I seen the fire come out of the gun and I told Ginger to go,” Harold testified.
Phillips testified that when the vehicles stopped, Stratton walked to the car and Couch got out. “I thought they was talking and (Couch) threw his hands up and then I heard pow pow,” Phillips said. He also testified he heard Couch ask Stratton why he was shooting him.
After the shooting, the four ended up back at Stratton’s mother’s apartment on Bell Ridge Road. All three testified Stratton threatened them, saying he knew where their children went to school, where they lived and where their families lived.
They spent the next two nights at a local motel before Holtsclaw, Harold and Stratton were picked up for questioning by police. The girls were released, but Stratton was held on unrelated charges.
It wasn’t until Phillips was sure Stratton was in jail that he would tell police what he saw, he testified.
After Phillips testified Wednesday, he held his hands out, shrugged and said, “Sorry bro, I’m telling the truth,” to Stratton. Stratton, sitting handcuffed between his public defender attorneys, gave Phillips two thumbs up.
Washington County Sessions Judge James Nidiffer bound the first-degree murder case and two counts of auto theft over to a grand jury.
In an unrelated case, Stratton waived charges of forgery and identity theft to the grand jury. In that case, Stratton is accused of stealing a woman’s checks and writing them on her account. Stratton remains jailed on a $181,000 bond.