APPOMATTOX, Va. (AP) — A man who shot and killed eight people, including his sister and her family, at his central Virginia home in 2010 was sentenced Friday to five life terms after relatives of his victims, weeping and angry, branded him a monster and a coward.
Christopher Speight, 42, pleaded guilty to three counts of capital murder, one count of attempted capital murder of a police officer and five firearms counts.
After the nearly two-hour hearing, Commonwealth's Attorney Darrel Puckett said mental health experts for both the defense and the state had found Speight insane at the time of the January 2010 shooting spree, "rendering a death sentence highly unlikely" had the case gone to trial.
The former security guard was arrested after an overnight manhunt near the Appomattox home he shared with his sister, her husband and their two children, ages 15 and 4. Those family members, two neighbors, their teenage daughter and a teenage boy were killed in the shootings.
According to a statement of facts Puckett read during the hearing, Speight told investigators that an Egyptian goddess named Jennifer told him to shoot his family because they were possessed by demons. The others were ambushed from Speight's perch in a tree house after they came to the house. Speight told investigators that Jennifer ordered them shot so they couldn't help the first victims, whose bodies needed to rot, according to the statement.
Family members of the victims expressed no pity, but plenty of doubt, over Speight's mental condition.
Speight, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and shackled at the ankles and wrists, sat with eyes cast downward as four relatives of the victims testified about how the murders affected them and their families.
"Christopher Speight, you look at me!" demanded a tearful Kim Scruggs, whose 16-year-old son Bo was among the victims. "You were a coward up there that day when you shot my son in the back, running for his life."
After a long pause to gather her composure, she added, "May God have mercy on your soul."
Meghan Durrette's mother, stepfather and 15-year-old sister also were killed.
"How could someone commit such a heinous crime? I've asked myself that question for three years, and all I could come up with is monster," she said as she cried. "You are a monster. I hope you rot in hell."
Durrette's uncle, Steve Canard of Lynchburg, brought pictures of his sister, her husband and niece, who also was killed, into court. He told the Associated Press that he wanted to "make sure he remembers the faces of the people he killed."
In court, he told Speight: "You knew exactly what you were doing. There is no Egyptian goddess Jennifer, there are no demons."
Sarah Dobyns, whose step-granddaughter was killed, was equally skeptical.
"You fooled a panel of experts into thinking you were possessed, and the commonwealth's attorney took away the death penalty because you confessed," she said, reading a poem she wrote as her victim impact statement.
"For now you have escaped that death squad, but one day, Christopher Speight, you will have to stand before God," she said. "God is not so easily fooled."
Canard said in an interview that he was satisfied with Speight's sentences.
"The death penalty would be too easy for him," he said."
Speight offered brief answers to a series of questions from Circuit Judge Joel C. Cunningham and declined the opportunity to address the court before sentencing. Cunningham told Speight that his "horrific, cold, callous actions" robbed several families of the enjoyment and companionship of their loved ones.
"There is nothing you could have said, Mr. Speight — nothing anybody could say — that will take away the pain and trauma they are feeling and no doubt will feel for some time to come," Cunningham said.
Speight surrendered at daybreak Jan. 20 after the manhunt in the woods surrounding his home. He was unarmed and wearing a bulletproof vest. Appomattox is about 90 miles west of Richmond.
According to court records, investigators later seized 42 homemade explosive devices and fuses, multiple rounds of ammunition, several assault rifles and a 9mm pistol from Speight's home. The handgun, a rifle and three assault rifles were introduced into evidence along with dozens of crime scene photos, which Cunningham ordered sealed.
Family members and others who knew Speight said at the time of the shootings that he had a history of mental problems and had been obsessed with the mistaken notion that his sister, Lauralee Sipe, was plotting to kick him out of the house on 34 acres that they inherited after their mother's death in 2006.
Five months after the shootings, a judge sent Speight to a state mental hospital for treatment after a psychologist found the defendant was too mentally ill to assist his lawyers or stand trial. The case remained on hold for the next couple of years as attorneys dealt with pretrial motions and awaited additional mental evaluations.
The shooting victims included Speight's sister and her husband, Dwayne Sipe, both 38, and their 4-year-old son Joshua. Also killed were Morgan Dobyns, Lauralee Sipe's 15-year-old daughter from a previous marriage; Morgan's friend Emily Quarles, 15; Emily's boyfriend Scruggs, and her parents, Karen and Jonathan Quarles, both 43.
Speight also was charged with firing at a state police helicopter, forcing the pilot to make an emergency landing.