Jay Yerkes died on Lexington Avenue on April 24, 2004. According to the autopsy report, Yerkes’ assailant, Mark Bradley Elkins, stabbed him 11 times with a boning knife: twice in the head (leaving behind a fragment of metal from the knife), once in the neck (leaving a superficial wound), twice in the chest, twice in the back, twice on the left shoulder and once on the right one, as well as under his armpit.
For this crime, the district attorney’s office arranged a plea deal that gave Elkins 16 months in prison without probation on an involuntary-manslaughter charge.
That wasn’t enough for the victim’s mother, Carol Yerkes, who says she was furious about both the plea bargain and the way the district attorney’s office handled the case. From the beginning, she asserts, the staff there was unresponsive and even hostile.
“They were very cold when it first happened,” she recalls. “We were shocked that [District Attorney Ron Moore] would say it was voluntary manslaughter.” (The charge was downgraded further in the final plea bargain.) According to Yerkes, Moore “said my son jumped on Elkins. I didn’t believe that, but even if he did, how does that give him the right to stab him 11 times? This was a month after my son was murdered, and he didn’t say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ He just said, ‘Well, if someone jumped on me in the middle of the night, I’d stab them too.’ To me, that’s a very cold thing to say to a mother that just lost her son.”
The whole process, says Yerkes, was “nightmarish. We had little idea of what we were facing or how to deal with it.” And she believes her personal tragedy typifies the criminal-justice system’s treatment of victims and their families, whose feelings and problems, she maintains, are often lost in the shuffle.
Moore, however, defends the plea deal, asserting that his office was “sensitive to the family’s needs, as we always are, but we had to deal with the hand given to us. This was in the middle of the night, [Yerkes] was very intoxicated, Elkins was drunk. You’ve got that. Self-defense has to do with subjective belief, and it’d be my burden to prove that it wasn’t self-defense.”
Asked about his office’s interactions with the Yerkes family, Moore said: “I know [Assistant District Attorney] Kate Dreher talked to them for hours; as far as I know, everyone acted professionally. Obviously they weren’t happy with the result, but I don’t blame them for that—they lost their loved one. But we had to take the facts of the case, good and bad, and deal with it to the best of our ability.”
As for the broader issue of victims’ rights, Moore said: “We spend time with every family. We’ve had families come and support others. We try to do everything to make the process as painless as possible. I’m sorry for their loss. We tried to explain everything—but we have to take the hand we’re dealt.”
Carol Yerkes, meanwhile, is banding together with other crime victims’ family members to form Justice Advocates for You (or JAY for short), which will seek to focus attention on their concerns as well as providing legal advice and support. “Our main purpose will be to try and help them through this process—even if it’s just sitting with them in court,” she explains. “There’s so many things I wish I’d known then. The justice system gives victims’ families very little closure.”
The group’s first meeting is slated for April 17, during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week (which runs April 13 to 19 this year). But according to Yerkes, even that week’s events tend to focus on the contributions of police officers rather than the problems victims and their families still face.
“We want to bring some attention to this—especially to the plea bargains, but mainly to help others get through this,” she notes.
Stabbed in the back?
Two weeks before Jay Yerkes’ death, he and Elkins had fought over Yerkes’ girlfriend at the time, Carry Sykes, and both Elkins and two friends who were with him at the time claimed that another fight had broken out after they’d all left Vincent’s Ear, a local club, the night of the killing. Sykes, however, told police that she thought the two had patched things up that night and that, although she was close behind Yerkes, she was talking with a friend in a nearby doorway, heard no struggle, and was unaware of Yerkes’ murder until she turned around and saw him lying bleeding on the sidewalk.
Xpress asked Dr. John Henderson, the Buncombe County medical examiner, to review the autopsy report (a different examiner had handled the case). “They really worked this fellow over,” said Henderson. “There was a very clear intent to do some real harm.” All the wounds except the stab wound on the neck were deep and damaging, he noted, adding, “Any one of these could have been fatal.” Henderson also pointed to a lack of the kind of defensive injuries that might indicate a struggle.
But the report, he said, also shows that Yerkes was highly intoxicated at the time of his death. And the fact that the point of entry for a wound is on the back doesn’t necessarily mean Yerkes was stabbed from behind, Henderson emphasized. “There’s just no way to tell from this” whether or not there was a fight, he concluded.
At the time of the killing, Elkins was accompanied by two men, Shane Miller and Matthew Thrailkill. Miller was on probation for a robbery conviction at the time, and he later fled—landing him on Buncombe County’s most-wanted list. Thrailkill also has a criminal record that includes convictions for DWI, hit and run, and breaking and entering.
Initially, Sykes told police that after Elkins and Yerkes seemed to have buried the hatchet, they were all walking up the street toward Shotzy’s when Elkins knocked over a trash can in front of Yerkes.
According to both Thrailkill’s and Sykes’ original testimony, Yerkes cleaned up the trash but took a small bag of it and put it on Elkins. “Jay was laughing,” noted Thrailkill. “Brad [Elkins] just grinned,” and both Thrailkill and Sykes said they thought it was a joke. “It didn’t look like they’d fight,” Thrailkill told police.
As Sykes turned back to talk to some friends, Thrailkill said he crossed the street to talk to some other people. When he turned around, he said: “I looked behind and saw them fighting. Brad was hitting from above. I ran to break it up. I saw Brad had a knife in his right hand.”
And though Thrailkill would later claim in court that Yerkes had also struck Elkins, the only blows he mentioned in his initial testimony came from Elkins, who was “hitting down onto Jay’s shoulder [with the knife]. There was no screaming, no yelling, no talking.”
No stone unturned?
Voluntary manslaughter, the original charge against Elkins, means killing someone without malice. It ranks just below second-degree murder, which involves killing with malice but without premeditation.
Carol Yerkes believes Moore simply wanted to clear the case and thus offered an overly lenient plea deal. She also asserts that he didn’t pursue Miller, who had fled the scene of the murder. (Moore, however, said the Police Department had “left no stone unturned” in attempting to track down Miller.) Also, notes Yerkes, because a jury never heard the case, no mention was made of some potentially significant evidence—such as the autopsy report’s finding that some of her son’s wounds had been inflicted from behind.
“The way the whole thing was handled, it just wasn’t right,” she says. “[Moore] wants solved cases—I don’t think he cares how they’re solved. I don’t believe justice was done.”
As a result of the plea bargain, Yerkes says she was denied money from the N.C. Crime Victims Compensation Commission, since the involuntary-manslaughter conviction led the commission to rule that her son had contributed to his own death. And though the family later won an $11,000 wrongful-death ruling against Elkins, Yerkes says they’re unlikely to see any money, since her lawyer told her Elkins had no income.
Moore asserts, however, that without eyewitness testimony saying Elkins struck without provocation, it would have been hard to make a harsher charge stick.
“I can’t prove excessive force—you’ve got two people that have been drinking; they’ve fought before. [Elkins] said that Yerkes had started hitting him in the head, and I can’t prove otherwise.” Moore added that Elkins had no previous criminal record and, when apprehended by the police, had expressed regret and admitted that he’d killed Yerkes.
In a 2003 case, however, Moore sought second-degree murder charges against Hermenegildo Martinez, who killed another man with a knife in a bar fight (Martinez fled, but was later captured). And in yet another case, the district attorney charged Linda Evans with first-degree murder in her boyfriend’s death. Evans claimed self-defense, saying he’d tried to rape her. But prosecutors asserted that Evans had used excessive force, because she’d reloaded the gun after shooting him twice. After a hung jury, the charge was lowered to voluntary manslaughter.
Asked why he’d sought a lesser conviction in the Yerkes murder, Moore said: “Each case had facts. I still believe [Evans] was guilty; it’s difficult for the state to convict on first-degree murder.” As for Martinez, “It didn’t appear there was any provocation, and he ran.”
Besides having previously fought with Elkins, noted Moore, Yerkes had a prior assault conviction for a 2003 fight with his father, whom he struck with a lamp, inflicting injuries that required 11 stitches.
“In the letter [Yerkes’ father] sent to the police, unsolicited, he said he was worried his son was going to kill him,” Moore explained. And if the case had gone to trial, “the defense is going to see that history—we would have been required to turn it over.”
But according to Carol Yerkes, her husband’s injuries were an accident, and once Jay saw his father bleeding, he was shocked and stopped striking him.
“[Jay’s father] wrote that letter just after it happened—it made it sound a lot worse than it was,” she said. “It doesn’t have a thing to do with what happened that night.”
The family later reconciled, and at the time of his death, Jay was once again living with his parents.
Since the sentencing hearing, Yerkes has continued her efforts to publicize her son’s case, writing articles in local newspapers and pressing for change in the district attorney’s office, as well as working to form JAY.
“I want to be an advocate to help others make it through their grief and frustration of dealing with our sometimes-unfair justice system in Asheville,” Yerkes told Xpress. “Until those who have not been a victim of a crime are as outraged as those who have been, nothing will change.”
Advocacy group launched
The first meeting of Justice Advocates for You will be held Thursday, April 17, at the Shoney’s on the Smoky Park Highway, starting at 7 p.m.