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The man charged in the axe slaying of a Pikeville, Tenn., mother and daughter in November 2017 has been indicted on murder charges by a Bledsoe County grand jury.

Robert Joe Whittenburg, 44, is now charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the Nov. 30 slayings of 46-year-old Deanna Lawrence and her 24-year-old daughter, Dedra Lawrence. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation initially charged Whittenburg on Dec. 3 with two counts of criminal homicide, according to a December release from the state agency. Memorial services for the slain women were held Dec. 4.

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Robert Joe Whittenburg

"The case was presented to the grand jury on Monday," 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor said Tuesday.

Whittenburg remains at the Bledsoe County Detention Center and faces an arraignment Thursday in Bledsoe County Circuit Court, Taylor said.

The killings happened in a residential area a block off of U.S. Highway 27 in Pikeville, a town of around 1,600 about 50 miles northwest of Chattanooga.

An axe is identified as the suspected weapon in the killings.

The mother and daughter "died of wounds supposedly inflicted with the axe," Taylor said of preliminary autopsy findings. Taylor said he couldn't talk about motive in the slayings but he described the initial circumstances.

"There were four people living in the house, the defendant, the two ladies and another man," Taylor said. The other man, identified only as the mother's boyfriend so far, was at work and had been trying to reach the Lawrences with no success the day he found the mother and daughter dead at the home on Sawmill Road.

The unnamed boyfriend "couldn't get anybody to answer the phone," Taylor said. "When he got to the house, he couldn't get anybody to let him in."

Eventually, that man made his way into the house where he discovered the bodies of his girlfriend and her daughter and notified authorities, Taylor said. He said Whittenburg was charged in the slayings after he was released from the hospital where he was taken for treatment of "some self-inflicted wounds."

Officers reaching the scene found the women "in a pool of blood," Sheriff Jimmy Morris told the Bledsonian-Banner when the investigation began in December. Pikeville police also responded to the scene.

Whittenburg had changed his bloodstained clothes and was lying on a bed in a bedroom at the home trying to overdose, Morris told the Pikeville newspaper.

Whittenburg is represented in the case by Dunlap lawyer Sam Hudson, who was appointed after the public defender's office recused itself from the case citing a conflict, officials said. Hudson was in court Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Graham will preside over the arraignment hearing Thursday, Bledsoe County court officials said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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