Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Man pleads no contest to robbing Bedford County shopkeeper

Jason Shell was sentenced to 18 years for beating elderly Bedford County store owner Bob Terry.

Jason Shell walks into a courtroom in Bedford Circuit Court on Tuesday. Shell was sentenced to 18 years in prison for beating and robbing Bob Terry, the owner of Terry’s Country Corner store.

Rebecca Barnett | The Roanoke Times

Jason Shell walks into a courtroom in Bedford Circuit Court on Tuesday. Shell was sentenced to 18 years in prison for beating and robbing Bob Terry, the owner of Terry’s Country Corner store.

BEDFORD — Prosecutors at a Tuesday plea hearing admitted right away they had no forensic evidence and no eyewitness to say Jason Andrew Shell beat and robbed an elderly shopkeeper a year and a half ago.

They also acknowledged that two main witnesses — close acquaintances of Shell's — had been charged with felony drug possession last month.

The case against Shell, prosecutors allowed, was largely a jailhouse recording in which the 39-year-old Roanoke man threatened to drag down anyone who turned on him.

Even so, at his 30-minute hearing Tuesday morning in Bedford Circuit Court, Shell pleaded no contest to robbery, aggravated malicious wounding and a firearms charge in the case, and was given 18 years in prison by Judge James Updike. A second gun charge against him was dismissed by prosecutors.

Shell, who made no statement at the hearing, has long denied he attacked 80-year-old Bob Terry on a Saturday night in October 2011, as Terry was leaving the convenience store he runs in rural Bedford County.

Terry's gun and wallet were forcibly taken from him, and he spent five weeks in the hospital with a fractured jaw, among other injuries. He testified at a preliminary hearing last year that he'd been jumped from behind that night by a man in a mask.

After Tuesday's hearing, Commonwealth's Attorney Randy Krantz gave Shell's sentence a mixed-to-positive review, citing sparse evidence as its motivation.

"We would rather not have to have [a plea] agreement where violence is concerned," he told reporters. "We probably got what we could get, but not necessarily what we wanted."

But, he added, "Our first goal is to get violent offenders off the streets."

Krantz added that even in manslaughter cases, the average maximum sentence rarely exceeds 10 years.

Shell's name came to the attention of authorities by way of an acquaintance, James "Jake" Presnell.

Presnell testified at Shell's January 2011 preliminary hearing that late on the night of Terry's attack, Shell enlisted his help selling a silver .38-caliber Smith & Wesson with black grips. Presnell said he was unable to sell the gun to a relative, who believed it to be stolen from Terry and who later called the sheriff.

When first confronted by investigators, Presnell, whose prior felony conviction prohibits him from handling firearms, didn't cooperate. But later that month, after Shell was arrested in Vinton and jailed on unrelated charges, he came forward.

"I knew he couldn't do anything to my family and I knew it was the right thing to do," said Presnell, who was guaranteed immunity on any gun charges for his testimony.

Presnell and his girlfriend, Bethany Craig, testified last year that Shell had asked them about security precautions at Terry's store on Dickerson Mill Road in Moneta, not far from their Flint Hill home, and both said they had told him to leave Terry alone. Both have testified they were not involved in the robbery.

At that same hearing, Craig's daughter, Crystal Collins, told the court she and Shell had sold a pistol at a southeast Roanoke fast food restaurant in late 2011. The gun has never been recovered, and by all accounts it matches the weapon Terry said was taken from him the night he was attacked.

At Tuesday's hearing, Krantz said police responded Jan. 19 to a domestic dispute at the home Presnell and Craig share. Both were arrested and charged with felony heroin possession.

Krantz added that he also believed Shell had attacked Terry to buy drugs.

"The whole reason he robbed him was to get heroin," he said in court. "Heroin was at the root of this crime."

Shell's attorney, Jim Cargill, said at the hearing that had the case gone to trial, Shell would have been able to offer explanations in his defense, and he would have pointed to conflicting statements made by Presnell and Collins.

"It was a difficult decision for Jason Shell to make," Cargill said afterward of the agreement. "There were significant risks on both sides. He evaluated it and decided he would take this deal."

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