Woman's statement opens slaying case; sends her to jail

photo Defense attorney Rip Biggs, right, consoles his client as Jessica Sterchi becomes emotional after her bonds were raised and case bound over to the grand jury during a preliminary hearing in Judge Gary StarnesÕs courtroom on June 11, 2014. Sterchi informed police that she was present with her brother and boyfriend when Zachery Higdon was killed in his trailer nearly three years ago.

Nearly three years ago, Jessica Sterchi said something that changed her life and likely ended another's.

She was fighting with her on-and-off boyfriend Travis Caslin. Both were looking for drugs, cocaine if they could get it. She told him that Zacherey Higdon dealt it, and maybe they could steal some. He wouldn't put up a fight.

But he did, and he's dead.

All police had before they talked with Sterchi in April were rumors of Higdon's October 2011 shooting death at his home in the Whispering Pines mobile home park at 900 Airport Road.

His mother had found his body, splayed as if he'd been crucified, a pillow over his face, his hands outstretched, sprayed with bleach, his right ankle crossed over his left and his pants pulled down.

A single gunshot wound below his left armpit and blood from his mouth were the obvious signs of death.

An informant led Chattanooga police Detective Lucas Fuller to Sterchi, who told him details as she sobbed during a four-hour interview.

She said that as soon as she told Travis Caslin, 39, and his brother Charles Caslin, 43, about Higdon's drug supply, she saw Travis' eyes go wide. She thought something bad might happen.

The brothers took her to Higdon's trailer, where she went inside and bought coke, Fuller testified that Sterchi told him.

Then the Caslin brothers burst through the door in masks. Charles held a gun to Sterchi's head and made Higdon get on his knees. They demanded drugs.

As Fuller relayed each detail that Sterchi had shared, she winced, sometimes sobbing, red-faced at the memories.

Higdon said he'd give them what they wanted. He gave Sterchi a look "that everything was going to be OK, that he was going to protect her."

Then Higdon, 30, began to struggle with Travis and Travis fired. The brothers and Sterchi grabbed drugs and left. Sterchi told police she swallowed a lot of pills, and nearly overdosed trying to forget what happened.

They returned twice to clean up the scene, she told Fuller. The first time she got to the door and saw Higdon's feet, she couldn't go inside.

The brothers talked about getting rid of her because "she was useless and trouble," she heard one of them say.

After she'd pawned some of the stolen things -- a pearl-handled pistol, video game equipment and a laptop -- she thought it was over.

But, she told Fuller, Travis beat her, chipped a tooth and shoved her in the trunk of a Monte Carlo, took her to a house at 4121 Central Ave. and held her for four days, raped her and beat her. At some point Travis left, Sterchi fled and stayed scared.

That's what she told police.

Fuller was sympathetic. He told her he wasn't going to put her in jail. But his supervisor Sgt. Michael Wenger interrupted the interrogation to say the detective couldn't promise that. After the questioning ended, Sterchi was in handcuffs and headed to jail.

Police have not yet located the Caslin brothers.

There was enough information, Fuller said, to believe that Sterchi knew a robbery was going to happen based on what she told the Caslin brothers.

But Sterchi's attorney, Rip Biggs, argued that Sterchi thought they were buying drugs and was not given any instruction about a robbery. He argued that she was abused by the Caslins, held hostage and threatened.

Prosecutor Cameron Williams argued that based on what Sterchi had told Fuller, she had enough of an idea of what could happen. Plus, the help she provided after the shooting showed her direct connection to the killing.

Hamilton County General Sessions Court Judge Gary Starnes agreed. He sent her charges to the grand jury, kept her $1 million bond on the charge of first-degree murder and raised her bond on the especially aggravated robbery charge from $150,000 to $500,000.

He called Sterchi "a danger to the community."

"It's very clear that this defendant knew exactly what was going on," Starnes said at the hearing's end.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.