Threatened to throw me from a cliff, Branning's ex told police
CARROLL COUNTY -- Christopher Branning, the only known witness to his wife's fatal fall from Lovers' Leap last summer, had previously threatened to throw a different woman from a cliff, recently released court records allege.
A former girlfriend of Branning's had filed a petition for an order of protection in 2009 -- accusing him of raping and beating her, dragging her across her own backyard, and then threatening to hurl her from a cliff.
"This is what we do to bit**es," Branning allegedly told her as she pleaded for her life.
That woman lived to tell the tale, but three years later, on July 24, 2012, Crystal McCarley Branning's lifeless body was found at the base of Lovers' Leap, a 200-foot-high bluff south of Green Forest.
Her husband had called 911 in a panic shortly beforehand, and when police arrived, they reportedly found him pacing and muttering to himself.
Crystal Branning's death has been deemed an accident for the time being, and her husband has not officially been named a suspect.
Sheriff Bob Grudek said earlier this week that police had concluded their investigation of the death several weeks ago and delivered the case file to Prosecuting Attorney Tony Rogers. However, as of Thursday, no charges had been filed in relation to the fatal fall, and authorities repeatedly refused to reveal their intentions or discuss any details of the investigation.
Charles Kokes, chief medical examiner for the state, said Monday that an autopsy performed on Branning's body had been inconclusive -- though law enforcement sources have indicated that a separate, federal examination of her remains may have had different, clearer results. It is unclear what other evidence prosecutors might possess.
Christopher Branning was arrested after his wife's death, on parole violations stemming from an earlier, unrelated conviction. But he has been on supervised release since this February.
The 2009 order of protection petition was ultimately dismissed, after Branning's girlfriend, the petitioner, did not appear at a court hearing.
But the cliff incident was not the only time Branning had been accused of violence against her, his late wife, or others. Branning has been charged on separate occasions over the last 15 years with kidnapping, theft, third-degree battery, bribery, possessing an instrument of crime, residential burglary, aggravated assault, carrying a knife, terroristic threatening, theft of motorfuel, first-degree criminal mischief, trespass, escape, possession of drug paraphernalia, public intoxication, possessing a fictitious license, and driving without proper identification, registration, or insurance.
In 2005, Branning was convicted of second-degree stalking, two counts of terroristic threatening, and one count of violating a protection order -- all charges involving a former wife.
He was sentenced to 10 years in state prison for the crimes, but he was released on parole only two years later.
In 2008, he was accused of beating his girlfriend -- the same woman who would later file the petition -- and threatening to kill her and two of her friends.
He was charged with three counts of terroristic threatening, a Class D Felony, and one count of domestic battery, a Class A Misdemeanor, in relation to that incident.
The state agreed not to prosecute Branning for the felonies in exchange for his pleading no contest to the lesser charge, and he was sentenced to nine months in county jail and $770 in fines and restitution.
Branning met Crystal McCarley in the summer of 2009 and, the following spring, was accused of attacking her and her 15-year-old daughter.
He allegedly strangled each of them on separate occasions, held a knife to McCarley's throat, and assaulted her sister and a friend when they attempted to intervene. He then allegedly threatened to burn their home to the ground.
After one of these incidents, McCarley filed a petition for an order of protection. Records show Branning received the temporary order, as well as a summons to appear at a court hearing on a permanent order. However, the result of that hearing is unknown, because the final judge's order is missing from courthouse records.
Branning was later charged with three counts of third-degree domestic battery, three counts of aggravated assault on a household member, two counts of third-degree battery, and two counts of terroristic threatening in relation to the attacks.
These cases never went to trial, though. Instead, Carroll County prosecutors agreed to lay aside eight of the 11 offenses. In exchange, Branning pleaded guilty to two counts of terroristic threatening and one count of third-degree domestic battery and was sentenced to six months in jail and $1,020 in fines and restitution.
He was given an additional 10 years' suspended sentence, to be served only if he violated certain terms set by a judge. Unlike convicts serving probation or parole, those serving suspended sentences receive no supervision to ensure they comply with judges' orders.
It was not apparent as of press time what the terms of Branning's suspended sentence were. However, so far, he has not served any of those 10 years.
Branning was again released on parole in 2011, to continue serving his 2005 sentence, and was under supervised release when his wife died.
Rhonda Sharp is a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Community Corrections, which oversees probation and parole programs in the state.
When asked how someone with such an extensive criminal record could be repeatedly returned to the streets, Sharp said that, by law, the Arkansas Parole Board can rarely deny an inmate parole.
Most prisoners in Arkansas will become eligible for supervised release at some point in their sentence, she said. How much time they must serve before becoming eligible is calculated based on the type of offense, the length of their sentence, and their behavior while incarcerated.
There are only 14 crimes -- ranging from capital murder to sexual abuse -- for which the parole board can legally deny an inmate the opportunity of parole .
In all other cases, Sharp said, "they have no option but to grant parole" -- or else defer the inmate's request while they complete some type of rehabilitative program.
None of Branning's crimes was on that list of 14, meaning the parole board had little option but to place him under supervised release.
Sharp said Branning will have served the length of his sentence -- and be entirely free -- on Aug. 21, 2014.