Trial set for 4 accused in murder of local man

By Abby Morris
STAR STAFF
amorris@starhq.com

  
An Elizabethton woman and three others charged in the March 2001 death of 23-year-old James Aaron Cornett made an appearance in Criminal Court Wednesday. Trial dates for the four, reindicted March 4, 2002 in the incident, have been set for February 24-25.
   Natasha Michaela Bowers, 194 Roy Bowers Road, was charged with second-degree murder in the case. Johnny Williams, 1025 Bluefield Ave., Heather Kropp, 879 Blue Springs Road, and Kathy Benfield, 879 Blue Springs Road, were all charged as accessories after the fact of criminally negligent homicide.
   According to indictments, Williams, Kropp and Benfield failed to provide aid to Cornett and, by giving false statements, afforded Bowers the means to avoid arrest and prosecution.
   According to police reports, around 5:30 a.m., March 21, 2001, deputies responded to the home of Benfield regarding a possible overdose.
   At that time, Kropp told officers that Cornett had called her the previous evening and asked her to pick him up around 9:30 p.m. She then said that they went to Benfield's (her mother's) residence, where Cornett had a six-pack of beer.
   Kropp then told officers that the group started to go to the bedroom to watch television around 12:30 a.m. and Cornett passed out in the hallway. She said they placed him bed and watched over him until he stopped breathing and then called 911. Cornett was taken to Sycamore Shoals Hospital and placed on a respirator. He died later that day.
   While giving statements to CCSD Investigator Audrey Covington, all four of those charged stated that Cornett had been drinking but that they did not know what caused him to pass out.
   An autopsy was ordered at that time. The autopsy was completed in January by Dr. Gretel Harlan of Quillen College of Medicine, who determined that Cornett's death resulted from respiratory suppression due to toxic levels of oxycodone, a form of OxyContin.
   According to reports, Covington then brought all four of the witnesses in for questioning and each told her they had lied in March 2001 and advised her that Bowers sold Cornett two oxycodone tablets after which, Bowers, Williams, Kropp and Cornett went into the bathroom and ingested the drug.
   Covington told the Elizabethton Star in March of this year that after receipt of the final report from the autopsy, Sheriff John Henson instructed investigators to talk to each individual again and try to gain 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 at that time.
   Kropp, Benfield and Williams were all arrested in March of this year and released on $10,000 bond. Bowers was also arrested in March and is being held on $100,000 bond.