During a pre-trial hearing Friday, Feb. 11, a GBI agent described how Ben Thomas Abbott confessed to the killing of his in-laws the previous Wednesday, hoping to collect on their life insurance policies and keep his family from losing their home.
During the emotional hearing, Abbott’s wife described the night her parents were killed as her husband, shackled and dressed in orange prison fatigues, sat at the defense table with his chin tucked tightly to his chest, not making eye contact with anyone during the hour-long hearing in the county’s main courtroom.
The hearing, which saw onlookers sobbing and leaving the courtroom, was held in front of Magistrate Judge Allen Wigington to determine if there was adequate evidence for the case to be bound over to superior court, which it was judged to be. The next step will be for the case to be presented to a grand jury.
During the course of the hearing, District Attorney Joe Hendricks only called two witnesses: GBI Special Agent Dustin Hamby and the accused’s wife, Trinity Abbott. Through their testimony, the state built a detailed view of events before and after the killings of Raymond and Cythina Campbell at their home on Long Swamp Church Road on Wednesday, Feb. 9.
Public Defender Richard Thurman presented no counter-evidence and challenged no statement made by either witness. His cross examination of the GBI agent focused on when Abbott was read his rights in relation to when he confessed according to the GBI agent’s testimony.
GBI Special Agent Dustin Hamby told the court that after delivering the death notification, deputies asked Trinity and Ben Abbott if they could come to the Pickens Criminal Investigation Division office to help investigators develop a “victimology.” Hamby said this would be a list of who the middle-aged couple associated with or any information that might aid an investigation.
Unlike many home invasion cases where a tie to criminal elements is often established quickly, Sheriff Donnie Craig said during the early phases of this investigation “the Campbells appeared to be solid middle class, Christian folks preparing for retirement.”
In an earlier Progress interview, Sheriff Donnie Craig said law enforcement had not considered Abbott, 32, of Ellijay, a suspect at the time they requested the next-of-kin interview.
In his testimony, Hamby told the court that during the next-of-kin interviews with the Abbotts, Trinity Abbott told how her husband had left the house the night her parents were killed around midnight and returned home about an hour later.
In a separate interview, Abbott told investigators he had been home all evening following a parent/teacher meeting at Grace Christian School in Ellijay where some of the Abbott’s four children attended and his father-in-law had served on the board.
Hamby said they went back to ask Abbott about him not revealing the late night trip. “Ben did not disclose he had left the house. We knew people get flustered, and there could be a reasonable explanation,” Hamby said.
The GBI Special Agent said that at first Abbott said he went to Walmart, but then he confessed. “‘I did it,’ he said,” according to Hamby’s testimony.
Hamby, the lead investigator, said Abbott went on to provide full details and when asked, he demonstrated how he stood when he fired the shots.
Hamby said Abbott told investigators he had used his own single-shot 12-gauge shotgun, loaded with buckshot. He said he wore a sweatshirt with a hood and used a key to enter the house, firing into the darkened bedroom at his in-laws.
According to the GBI agent’s testimony, Abbott, who sold insurance, was aware his father-in-law had taken out a life insurance policy several years ago. Abbott and his family were facing eviction from their home and needed the money, according to what Abbott told Hamby.
Abbott told investigators he thought the life insurance payment would be enough to save the home. Abbott had worked as an insurance salesman for three to four years with Woodmen of the World listed as his employer at the time of his arrest, according to the booking report.
In describing the crime scene, Hamby said very little was disturbed. He said Abbott later confessed he used a key hidden near the door to enter the house but as he left broke a window from the outside and rifled through Ms. Campbell’s purse to make it look like a burglary.
Hamby testified in court and other agents also said in later interviews they didn’t believe there had been a robbery as there was nothing disturbed in the home and furnishings like an expensive television were untouched. One detective said it immediately looked like an execution or hit.
Hamby said in court it appeared someone had walked right in and started shooting without disturbing anything.
Abbott may have thought both of his in-laws were dead when he left their home.
But Hamby said after being shot, Mr. Campbell called 911 from the Campbell home, which sits down a narrow drive out of sight from the road. On Wednesday police tape blocked the entrance. The home had playground equipment in the side yard.
Hamby said Campbell told 911 operators “that his wife had been shot by an individual wearing a hood. He stood in the hallway and shot into the room. He advised that his wife was deceased and he had been shot numerous times.”
Hamby said his voice sounded labored and weak. Another law enforcement official said in a later interview that it was horrible listening to the 911 tape “to literally the life draining out of a man.”
Both victims had been shot two or three times. The GBI crime lab was still working on their report at the time of the Friday hearing. In court Hamby said Ms. Campbell had three clear wounds, but one on the hand may have been from her shielding herself with the buckshot going through her hand and striking her body as well.
Campbell told the 911 operator it had been dark and he couldn’t see who was shooting and that he was awakened by a gunshot.
Ms. Campbell was pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Campbell was pronounced dead at Kennestone Hospital.
Hamby said Abbott told investigators he picked up all of the spent shotgun shells and threw them out his vehicle window one at a time every few seconds while driving back home on Highway 515. Hamby said agents have recovered three that matched the description and the gun.
Abbott took a hooded sweatshirt with him to the crime and then bagged all his clothes upon returning home. He also took latex gloves with him, according to what he told investigators, and he put the gloves in the bag at his house. Investigators found the bag at his house as described.
After he confessed, investigators allowed Abbott to tell his wife.
Hamby told the court, “We allowed him to tell his wife, with us present, what had happened, and at that point in time he was placed under arrest.”
When asked how she had reacted, Sheriff Craig said in the earlier interview, “Shocked. The lady just lost her mother and dad, and before the investigation is over has lost her husband, and it has left her four kids without a father.”
Public Defender Richard Thurman, representing Abbott, asked technical questions to the GBI agent. His questions mainly queried Hamby on when Abbott had been read his rights. Thurman also pressed Hamby on whether Abbott was told that he could have an attorney and whether Abbott was made aware he was free to leave the Criminal Investigation Division offices during the initial interview.
Hamby’s response was that Abbott wasn’t considered a suspect, only a next-of-kin, and had come to the interview voluntarily. The agent said he hadn’t read Abbott his rights initially as he wasn’t suspected of committing a crime. Abbott was not told he was free to leave the jail prior to the arrest, but he had not been restricted from leaving either.
Hamby said Abbott was read his standard rights from a form and then re-asked questions by investigators to clarify points and to gain more information.
Near the opening of the hearing, a tearful Trinity Abbott said her parents had a great marriage. “I never saw them fight or yell,” she said. And she and her husband “got along well” with her parents.
She said she first dated Ben Abbott in 1997, their freshman year at college, and has four children with him, their ages ranging from 2 to 9 years old. During her testimony, there appeared to be no eye contact between husband and wife. Magistrate Judge Wigington handed her tissues which she used several times to wipe tears but did not become so emotional she couldn’t continue to respond to questions from District Attorney Joe Hendricks.
She said Ben lost his father as a teenager and looked to her dad “as another father. He went to him for advice.”
The booking information from the sheriff’s office noted Ben Abbott was born in Tennessee.
Responding to a question from the DA, Ms. Abbott said she had no idea about the family finances. “Nothing. I didn’t know anything about the finances from the time we started dating. I didn’t know how much was in the checking account; how much he made a year or who our mortgage was with. I knew we were struggling, but we never had the power turned off, and we were never hungry.”
She testified she knew her dad had switched his life insurance policy some time ago––something she found odd as her dad “was a researcher, and once he made up his mind, he usually stuck with something.”
The DA noted her dad had worked for a researcher/engineer including some confidential government work. The Campbells had originally lived in the Ellijay home where the Abbotts now live but moved to Pickens County and let the daughter and her family move into the Ellijay house.
On the night of the slayings, the Abbotts had attended a parent/teacher conference at Grace Christian School where some of their children attend on scholarship. Mr. Campbell had served on the board and as a deacon at Grace Baptist Church in Ellijay. The Abbotts also attended that church and Ben had taught an Awana class there for several years, according to information left on the comment section of this newspaper’s website.
Ms. Abbott said they went home after the conference and put the kids to bed around 8:30 p.m. She and Ben went to bed about 10:30 p.m.
“Ben got up. I thought he was having trouble sleeping. I thought he was going to watch television at the computer so he wouldn’t disturb me,” she testified.
She said she heard something later and saw lights in the driveway. Thinking someone was coming to their Fern Gully Way home, she went to tell her husband and realized the lights were him leaving, she told the court. She said it was 11:39 p.m. when he left. She said she was mad, thinking he might be sneaking out to meet another woman, though he had never done anything like that before, she testified.
She heard him return home over an hour later. When she asked him where he had been, he said Walmart, according to her testimony.
“He said he was looking for a Valentine’s gift for me. I thought he didn’t want me to know what it was. That’s like him,” she testified.
She testified that they were awakened at 4 a.m. with knocks at the door. She testified that Ben said, “The police are here. I didn’t know how he knew that’s who it was. He let them in, and they asked my parents’ names.”
Chronology of other stories:
Two Dead in Home Invasion-- February 9, 2011
Son in Law Arrested in Double Murder Wednesday -- February 9, 2011
Death Penalty Sought for Ben Thomas Abbott -- June, 15, 2011 print edition for full story
Abbott shows no remorse -- reprint from Times Courier