By Nancy Lindsey
Anthony Octavius Joyce pleaded guilty Tuesday to first-degree murder, robbery, and concealment of a dead body in the strangling death of his former girlfriend, Shelley Gravely, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Vipperman.
A jury trial had been scheduled for Tuesday morning but was canceled.
At the hearing in Patrick County Circuit Court, Joyce made his guilty pleas in the 2014 murder, and Vipperman gave a summary of the evidence in the case.
A sentencing hearing will be held in 60 to 90 days, Vipperman said.
Vipperman said the penalty for first-degree murder is 20 years to life and a fine of up to $100,000. The penalty for robbery is five years to life, and up to five years for concealing a body, she said.
According to the Commonwealth’s summary, Shelley Gravely and the defendant had been involved in a romantic relationship off and on for approximately five years.
Gravely and Joyce broke up on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014, and Joyce went to work with the understanding that he would come back later to pick up his things, Vipperman said.
While at work, Joyce went on his lunch break and called his workplace pretending to be his brother Tommy, asking that Joyce call him back. Joyce “returned” the phone call and told his supervisor that Gravely had been in a car wreck and went into a ravine in Patrick County, Vipperman said. The defendant left work at 12:33 p.m.
The last person to speak to Gravely was her friend Amanda Foddrell, Vipperman said. They spoke at approximately 9 p.m. Friday night, and last texted around 10 p.m.
Gravely’s mother reported her missing the next night, Saturday, Nov. 15. Her mother thought it was suspicious that Joyce called her twice on Saturday looking for Gravely when he knew she didn’t approve of his dating her daughter, Vipperman said.
When Foddrell visited Gravely’s house after becoming concerned, she found Gravely’s car door and trunk lid open. The back door to the house was also standing open and the dog was loose outside, Vipperman said. Inside, the linens from the master bedroom were missing, but Gravely’s shoes, coat, purse and keys were still there. Her wallet and cell phone were also missing.
At that point, Gravely’s disappearance was ruled suspicious and multiple officers and law enforcement officers became involved, Vipperman said. The Virginia State Police crime scene unit processed Gravely’s home for evidence collection.
Gravely’s blood was found on a Sanyo remote control on the bedside table in the master bedroom, a LG remote control on a chair in the bedroom, and stains in the bathroom floor near the sink.
On Sunday, Nov. 16, Investigator Terry Mikels of the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office spoke to the defendant by phone about Gravely’s disappearance. Joyce said he hadn’t seen her since Friday morning when he left for work. When asked about the missing bed linens, Joyce said he took them on Friday afternoon when he went to retrieve his belongings.
Joyce said he was in Hickory, N.C., but would come to the sheriff’s office at 10 a.m. A check of Joyce’s cell phone showed it was pinging off a tower near Sellers Ave. in Greensboro, N.C., as opposed to his statement of being in Hickory, Vipperman said.
At the sheriff’s office, Mikels told Joyce he was not under arrest and was free to leave at any time. However, the defendant continued to talk, Vipperman said. Joyce said he was last at Gravely’s house on Friday afternoon, and hadn’t been back to Patrick County since then.
When asked about the bed linens again, Joyce said they were in his car at a friend’s apartment in Greensboro. Joyce, driving a friend’s car, agreed to let Mikels follow him to retrieve the linens.
Mikels noticed that the passenger seat of Joyce’s car was completely pulled to the rear and the backrest was completely down, Vipperman said. When Joyce opened the trunk, there were no linens there. Mikels asked Joyce why he lied, and he said the linens were inside the apartment. Mikels followed Joyce into the apartment and Joyce held up a small beige cloth. The apartment occupant, Cholanna Wallace, said the cloth belonged to her.
Joyce then told Mikels that he threw the bed linens into a dumpster off Martin Farm Road in Patrick County. When the VSP crime scene unit went through the dumpster, they didn’t find any bed linens.
Mikels left Greensboro and the sheriff’s office continued its investigation with Joyce as the main suspect. Records from the debit cards of the defendant and the victim showed purchases made by Joyce Saturday. A video surveillance of M&M Store in Patrick County showed a vehicle similar in size and color to the defendant’s vehicle at the gas pump, Vipperman said.
Cell phone records showed Joyce’s cell phone and Gravely’s cell phone hitting on the same towers on Nov. 15, Vipperman said.
North Carolina law enforcement officers obtained a search warrant for the defendant’s car and seized it on Tuesday, Nov. 18. The right front passenger seat and the center console on the driver’s side were tested with luminal for the presence of blood and resulted in a positive reaction, Vipperman said.
Investigators interviewed Joyce again at Wallace’s apartment in Greensboro on Friday, Nov. 21. The primary officers who spoke to Joyce were Sheriff Dan Smith, Sgt. Eric O’Connell, and VSP Agent Mike Bowman.
“Throughout the interview officers would disclose a little more information they had gathered in their investigation,” Vipperman said.
When confronted with information that Gravely’s blood was inside Joyce’s car, Joyce denied that he had ever physically assaulted Gravely, that she had ever attacked him, or that Gravely was even in his car. “At that point, officers only knew there was someone’s blood in the car,” Vipperman said.
Joyce denied having Gravely’s phone at first, but then admitted that he had it and threw it in a lake on Rt. 220 on the way to Wallace’s apartment. He said he and Gravely argued about some pictures she sent to another man, but that they never got into a physical fight, Vipperman said.
The defendant continued to deny knowing where Gravely was. Finally, seven hours later, warrants for robbery and abduction were obtained for the defendant’s arrest. U.S. Marshall Matt Hicks arrested Joyce, and Sgt. O’Connell, who is also a sworn federal task force officer, read Joyce his Miranda rights, which he agreed to waive.
“The defendant became emotional, cried, and said he would take the officers to where he put her if they would put the handcuffs in front of him,” Vipperman said. “Defendant said her body was in Henry County, off a bank on George Taylor Road, not visible from the road.”
Deputies were dispatched to that location with Lt. Rob Coleman being the first to arrive, and he confirmed that Gravely’s body was there, Vipperman said.
Sgt. O’Connell continued to ask Joyce what really happened, Vipperman said.
“The defendant said he wrapped his hands around Gravely’s neck and choked her until she took her last breath,” Vipperman said. “Defendant claimed he didn’t mean to kill her, but he just flipped out. But then he put her body in his car and drove her to the bridge location and left her body there.”
The defendant denied ever punching or hitting Gravely although he could never explain any of the injuries on her body, Vipperman said, which included a cut on her right forehead, a left black eye, small red bumps of blood under the skin of the right side of her face, a cut on the inside of her upper lip, a cut and bruise on the left side of the mouth, bruises along the collarbone measuring up to six inches, a bruise on the right lower abdomen, multiple circular and irregular contusions on her upper arms, abrasions of the hand and forearm, and recent bruises on her lower extremities, particularly along the inside upper thighs and lower calves.
“According to Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Jennifer Bowman, who performed the autopsy, none of the above injuries could have occurred post-mortem, e.g., during transport, disposal, or during the week her body was left exposed to the elements,” Vipperman said.
“Gravely’s neck had non-circumferential, upward tilting ligature bruises ranging from 1/4 inch to four inches,” Vipperman said. “The cause of death was ruled asphyxia (suffocation) due to ligature strangulation. Gravely was wearing a camisole that was wrapped around her neck when her body was found.”