Pretrial hearings begin in Andrew Nichols murder case

COVINGTON -- Security was increased at the Newton County Judicial Center on Thursday when pretrial motions and hearings were under way for four defendants charged in connection with the December murder of Andrew Nichols.

The presence of officers from multiple law enforcement agencies was clearly visible in and around the courthouse, and everyone entering the courtroom for the hearings was physically searched.

Defendants Michael Scott West, Robert Vincent Lambert, Chad Ashley Allen and Sam Dumas Dawkins are charged in connection with the murder and were present for different portions of the hearings, as were Tonya Owenby and Mindy James, both of whom are facing drug charges brought to light during the murder investigation.

During the afternoon a motion to suppress evidence recovered during the execution of two separate search warrants for Dawkins' property at 454 Deer Trail in Oxford -- where the murder is alleged to have taken place in a shed behind the home -- was brought before Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn.

Defense attorney Amanda Palmer presented arguments concerning the confiscation of multiple weapons, computers, memory cards, miscellaneous paperwork and lawn equipment and asserted there was no evidence such items had anything to do with the murder. Also, she said that law enforcement officers had no justifiable reason for entering Dawkins' home or searching vehicles on his property, as they had been told by a co-defendant that the murder took place in a shed on the property.

Prosecutor Warren Summers countered that Newton County Sheriff's Office investigators who executed the search warrants also had a DNA search warrant allowing them to look for DNA evidence and they had reason to believe that certain aspects of the crime, namely the beating of the victim that allegedly took place in a vehicle, had been recorded and could have been downloaded to a computer belonging to Dawkins. Ozburn promised to have a decision on the various aspects argued as soon as possible.

Also brought before the judge was a bond motion for defendant Dawkins. Two witnesses testified on his behalf, including Peggy Wilson, the mother of Dawkins' fiance Tonya Wilson Owenby. She testified that she did not believe in her heart that Dawkins could be guilty of murder and that she did not believe he would be a danger to the community or a flight risk.

When questioned by Summers, who asked her whether Dawkins and her daughter were "in the methamphetamine business," Wilson said "both he and my daughter did wrong," acknowledging the evidence that they apparently did sell drugs.

Dawkins' friend Buddy Sharpton also testified that he was a friend of Dawkins and had offered him a place to live should he be granted bond. He also said he did not believe he would be a danger to the community.

Summers pointed out that Sharpton had helped at least one other person connected with the drug trade get out of jail in the past and pointed to Dawkins' previous criminal history in California. He said there was evidence Nichols had been shot multiple times at Dawkins' residence and "we have a combination of methamphetamine and murder, and I don't know what's more dangerous than that."

Palmer also introduced letters from Dawkins' family, all of whom live in California, testifying to his good character and told the judge that Dawkins' chief accuser, West, had recanted his story that Dawkins was involved in the murder and asserted that Dawkins would not be a danger to the community.

In the end, Ozburn was not convinced and said he would not grant bond based on the evidence that Dawkins was involved in the methamphetamine trade. He also noted that because certain information had surfaced concerning the murder he wished to expedite the cases of the four defendants charged in the murder as quickly as possible.

Nichols' body was found in a wooded area in Walton County off Clegg Farm Road on Dec. 6. It was later determined by NCSO investigators that Nichols was killed in Newton County on the Deer Trail property near Gum Creek Road.