BELTON — A Bell County jury Tuesday heard testimony in a capital murder case that was emotional in the morning and more clinical in the afternoon.
Around 10 family members and friends of Christine Watkins, a Killeen Independent School District bus driver who was murdered in 2014, gathered in the 426th Judicial District Court to hear the first day of testimony in the trial of Jo Ann Wilbert.
Watkins, 64, was shot numerous times in the early morning Oct. 20, 2014, in the 1400 block of Pine Drive in Killeen. Wilbert, 65, is accused of hiring Andrew Lenard Hardesty, 34, to shoot and kill Watkins in exchange for $10,000, according to testimony on Tuesday.
Wilbert, flanked by three attorneys from the Carlson Law Firm, was in court facing a charge of capital murder by remuneration, a capital felony. She frequently took her own notes during testimony.
She is in the Bell County Jail with a $1 million bond, according to jail records.
Hardesty was convicted of capital murder on Aug. 1 last year in the 27th Judicial District Court and was sentenced to life without parole.
The jury of four men and eight women, after a full day of jury selection on Monday, were chosen to decide the case.
Assistant District Attorney Dana Nelson read the state’s indictment and Judge Fancy Jezek asked Wilbert how she pleaded.
“Not guilty,” Wilbert said.
Mike Waldman, assistant district attorney, told the jury during his opening statement that Watkins was targeted.
“At about 5:30 a.m., a woman is brutally gunned down in her own driveway as she gets ready to leave for work,” Waldman said. “A man, dressed in dark clothes, runs out and shoots her many times, leaving her bleeding and dying.”
He said that the witnesses and evidence the state presents will prove that Wilbert hired Hardesty, and gave him the .40-caliber pistol with which to shoot Watkins, all because of a racially-tinged dispute between the two neighbors.
“No one had a problem with Christine, except for that woman, right there,” Waldman said, pointing at Wilbert. “Andrew Hardesty had no reason to kill Christine Watkins, outside of Jo Ann Wilbert.”
Wilbert’s defense team argued there is a lack of evidence proving that Wilbert paid, or planned to pay, Hardesty for the murder.
“It’s undisputed that Christine Watkins was murdered, and a man has been convicted for that murder,” said defense attorney Savannah Stroud, in her opening statement. “But there is no evidence of Jo Ann Wilbert’s involvement: no text, no email, no phone call, no evidence of payment or a cash withdrawal.”
She said that detectives on the case focused on Wilbert too early in the investigation, leaving other stones unturned.
“The detectives, and the state, make some leaps in this case,” Stroud said. She urged the jury to consider the “reliability and believability” of testimony, “because there are many inconsistencies, disputed facts and evidence of bias.”
The state’s first witness testified for more than an hour about his wife of more than 45 years and the mother of their three grown children.
It was not the first time Kenneth Watkins endured the witness stand, as he also testified at the Hardesty trial.
During his testimony, Waldman put two photos of Christine Watkins onto the projector screen. In one, she is posed in front of the KISD school bus she drove for 35 years. In the other photo, she is smiling, dressed in white, her eyes shining as she seemed to embrace the world.
Her husband, with a soft-spoken voice, told the jury that at first, the Watkins’s and their across-the-street neighbor were friendly.
“She was a great neighbor,” he said.
But the relationship changed as time went on.
“It began to really deteriorate,” Watkins said. He said that Wilbert called code enforcement, sued them, sabotaged their security lights and cameras, set drapes on fire in their home and kept a sign with the middle finger directed toward the Watkins home.
He said that Wilbert was angry that the Watkins’s rented other homes they owned to minorities, and about a property line dispute that later was resolved in court, in the Watkins’s favor.
Watkins said his wife insisted on having cameras installed at the home, including the one that later would capture her murder.
“Who was your wife afraid of?” Waldman asked Watkins.
“Jo Ann,” he answered.
Waldman asked why they did not move in the face of harassment.
“We’ve lived there since 1977 and I wasn’t going to let anyone run us off,” Watkins said.
During cross examination, Wilbert’s defense attorney suggested that it was not Wilbert who was behind the incidents and that there was a lot of foot traffic and some drug activity in the neighborhood.
“And the sign or signs were never threats to harm anybody,” Stroud said to Watkins, who agreed.
During the afternoon, the state called several law enforcement witnesses and the Dallas County medical examiner who performed the autopsy.
Dr. Stephen Hastings with the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences said that 12 gunshot wounds were located on Watkins’s body, including two that would have been “immediately fatal.”
Killeen Police Department detective Neal Holtzclaw testified about the evidence collection process, and the “many” shell casings and bullet fragments located in the crime scene.
Holtzclaw also was the detective who viewed and collected as evidence the surveillance video footage, with the camera above the front door capturing the early morning hours of Oct. 20, 2014:
Christine Watkins leaves the house after her husband, who was going to move his truck out of the way so she could leave for work, as was their routine. She carefully locks the barred door behind her and walks down her sidewalk, out of view. A man, later determined to be Hardesty, follows after her, shooting a pistol.
Testimony in the case continues on Wednesday.