, Muskogee, OK

January 29, 2013

Testimony begins in hearing over Weleetka deaths

Associated Press

OKEMAH, Okla. (AP) — The grandfather of one of two girls found dead along a rural Oklahoma road in 2008 testified Monday that he went looking for the pair after they didn't return from a walk and screamed in terror when he found their lifeless bodies.

Peter Placker testified on the first day of a preliminary hearing for Kevin Sweat, who is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of 13-year-old Taylor Placker, who lived with her grandfather, and her friend, 11-year-old Skyla Whitaker. Prosecutors had no suspects until Sweat was arrested in his girlfriend's death in 2011, when investigators allege he confessed to fatally shooting the two girls.

The hearing will determine if prosecutors have enough evidence to try Sweat, who has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.

Placker said he went searching for both girls only minutes after they set out on their walk in June 2008. He said he never heard gunshots but found Taylor in a ditch and Skyla on a nearby embankment about 300 yards from his home. After checking both girls for a pulse, "I started screaming my head off," he testified.

He added that Skyla's mother was on her way to his house to pick up her daughter when he found the children's bodies. He said he refused to allow Skyla's mother to go farther down the road.

"I didn't want her to see what I saw," Placker said.

Sweat was charged in the girls' deaths after being arrested in connection to the death of his girlfriend, Ashley Taylor. An affidavit filed in the case alleges that Sweat told an investigator he saw "two monsters come at him" and fired at the girls with two handguns, a .40-caliber and a .22-caliber. However, neither weapon has been found.

Sweat's attorneys have filed a motion to throw out Sweat's statements, but a judge has not yet ruled on that request.

Although the weapons allegedly used in the shootings haven't been recovered, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation firearms expert Terrance Higgs said marks on .40-caliber shell casings recovered from the scene matched those recovered from Sweat's father's property.

Higgs also said the marks matched those from a test firing several years ago of a .40-caliber handgun by the Baltimore Police Department, which purchased the gun in 2001. The gun was later refurbished and, after several private sales and trades, eventually sold to Sweat.

The judge made no rulings Monday. The hearing is expected to continue Tuesday.

Taylor's father attended Monday's hearing, saying he plans to attend as many as possible in the two criminal cases. He said he wants to know if his daughter's case, which is set for trial in June, is connected to the deaths of the girls.

"I just feel it's necessary," her father, Michael Taylor, said. "There's a lot of questions that haven't been answered yet."

Prosecutors suggested a possible connection as they questioned Sweat's mother and her cousin about statements Sweat made about his relationship with Ashley Taylor and his desire to break up with her. Assistant District Attorney Maxey Reilly asked if Sweat had told them Taylor would spread lies about him if he broke off the relationship, including blaming him for the girls' deaths.

But neither Sweat's mother, Deborah Sweat, nor her cousin, James McClellan, said they remembered Sweat saying Taylor had threatened to tell authorities he shot the two girls.