Friday, May 25, 2012
Agee estate settles wrongful death suit
The lawsuit contended that former Sheriff Ewell Hunt failed to act with the urgency that could have prevented the killing.
Rebecca Barnett | The Roanoke Times
Jennifer Agee's survivors settled the lawsuit with ex-Franklin County Sheriff Ewell Hunt on Thursday. Her children will receive $900,000 in the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit against Hunt and Jonathan Agee, the former deputy who is charged with killing his ex-wife last May. Pictured here are (counterclockwise from front left) Matt Broughton, attorney for Agee's estate; Diana Spain, Jennifer Agee's mother; Brenda Vess-Campbell, Agee's sister; Scott Neff, Agee's brother; and Lindsey Neff, Scott Neff's wife.
Jennifer Agee's two children will receive $900,000 in the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit against Ewell Hunt, the former Franklin County sheriff whose ex-deputy is accused of killing her.
Agee's estate, administered by her mother, Diana Spain, filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against Hunt and Jonathan Agee in September.
The lawsuit accused Jonathan Agee of shooting his ex-wife "five times at close range" in the parking lot of a Sheetz convenience store on Williamson Road in Roanoke. It claimed Hunt failed to act with the urgency and disclosure of information that could have prevented the killing because of "fear of further embarrassment and his desire to win re-election."
Jonathan Agee is not a party to the settlement, and the plaintiffs will seek the dismissal of the lawsuit against him, said Matt Broughton, attorney for Jennifer Agee's estate.
"It's a relief," said Spain, who will also receive a small portion of the settlement.
"It's a burden off our shoulders for the girls."
"I thought it was a good result for the girls," said Jonathan Agee's attorney, David Lawrence. "You can't replace their parents, but there was a way to make their lives a little bit better."
Hunt's attorney, Jim Guynn, said the needs of the children played a role in Hunt's decision to settle.
"If this was a situation where the money was not going to be predominately for the benefit of those children, there would not have been a settlement," Guynn said.
But Hunt's main reasons for settling were less sentimental.
"The Roanoke media made it damn near impossible to try the case," Guynn said. Some news coverage of the shooting was irresponsible, he said, and put potential jurors in the position of likely second-guessing Hunt based on elements reported later, and not based on what he knew at the time.
Guynn said he also advised Hunt to settle because of the potential risk to his personal assets "if a jury had gotten carried away" with a large verdict. The Virginia Division of Risk Management, which in effect insures constitutional officers against liability claims, would cover Hunt only up to $1 million.
Guynn said he also advised the retired sheriff to just get the case behind him.
Following the events last Memorial Day, Hunt won the Republican nomination for sheriff but lost a three-way general election, in large part because of publicity over his handling of information regarding Jonathan Agee.
On the day of the shooting, Agee's current wife warned Hunt that her husband had an assault rifle, was on his way to see Jennifer Agee and threatened to kill her, police said. But according to radio logs, Hunt said he would handle the situation himself. He placed a call to police dispatch in Salem — where Jennifer Agee lived — but did not indicate an emergency.
The lawsuit alleged that Roanoke police learned of the incident only after 911 calls from witnesses at the shooting and added, "Had Sheriff Hunt alerted them to Jonathan Agee's murderous intentions, they would have intervened to prevent a murder — rather than arrive to investigate one."
Broughton said the funds from the settlement, which was approved by a Circuit Court judge in Rocky Mount on Thursday morning, will be paid out to the daughters according to a structured plan that will stretch out over many years.
Jonathan Agee, meanwhile, faces a two-week murder trial in Roanoke starting June 18, and a separate trial in Montgomery County where he is accused of shooting and wounding a state trooper as he fled police after Jennifer Agee's slaying.
Jennifer Agee's family continues to grieve.
"You don't know how you put one foot in front of the other sometimes," Spain said, but the family, with Spain and her four surviving children and 13 grandchildren, was a tight bunch before Jennifer's death.
They play cards together weekly, celebrate every birthday at Spain's house, and never miss a grandchild's sporting event.
"We've definitely been each other's therapy," said Jennifer Agee's older brother, Scott Neff, 40.
Agee's daughters, Makayla, 13, and Cameron, 8, are doing well, the family reported.
Makayla lives with her aunt, Brenda Vess-Campbell, and goes to William Byrd Middle School and has taken up softball. The school community has been wonderful, Vess-Campbell said. Makayla has her mother's smile, and wants to be a writer.
Cameron lives with her stepmother, where she had lived for some time before her mother was killed. She plays soccer. "She's a wonderful child," her grandmother said.
The family made a point of thanking a long list of people who have supported them, from the community at large to the people at Mac and Bob's restaurant in Salem, where Jennifer Agee worked.
Broughton thanked the local news media for reporting that led to a speedier settlement in the lawsuit than might otherwise have happened.
The family also thanked local law enforcement, and especially former state police Sgt. Matthew Brannock, who was shot while pursuing Jonathan Agee.
"We think of him daily, pray for him daily," Spain said.
"He has suffered immensely but acted heroically," Neff said. After taking medical leave following his wounding, Brannock left the state police last fall to take a position at Martinsville Speedway.
With the settlement in place, the family wants to move forward.
"There's nothing going on here at all except that this family is trying to heal," Broughton said.
The financial security of Jennifer Agee's daughters is one less obstacle to that healing, including for Jennifer Agee, Spain said.
"I know she's just smiling down because she knows her girls are going to be taken care of."