First Posted: 1/15/2009
ELIZABETHTOWN - John Franklin Hester's parents say it appeared their son was turning his life around.
Sober for seven weeks, Hester had one more week to go before he was to regain custody of his 7-year-old son. He had recently been hired as a welder for B&K Construction in Riegelwood.
But authorities say Hester, who had a criminal history of minor thefts, turned into a killer on Friday. The 27-year-old Bladenboro man is suspected of a day-long rampage that spanned two counties and included two murders, a vicious assault and a failed armed robbery at an Allenton store.
“I never dreamed this would happen,” Hester's father, Harold, said following his son's first appearance in court Monday morning at the Bladen County Courthouse. “Something just snapped. On Sunday, he told me ‘I don't remember anything. I don't know why they're holding me here. I didn't do anything.'”
The judge told John Hester on Monday that he was charged with first-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill inflicting serious injury. A probable cause hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2.
John Hester, who was wearing a jail-issued orange jumpsuit, stood with his head down, looking up occasionally to glance at his family. His voice was barely audible when he was asked to confirm his signature on a deposition. His mother Annis cried as he was escorted from the courtroom following the 10-minute hearing.
Annis Hester maintains that her son is innocent. She describes him as a gentle child who would run away from fights. She said he does have his problems. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and he went to prison for 17 months for thefts related to his alcohol and drug problems.
But, she said, he would never kill anyone.
“I just don't believe he was in this,” Annis Hester said. “There are just a lot of ifs in this situation.”
His sister-in-law, Donyelle Hester, agrees.
“You could go to just about anyone in Bladenboro and they would tell you he couldn't have done this,” Donyelle Hester said. “They'll tell you he would do anything to help you.”
But authorities describe a different John Hester. They say Hester's day of violence began early Friday morning when he stopped by the home of 70-year-old Robert Hughes of Bladenboro. Police say the two men were acquaintances.
When a fight erupted between the two men, Hester slit Hughes' throat and stabbed him at least once near the heart, lawmen say. Wade Kelly, Hughes' grandson, was at the home, came to his grandfather's aid and also suffered a slashed throat, Bladenboro Police Chief Ron Rising said. He would lead authorities to Hester.
Kelly will recover, but Hughes' death becomes the first homicide the six-person Police Department has investigated since 2003.
Two hours later, Hester used a stolen green Dodge truck to cross into Robeson County where he tried to rob the Antioch Grocery & Grill at 4840 Old Whiteville Road, authorities say. That effort was thwarted when the store clerk pulled a gun on Hester, lawmen say.
By this time, a massive manhunt for Hester had been launched in Bladen and Robeson counties. The search would go on some nine hours, until Hester was spotted driving the stolen truck near N.C. 211 in Lumberton.
Nearby, Robeson County deputies were already investigating the death of Charles Jackson, a retired pastor who was found dead inside his Allenton community home at 2570 Singletary Church Road. Someone had slashed the elderly man's throat and items were missing from his home, Robeson County Sheriff Kenneth Sealey said.
Hester apparently ditched the stolen vehicle on the side of the road, not far from the Bladen County line, and ran into the woods. Police officers and their dogs followed, tracking Hester for about a mile to a mobile home. He was found hiding underneath it.
Rising said John Hester did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of his arrest. No weapon was found on Hester, authorities say.
Authorities expect to charge Hester with Jackson's murder.