Elizabethton woman, three others charged in drug death

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF
khughes@starhq.com

   An Elizabethton woman has been charged with second-degree murder in last year's drug-related death of 23-year-old James Aaron Cornett of Elizabethton. Three others have been charged as accessories, Carter County Sheriff John Henson said Wednesday.
   Around 5:30 a.m. March 21, deputies responded to the home of Kathy Benfield, 45, 879 Blue Springs Road, regarding a possible overdose. When officers arrived, Carter County Rescue Squad members were performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Cornett, who was unresponsive.
   Heather Kropp, 22, same address, told officers that Cornett had called her the previous evening and asked her to pick him up around 9:30 p.m. Kropp said they went to her mother's residence at 879 Blue Springs Road, where Cornett had a six-pack of beer. She said they started to the bedroom to watch television around 12:30 a.m. and Cornett passed out in the hallway. Kropp said they put him in the bed, where he began to snore loudly and turned gray. They watched over him until he stopped breathing and then called 911 around 5:25 a.m. Cornett was taken to Sycamore Shoals Hospital where he was put on a respirator.
   Deputies gathered information from witnesses at the scene, including Natasha Bowers, 22, 194 Roy Bowers Road, who has been charged with second-degree murder; and Johnny Williams, 23, 1025 Bluefield Ave.; Kropp and Benfield, all of whom have been charged with accessory after the fact.
   Later on the morning of March 21, Investigator Audrey Covington called the witnesses in for questioning. All advised that Cornett had been drinking but said they were unaware of what caused him to collapse.
   While statements were being taken, the sheriff's department was notified that Cornett had died, and an autopsy was ordered. Several months later, Dr. Gretel Harlan of Quillen College of Medicine told investigators that preliminary autopsy results showed Cornett had oxycodone in his system but said she still did not know the cause of death.
   In January 2002, Dr. Harlan completed the autopsy and notified the sheriff's department that Cornett's death resulted from respiratory suppression due to toxic levels of oxycodone, a form of OxyContin used to manage moderate to severe pain.
   Investigator Covington then brought all witnesses back in for questioning. Each told the officer they had lied in March 2001 and advised that Bowers sold Cornett two oxycodone tablets after which Bowers, Williams, Kropp and Cornett went into the bathroom and injected the drug.
   According to Investigator Covington, Bowers injected Cornett twice with a needle filled with oxycodone. Cornett collapsed after the second shot and was taken to a bedroom and watched over until he quit breathing.
   Covington presented case information Monday to the Carter County Grand Jury, which returned true bills charging Bowers with second-degree murder, and Williams, Kropp and Benfield each with accessory after the fact.
   Kropp was arrested Tuesday and was released Wednesday on $10,000 bond. Benfield and Williams were arrested Wednesday and later released on $10,000 bond each. Bowers, who also was arrested Wednesday, is being held on $100,000 bond. All four are set to appear March 18 in Criminal Court.
   Covington said the arrests were the result of a year-long investigation. "Everybody in the investigation staff was involved. The only thing we were waiting on was the autopsy report," she said.
   After receipt of the final report, Covington said the sheriff instructed investigators to talk to each individual again to try to get more information. "That's when I went and brought everybody in and was able to get confessions off of all four of them," she said.
   "That's how we work in investigations. If it takes awhile, then it takes awhile. We still work hard on it and once we get solid evidence, like the autopsy report in our hands, we go straight for it."
   Sheriff Henson said, "I would like to thank my investigators for the tremendous work that they put in this case. They did an outstanding job and I'm proud of them.
   "Hopefully, this will send a message to people out here doing drugs and dealing in drugs: If we can prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person has aided in selling or giving a person drugs, and they overdose on these drugs and die from it, they can be charged and will be charged.
   "We're not going to let people get by with murder if there's any way we can prosecute them. And we will prosecute to the fullest extent." Henson said Williams, Kropp and Benfield delayed in seeking medical help for Cornett, resulting in them being charged with accessory, the sheriff said.
   Bowers also has been charged with aggravated burglary and theft over $500, according to Sgt. George Skeans.
   "She, along with her brother, broke into a trailer on Highway 91 and some firearms were taken." They were later recovered, Skeans said.
   He subsequently took Charles Bowers to court. "He was trying to take responsibility for all of it, but my witnesses gave me depositions and statements that she had made to them about the theft of the firearms, so I went ahead and took it to the grand jury (on Monday) and got a true bill, and that was presented to her also."
   Natasha Bowers and two accomplices previously were charged with breaking into the home of the family of Criminal Court Judge Lynn Brown and taking computer equipment and other items.