Eric James Azotea, 46, of Johnson City, faces two counts of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse in the January 2015 deaths of Amber Terrell, 22, and Arthur Gibson Jr., 36, both of Kingsport.
The two disappeared in early January 2015, and their last known location was in the area of Azotea’s residence in the Pinecrest community of Carter County, police said.
A four-month investigation by law enforcement agencies in Sullivan County and Carter County ended with parts of the couple’s bodies being found in the crawl space of Azotea’s home, investigators have said.
The bodies were cut up and partially burned. Gibson’s vehicle was found prior to that along Gap Creek Road with the ignition busted so it could be hot wired.
Last week, attorneys and Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street spent three full days conducting sentencing qualification for a pool of more than 200 jurors.
Out of those called in, the parties pared it down to 60 who were sentence qualified, meaning they could consider and vote to impose the death penalty if the facts fit the requirements, but would reject that sentence if the state didn’t prove the aggravating factors required by law.
The case won’t even get to a sentencing phase unless the jury determines Azotea is guilty of the two first-degree murder charges.
A jury of 12 will make that decision, but the panel that will hear the case has 16 jurors in case anyone needs to be released during the trial for any reason.
After all the proof is presented and attorneys make their closing arguments, the panel will be whittled down to 12 by names being randomly chosen as alternates. Those jurors would be released from their service.
During the selection process Monday, defense attorney Gene Scott showed some of the substance of Azotea’s defense when he asked jurors to think about a few questions — “What would you do for a loved one?” he asked. “Would you lie for them, go to jail for them, die for them?”
He also asked the panel to consider the statement Azotea gave to investigators — and what Azotea demanded before giving that statement — as well as the circumstances under which it was given.
“He demands immunity for Kristen Jones,” Scott said. Jones is Azotea’s live-in girlfriend and mother of his daughter. Scott also asked jurors to consider how a person high on methamphetamine might act as opposed to their normal demeanor. After that agreement for immunity for Jones, Azotea gave police a statement.
He told TBI Special Agent Brian Fraley that he had known Gibson many years ago, but they had lost touch until recently when he began to buy meth from Gibson. According to the written account provided by Fraley, Azotea claimed he stabbed and killed both Gibson and Terrell on the front porch of his home.
When investigators determined Azotea’s account did not match details found at Azotea’s house during a search, Azotea gave a second statement. Fraley reminded Azotea that the guarantee of immunity for Jones was based on Azotea’s truthfulness.
Azotea then told him that when Gibson and Terrell came to his house Jan. 7, Terrell had a pistol. He said he took the pistol away from her at one point and shot her twice and Gibson once, killing both of them.
Fraley said Azotea confessed he used a Sawzall to partially dismember the bodies and burned them in a burn pit near his woodshed on the day of the shootings until Jones came home, and the next day he worked while Jones was at work, cutting and burning body parts.
After that, he said he buried the remains, which included Gibson’s head and Terrell’s torso, in the crawl space under his home. The remains were found and a forensic anthropological team from the University of Tennessee took over the investigation of the site to process bones and other evidence.
Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said 58 Carter County sheriff’s deputies were sworn in to take care of the jury during the trial. Officers must be with jurors at all times, except in their hotel rooms, to ensure they don’t encounter anything that would interfere with their ability to be unbiased during the trial.
Attorneys repeatedly told jurors throughout the process that Azotea is presumed innocent until evidence proves otherwise. He has been in custody since his arrest in April 2015. Azotea is represented by Scott, Dan Smith and Lesley Tiller. District Attorney General Tony Clark and Dennis Brooks will prosecute the case.
Go to @CampbellinCourt on Twitter to follow the trial as it unfolds.