By Nancy Lindsey
In a hearing in Patrick County Circuit Court on March 22, Judge Martin Clark accepted Travis Dylan Hazelwood’s plea of “not guilty by reason of insanity” in the first-degree murder of Larry Gilliam on Dec. 31, 2014.
Hazelwood and Gilliam were among a group of men hunting rabbits when the shooting occurred near 70 Boaz Pond Lane in the Patrick Springs area, Sheriff Dan Smith reported at the time of the incident.
Hazelwood admitted to deputies that he shot Gilliam in the back and “meant to kill him,” according to a summary of the commonwealth’s evidence read in court by Patrick County Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Vipperman.
Although Vipperman decided not to contest Hazelwood’s insanity plea, she also pledged to do everything in her power to make sure he stays in a state mental institution.
“Now that Hazelwood has entered his formal plea of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI), and his plea has been accepted by the court, I am free to make extra-judicial statements to the press and would like to address his plea and the consequences of his plea,” Vipperman said in a news release.
After being notified by Hazelwood’s defense attorney, Alan Black, that a sanity evaluation had been completed and an NGRI plea would be presented, Vipperman said, the commonwealth hired its own expert, Dr. Leigh Hagan, to complete another independent evaluation of Hazelwood.
Hagan was “highly recommended” by prosecutors across the state, Vipperman said.
“In his expert opinion, Dr. Hagan declared that Hazelwood met the requirements for NGRI,” Vipperman said. “Despite my scrupulous review of the evidence with Dr. Hagan after he issued his opinion, he still maintained that Hazelwood met the criteria for the legal definition of insanity.
“With no evidence or expert to disprove Hazelwood’s insanity, I was left with no other course of action,” Vipperman said. “I therefore conceded his NGRI plea.”
Vipperman said the principle behind the NGRI plea is that Virginians, through their legislators, “believe that the law should not punish defendants who committed a criminal act for reasons beyond their control as a direct result of mental disease.
“It is a matter of law that someone who meets the criteria for insanity be committed to an institution as opposed to prison,” Vipperman said. “I am bound to uphold that law. I am also bound ethically as a lawyer to conform to the requirements of the law.”
To get the most accurate information and understanding of what the insanity plea would entail, Vipperman said, she consulted with professionals in the Department of Behavioral Health and Development and prosecutors across the state. She said she learned that judges tend to be reluctant to release murderers on conditional release both initially and thereafter.
“The detailed plan for conditional release that is set out by the judge is critically monitored by the local community services board,” Vipperman said. “They may request a revocation of the conditional release at any time for noncompliance with the plan, which will result in immediate commitment to a state institution again.
“State institutions are also very different from public hospitals,” Vipperman said. “They have high levels of security, including maximum security at Central State Hospital in Petersburg which is akin to jail/prison.”
Vipperman said prosecutors who had handled NGRI pleas in murder cases recalled indefinite commitment periods ranging from 10 years to life in their specific cases.
“The indefinite and unknown commitment period is what is frustrating to the Gilliam family and myself about this plea,” Vipperman said.
“This has been a difficult time for all involved in this case, but it has been especially difficult and painful for Charles Larry Gilliam’s wife, sons, sisters and those who knew and loved him,” Vipperman said. “Several members of the family have voiced their concerns and disappointment with the legal process and the NGRI plea. The family has continually questioned why their loved one was killed.
“Our hope is that Hazelwood will remain committed for an extended period,” Vipperman said. “My promise to the Gilliam family and our community that I will never stop fighting he remain committed in a state institution as long as I am the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Patrick County.”
According to the summary of the case presented by Vipperman, Travis Hazelwood’s father, Brian Hazelwood, called 911 at 10:45 a.m. to report that Gilliam had been shot while rabbit-hunting with the Hazelwoods, David Knowles and William Collins.
The responding officers—Major Garry Brown, Investigator Brian Hubbard, Investigator Steve Austin and Deputy Jesse Pickerel—asked Travis Hazelwood what had happened.
Hazelwood said “he,” referring to Gilliam, had placed a bomb in his grandpa’s house but had removed it. Hazelwood repeated his statement to Brown: “I shot him. He had put a bomb in my house and has been threatening my family.”
In response to questioning, Hazelwood said Gilliam had “removed the bomb from the house.”
Brown asked Hazelwood if he shot Gilliam on purpose, and he responded, “Yes, I meant to kill him.”
Hubbard did a patdown of the defendant and found a spent 16 gauge shotgun shell in his right front pocket. Later, at the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office, Hubbard found more 16 gauge shotgun shells in Hazelwood’s back pocket.
Hubbard read Hazelwood his Miranda rights, which he agreed to waive, Vipperman said.
“Defendant said he wasn’t under the influence of any drugs or alcohol,” Vipperman said. “He said he had wanted to kill ‘him’ for a while and when he saw him that morning, he thought about killing him.”
The defendant said he put his gun to his shoulder, aimed at Gilliam’s mid-back, and shot him from about 15 to 20 feet away, Vipperman said. “Defendant said he wanted him to die and meant to kill him…Defendant felt relieved and good now that he was dead because he took care of the family problem.”
Vipperman said Dr. Jennifer Melerski evaluated the defendant on Jan. 22, 2015, and Dr. Leigh Hagan evaluated him on Jan. 12, 2016. Both diagnosed Hazelwood with schizophrenia.
According to Dr. Hagan, “for persons who develop schizophrenia, the psychotic features typically appear during late teens and mid-30s with the peak occurrence of first psychotic episodes in the early to mid-20s for males.”
Signs and symptoms may be misassessed as depression, anxiousness and obsessive qualities as a result to trauma or significant losses, Hagan said.
“The full picture of the mental disorder very often is not clear until the florid psychotic break…I can say with certainty that, on the day in question, he suffered a separation from reality marked principally by paranoid delusions which are not attributable to alcohol/substance abuse.”
Dr. Melerski reported that Hazelwood’s symptoms included significant mood impairment as well as a thought disorder with psychosis.
“His ability to communicate during the current assessment and police interrogation was significantly impaired with poverty of thought, possible thought blocking, and disorganization to the extent that he was not capable of putting together logical trains of thought,” Melerski said. “He voiced bizarre symptoms (and) gave multiple nonsensical explanations for his behaviors, all of which were paranoid in nature. He expressed the belief that he and his family were in danger, at times imminently…”
Hazelwood also “articulated delusions of reference—that the radio and television were talking about/to him,” Melerski said.
“Both psychologists also opined that because of this psychotic behavior, Hazelwood acted upon paranois and delusional beliefs when he shot Mr. Gilliam,” Vipperman said. “Hazelwood believed that ‘Ronald Dillon’ had planted a bomb and was threatening Hazelwood and his family. Hazelwood believed that Larry Gilliam was ‘Ronald Dillon.’”
Vipperman stated in the summary that Ronald Dillon is a relative of Hazelwood’s who is serving a prison sentence for drugs and firearms charges, and that he did threaten to blow up law enforcement officers.
“Hazelwood also believed that the victim was a bad person and had engaged in plots and schemes to unlawfully take land and a home belonging to Hazelwood’s grandfather, “Vipperman said. “In Hazelwood’s mind, he had to kill the victim to save his family.”