Murder and meth were the worst of 2003

Wednesday, January 7, 2004

BERRYVILLE ---- The year 2003 was a remarkable year for crime in Carroll County, with two brutal murders and the dawning of a heated campaign against the insidious rise of methamphetamine.

According to Sheriff Chuck Medford and police investigators across the county, meth use can be tied to many of the county's crimes, and though use of the drug has been documented as a growing threat for years, it is now beginning to show up in the criminal courts as the seed of this area's record-breaking criminal cases.

In 2003, murder bordered on bizarre, and, investigators suspect, may be related to methamphetamine.

The murders have not come to trial yet.

  • In a crime that shocked the county, Darrell Michael Heaster, 50, of Berryville, was essentially burned to death by a man who was a stranger to him. He died at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 31 from injuries he received near Eureka Springs Aug. 1, including a beating, burns covering much of his body, and other complications.

    He had been in a medically-induced coma because of severe pain, and apparently never regained consciousness.

    Investigators had hoped he would be able to tell them who killed him, but Heaster's last words to paramedics and an intense investigation into forensic evidence at the scene led to the arrest of Cory Lynn Howerton, 24, of rural Eureka Springs, who was charged with capital murder and aggravated robbery in the burning death of the man known as "Hitchhikin' Mike," a harmless, disabled man who had accepted a ride from a stranger. Howerton, though charged, has not yet had his day in court.

    The man who killed Heaster invited him to drink some beer, and then he took Heaster to an off-road area, allegedly he beat him and set him on fire. Possibly, one of the assailant's motives was Heaster's disability money.

  • In a bloody attack on June 4, Richard Wesley Gerrard, Jr., was gunned down in the doorway of his rural home south of Green Forest.

    Gerrard had been shot multiple times with a .22-calibre weapon, apparently as he answered his door.

    Three people have been charged with that murder after a lengthy investigation that led to suspects in Mississippi and Missouri.

    Brandon Lee Webb, 21, was arrested in Missouri and later charged here with first-degree murder.

    Two other suspects were also charged with first-degree murder: David Greenhaw, 25, of Springdale; and Leslie Ward, 35, of Hattiesburg, Miss.

    Other suspects in the murder faced charges also, including hindering apprehension of a fugitive.

    Meth arrests dominated the headlines and the courtrooms in 2003, and Sheriff Medford's criminal investigation division began a campaign in early 2003 that has so far resulted in 27 meth labs being broken up.

    Investigators, deputies and police in Green Forest and Berryville have often teamed up on numerous raids, at one point hitting multiple labs in Green Forest at the same time.

    Busts have ranged from the cities to rural areas, and even included a "lab on wheels" that was seized in a vehicle.

    Each lab bust has taxed the sheriff's department, federal hazardous clean-up crews, and the county's budget.

    The labs, some small and some significant, had been churning out methamphetamine to an unknown and growing number of meth users in the county.

    At one point, several investigators refused to speculate on how many meth users there are in Carroll County. "It could be hundreds, it could be thousands," was the closest estimate.

    The courts are getting clogged with the results of the raids and arrests.

    Out of 413 total felonies in the eastern district of the county, there were 14 arrests for possession with intent to manufacture the lethal drug, 13 for possession of meth with intent to deliver, 20 for possession of meth, and 30 for possession of drug paraphernalia.

    As yet untold numbers of these crimes can be directly related to other crimes in Carroll County, and the courts and investigators are still trying to untangle the details.

    The crime statistics in the western judicial district based in Eureka Springs are significantly lower, but increasing also. That most heinous death, of Michael Heaster, occurred on the outskirts of Eureka Springs.

    Just last month, Berryville police cracked a rash of thefts and burglaries that solved dozens of felonies, and they apparently led to one suspect who was trading meth for stolen goods.

    The crime increases of 2003 have resulted in so much overtime that the county has had to put the brakes on overtime, and some Berryville and Green Forest officers have been reporting to work on their own time to help stem the tide. It is expected that, as in the past, the above-mentioned murders may eventually be linked in part to meth, just as the Berryville police linked thefts to meth.

    "You can say that," said one county lawman recently.

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