“I’ve come to terms with it,” said Anita Vestal, who masterminded an escape plot for inmate Jeffrey Miles. “I’m ready for it to be over.”
Vestal has been out on bond while awaiting her trial, living with her four children between the ages of 9 and 14 and a steady boyfriend.
But she faces a likely lengthy prison sentence to pay for her baffling and fateful decision to free a murder suspect and run off with him.
“I knew this was coming,” said Vestal, 37. “I just tried to live life.”
Now Vestal, who is part Cherokee, will spend one last Thanksgiving with her large extended family before the trial’s conclusion next week. Vestal said she would probably make her usual dish — banana pudding — for the annual family gathering.
The only real question remaining for Vestal is how many years she will serve.
SEE ALSO: The how-to of a jail break
The various charges against Vestal carry an average sentence of 18 to 22 years under the state’s mandatory sentencing guidelines. But that’s just an average.
It could be less if Vestal’s attorney convinces the judge to go light, citing Vestal’s relatively clean record otherwise and her lack of violent criminal history, or by claiming that Miles manipulated Vestal.
But her sentence could also be much, much more. Prosecutors will try to convince the judge to take a harder line based on aggravating circumstances, like the obvious premeditation that went into the escape, or Vestal’s presumed knowledge that Miles was a dangerous man and posed a risk to society if he was let out.
The jury — five women and seven men, including a mix of white and Cherokee — appear to range in age from their late 20s to 70s.
They will hear closing arguments in the case Monday (Dec. 2) and then go into deliberations.
Open and shut case
Vestal doesn’t dispute that she helped Miles escape. In fact, Vestal’s attorney, Chris Siewers, didn’t put on a shred of evidence or call a single witness in Vestal’s defense.
Assistant District Attorneys Jim Moore and Ashley Welch, the prosecutors who are trying the case in tandem, produced testimony and witnesses who took six days to present their information.
But when they finished, Siewers simply announced that the defense would rest without presenting a case of its own.
Siewers likely concluded there would be little point, given the trail of hard evidence documenting the escape plan hatched and executed by Vestal.
Although some of the moveable cameras in the jail had been craftily repositioned before the escape, a play-by-play was nonetheless captured on video by fixed cameras.
It would be futile to deny Vestal had taken the reins of the control room during the escape. Other jailers testified how Vestal told the control-room operator on shift that day to take a break while she covered for him. And how she then walked off her own shift to allegedly go on an errand.
Miles’ orange striped jumpsuit, along with an undershirt and boxer shorts labeled with his name, were found under the seat of Vestal’s van at her apartment. The two had swapped the van for a truck before fleeing across the country.
And the jail keys that Vestal had slipped to Miles so he could open the doors were still in the pair’s possession when they were eventually captured, holed up in a California hotel room together three weeks later.
The fact that they were still together when captured was pretty damning in itself.
But for good measure, a handwritten note from Vestal referring to the escape plans and professing romantic feelings for Miles was found in the trashcan of his jail pod, ripped into just three or four pieces, easy for investigators to reconstruct.
“Nobody is going to get in the way of our future,” Vestal wrote in the note, adding she couldn’t wait until she and Miles could finally talk freely come Saturday, the day the escape went down.
The trail of evidence was impossible to dispute, so Vestal’s attorney didn’t even try.
When it comes to the escape charges, Vestal “is going to be convicted and sentenced on that,” Siewers conceded in court.
He is her third court-appointed attorney. The first one resigned from the case, as did the second, although that is not entirely unusual for a case that drags on for so long.
Accessory after the fact?
Vestal faces a host of charges related to the escape: harboring an escapee, aiding and abetting an escapee, conveying messages and instruments of escape to an inmate, and obstruction of justice.
But the more serious charges levied against Vestal are “accessory after the fact” for all the crimes that landed Miles in jail in the first place. Vestal faces two charges of accessory to murder, one charge of accessory to attempted murder, and two counts of accessory to armed robbery.
Those are the charges that would rack up substantial prison time for Vestal. The escape-related charges would carry only four to five years on average, but all the accessory charges would carry another 14 to 18 on average.
Siewers argued that the accessory charges were not appropriate. His strategy: concede the escape but fight the accessory charges.
That didn’t require evidence of its own, but will come down to a legal argument with the jury: did the prosecution meet the criteria to prove accessory after the fact?
Helping someone who committed a crime — be it financial support, concealing evidence or evading capture — isn’t the sole test. The lynchpin is whether Vestal in fact knew what Miles did.
The prosecutors argued that Vestal had to know.
“It was common knowledge,” said Assistant District Attorney Ashley Welch. As a jailer, Vestal clearly knew the charges against him. And in a small community like Swain County, everyone pretty much knew.
“Knowledge can be inferred from the different circumstances involved,” Assistant District Attorney Jim Moore added.
Siewers countered that just because Miles had been charged with murder didn’t mean Vestal knew it to be true, since people are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
“To say that she ‘could have’ known is not enough. The only thing that matters is what she knew,” Siewers said. “There is no evidence that she knew any of that.”
Welch then cited the interrogation conducted by a police detective in California when Vestal was captured there.
The detective asked Vestal, “So you knew that Miles had killed those two guys?” To which Vestal answered, “Yes.”
“She didn’t say, ‘No he’s innocent, that’s why I broke him out.’ She doesn’t say, ‘No he didn’t do this. I love him.’ Her response was, ‘Yes.’ That response says it all,” Welch said.
The original crime
The jury in a Swain County jailbreak case has had a tough two weeks.
While the trial will ultimately determine the fate of former jailer Anita Vestal for springing an inmate from custody, jurors were forced to relive the execution-style murders and violent robbery that landed Jeffrey Miles in jail in the first place.
Prosecutors spent nearly four days walking jurors through the invasion of Scott Wiggins’ and Heath Compton’s rural home along an isolated country road, including bloody crime scene and gruesome autopsy photos.
Miles was one of six charged in their murders, but is believed to be the ringleader of the posse and the ultimate triggerman.
A string of ill-fated coincidences led Miles from Atlanta to Bryson City and eventually to Wiggins’ and Compton’s doorstep back in August 2008.
After a night of doing drugs in their hometown of Atlanta, Miles and a friend — along with two female companions — set out on a road trip to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort. A two-day partying binge ensued, but the drugs and money began to run out.
Miles and his friend ventured out to search for more, leading to a chance encounter in the parking lot of a Super Walmart in nearby Sylva with two local boys. The locals returned to the casino with Miles, and in the midst of more drugs and partying, they concocted plans for a home invasion. The two local boys suggested Wiggins and Compton — whom they knew as drug dealers and thus likely to have cash lying around — as potential marks.
The foursome from Atlanta and the two local boys piled into a single vehicle and set out on the robbery.
Mayhem ensued once they invaded the home, however. They shot Wiggins and Compton execution style, ransacked their home for valuables, overturned furniture and emptied the contents of cabinets, doused everything in kerosene, and set it on fire before fleeing the scene. The fire never caught, however.
A third victim, Timothy Waldroup, had wandered up to Wiggins’ house in the midst of the robbery, hoping to score drugs from them. Waldroup was caught up in the murderous melee. He was ordered into a bathtub and shot, but he didn’t die. He stumbled out, crashing into a giant aquarium in the living room and leaving a bloody trail on the walls and furniture before collapsing in a ditch by the roadside where he was found alive but unconscious in the morning.
The loot the Atlanta crew made off with included an arsenal of guns, lots of cash and a pet Chihuahua — all of which were found in their possession when they were arrested in Atlanta days later.
All six — Miles’ crew of four from Atlanta plus the two local boys — were charged in the murders and robbery. Their fate:
• Miles and the other man from Atlanta pled guilty and are serving consecutive life sentences.
• One of the women from Atlanta committed suicide in jail before going to trial.
• The other woman from Atlanta pled not guilty and went to trial, but was convicted and sentenced to life in prison despite claims that she never went into the home and didn’t know what was transpiring inside.
• The two local boys, Mark Goolsby and Dean Mangold, who participated in the invasion initially but fled on foot when things started to get ugly, got lesser sentences.