RINGGOLD, Ga. - An upstate New York couple accused of taking a Navy veteran's money to buy methamphetamine and leaving him for dead near Chickamauga Battlefield pleaded guilty Monday morning.
Robert Martin Brooks pleaded in Catoosa County Superior Court to a charge of voluntary manslaughter, receiving a sentence of 20 years in prison. Within about an hour, Jennifer Allison DeMott also pleaded guilty. A prosecutor and her lawyers settled on a charge of aggravated assault, putting her in prison for 10 years.
Attorneys on both sides prepared to pick a jury for a joint trial Monday morning when they finally reached agreements. The case against Brooks and DeMott began in December 2015, when hikers found 59-year-old Duane Hollenbeck dead near a trail in the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park.
"This was as big a shock to me as it was to everybody else," Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton said. "Eleventh-hour pleas are sometimes reached, but rarely in a case like this."
Brooks and DeMott both faced five charges, including malice murder. If convicted of that offense, they would have gone to prison for life. Attorneys for both defendants said the plea deals at least give them a chance to be free, eventually.
"There was a mountain of circumstantial evidence," said Michael Webb, Brooks' attorney.
Webb said he approached the prosecutors last week about reaching a plea deal. He said Norton's boss, District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, was not interested in the offer of a reduced charge. Webb is not sure what changed Monday, and Franklin did not return a call or email late Monday evening.
DeMott received a shorter punishment because police and prosecutors did not find any evidence that she killed Hollenbeck. Rather, she told investigators she waited in the car while Brooks led Hollenbeck toward the trail in the national park. Brooks returned alone, telling DeMott he hit the victim across the face with a rock. DeMott said their original plan had been to abandon him, unscathed.
The crime spree began Dec. 5, 2015. DeMott, whose late mother dated Hollenbeck, asked if he would drive with her from Dryden, N.Y., to somewhere in the South. She was dropping her boyfriend, Brooks, off at some spot in the Bible Belt. It's not clear where specifically they were going, but DeMott said she didn't want to travel along with Brooks.
"You can drink and get some [women]," DeMott wrote to Hollenbeck, according to text messages Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Steve Rogers Jr. reviewed during a March 2016 hearing in the case.
The three drove through Tennessee. Rogers testified last year that video footage from some banks showed Brooks withdrawing money. Bank records also showed Hollenbeck's account slowly draining, as withdrawals of up to $700 at a time bled from it.
Hollenbeck, a Navy veteran who struggled with alcohol abuse, had suffered problems with his liver, Rogers said. He also relied on a walker to get around. Some days, he needed a wheelchair.
Rogers said Brooks and DeMott wanted to use the cash to buy methamphetamine, which they would sell at a higher price back in New York. At one point, while the two arranged a drug deal in a Wal-Mart parking lot, according to a witness in the case, Hollenbeck yelled at some customers and urinated in the parking lot in front of people.
"Were you able to determine a possible motive for this particular case?" Norton asked Rogers during the pretrial hearing.
"I believe so," Rogers said.
"What was that, sir?" Norton asked.
"Ms. DeMott and Mr. Brooks just got tired of having to deal with Mr. Hollenbeck's disabilities," Rogers said.
Eventually, the three arrived in North Georgia.
A medical examiner concluded that Hollenbeck died Dec. 8, 2015. Two days later, his neighbor reported him missing and told New York State Police she saw DeMott at his house days earlier. Police contacted DeMott, who said she and Brooks abandoned Hollenbeck at a restaurant in Ringgold. On Dec. 12, 2015, hikers stumbled across Hollenbeck's body in the national park.
Hollenbeck had methamphetamine in his system, according to an autopsy. Webb, Brooks' attorney, planned to argue the attack was a "rage killing" because his client and DeMott had also been smoking methamphetamine. He believed Hollenbeck did something to anger Brooks just as Brooks was about to abandon him.
Ed Wilson, who planned to be a character witness for Brooks, said he was "just flabbergasted" when he heard his former employee killed somebody. He said Brooks is from the Knoxville area and worked for him at a couple companies, first as a mortgage broker and then as a local radio station's ad salesman.
Brooks was handsome and charming, and eventually he got married and had a couple of children. But about five years ago, Wilson said, Brooks and his wife divorced. He fell apart. Wilson didn't see him for a while and heard Brooks had jumped around from one car dealership to another, struggling to hold a job.
After the killing, Wilson heard suggestions that Brooks started to use methamphetamine. That made sense. The last time he had seen him, Brooks said something about needing money, something about going on a trip across the country. He looked like he had lost about 80 pounds. Wilson gave him $100, maybe.
"The look on him, it was pretty obvious what was going on," Wilson said. "As soon as I gave him money, he was out of there like a lightning bug."
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.