MEMPHIS — Armed with pistols, Chastain Montgomery and his 18-year-old son walked into the small, red-brick post office in a rural Tennessee town almost four years ago, intending to rob it and escape with what they thought would be a bounty of cash.
Two U.S. Postal Service workers, Paula Robinson and Judy Spray, were inside, arranging the day's mail on a sunny October day. They told Montgomery the post office had only $63. Enraged, Montgomery and his son started shooting, killing the two women.
"I lost it, man," Chastain Montgomery Sr. told postal inspectors on Feb. 15, 2011, after his arrest.
U.S. Senior District Judge Jon P. McCalla sentenced Montgomery to life in prison on Tuesday for the slayings. Montgomery, a former prison guard, pleaded guilty to the killings in May, just weeks before a trial in which he faced the death penalty if convicted.
The unexpected plea deal was proposed by the defense and authorized by Attorney General Eric Holder, said Edward Stanton III, U.S. attorney for West Tennessee. There is no parole in the federal justice system.
Earlier this year, McCalla ruled Montgomery's confession could be used as evidence at trial. The judge also ruled Montgomery was mentally competent to be executed if found guilty in the Oct. 18, 2010, killings that forced residents of Henning to begin locking their doors and wonder if the killer was among them in the town 45 miles northeast of Memphis.
Relatives of Robinson and Spray spoke at Tuesday's sentencing. Wrought with emotion, Robinson's sister Nicole Baker called Montgomery a coward.
Judy Charland, Spray's eldest daughter, said she and her family will be forever devastated.
"One minute there, gone the next," Charland said of her mother.
Then, speaking about Montgomery, she said: "I don't understand how somebody can be so bad inside that they can take somebody's life."
Montgomery declined to speak at the sentencing hearing.
Montgomery also pleaded guilty to robbing two Middle Tennessee banks with his son while they were on the run. On Feb. 14, 2011, Chastain Montgomery Jr. was killed in a shootout with police in Mason after authorities caught him driving a stolen truck.
The elder Montgomery was arrested when he went to the crime scene in Mason in the same car used as a getaway vehicle in the post office shootings and tried to access the stolen truck. Deputies found ammunition, a gun and cash stained with red dye in the younger Montgomery's backpack after the Mason shootout. Banks use exploding dye packs to mark stolen bills.
A gun used by the son in his shootout with police matched the one used in the post office shootings, authorities said. A weapon recovered from the father's Chevrolet Impala matched the one used to shoot Robinson.
In the videotaped interrogation after his arrest, Montgomery said he was broke and needed money when he decided to rob the post office.
In a December hearing, defense attorney Michael Scholl argued that IQ tests showed Montgomery was intellectually disabled and unfit to face the death penalty under the guidelines set forth by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Prosecutors argued Montgomery's IQ tests didn't reflect that Montgomery was able to function in society, attend college and hold jobs, including a long tenure at a West Tennessee prison.
During the competency hearing, Montgomery had to be restrained twice due to outbursts in court. In one of the outbursts, he threatened to kill a witness who was testifying.
Prosecutors also accused him of making a knife-like weapon known as a "shank" and planning to escape jail by attacking a U.S. marshal with it.