Murder defendant said he bludgeoned his landlord to death because she asked him to

gkocher1@herald-leader.comApril 16, 2014 

— In a recorded statement played in a courtroom Wednesday, murder defendant Terrence Allen Cram said he hit his landlord in the head with a sledgehammer because she pleaded for him to do so after she fell down her basement stairs.

Before striking the fatal blows to Tena McNeely's skull, Cram said, he "asked her to close her eyes. I kissed her on the forehead."

The recorded statement and another statement, which Cram handwrote for Kentucky State Police, were entered into the court record Wednesday after a 2½-hour suppression hearing.

Cram, 50, is accused of murder in the death of McNeely, 49, who was found dead in January 2011 in her home in rural Anderson County. An autopsy by the state medical examiner determined that she died of brain injury from blunt impact.

The suppression hearing — held in Shelbyville for the convenience of Judge Charles Hickman and prosecutor Laura Witt Donnell, who have offices there, and Cram, who is in the Shelby County jail — was sought because defense attorney Melanie Lowe seeks to keep a jury from hearing Cram's oral statement to police at his upcoming trial. It is scheduled to begin May 12 in Lawrenceburg.

Cram was arrested in June 2011, about six months after police received a tip that he was living in Goodyear, Ariz. Brian Sumner and Robert Harris of the Kentucky State Police flew to Phoenix, where Cram was jailed, to return him to Kentucky.

Cram had refused to speak to the two at the jail in Phoenix after he was read his Miranda rights. But Harris testified Wednesday that as the three were about to board a plane from Phoenix to Dallas, Cram told him, "I just wanted to tell you why I did it."

During a layover in Dallas, Cram gave a voluntary oral statement to Harris, not knowing that Harris had turned on a digital recorder that was in the sleeve of a notebook. Harris said he reminded Cram about his Miranda rights before taking the oral statement.

The recorded statement — filled with flight announcements over a loudspeaker, a screaming child, and Cram's rapid-fire speech punctuated by "you know" — was mostly unintelligible in the courtroom. But on the flight from Dallas to Louisville, Harris had Cram write a statement.

Cram had lived for several years on the same property with McNeely, whom he described as having a permanent disability because of a "degenerative spine." The two had met in July 2003, after he returned to Kentucky after his wife's death in August 2002 in Arizona. Cram was looking for a place to stay, and McNeely "was looking for a handyman," he wrote in his statement.

"I was looking to live as much like a social hermit as possible," Cram wrote.

According to his statement, after a morning grocery-shopping trip to Lawrenceburg, Cram returned home to find the basement door ajar and the light on. He pushed open the door and found blood on the stairs, and McNeely at the bottom of the stairs. She was bleeding from the top left side of her head.

"I said I was going to call 911. She yelled NO," Cram wrote. The statement says McNeely told him that she had fallen twice — falling backwards the first time, and then climbing back to the top but tumbling back down again.

"After telling me not to call 911 — she pleaded with me to kill her," Cram wrote. "Something she had asked me to do many times in the past — when she was hurting bad or severely depressed.

"I told her I couldn't and that we would make things work out. NO! She was going to be in a wheelchair or worse. She said she couldn't move her left leg and the rest of her body was wracked in pain."

"Please, please kill me? I can't and won't live like this," McNeely told Cram, according to his written statement.

Cram said he had considered using one of the two guns in a closet and had considered "suffocation with a plastic bag, but I would have to basically choke her with my hands.

"The only close instrument at hand was a double sledge/maul. ... I showed it to her and asked again," Cram wrote. "I said this was going to permanently change us both. I was going to kill her and she was going to be dead. She said yes again."

At that point, "I asked her to close her eyes. I kissed her on her forehead," the written statement says.

Then, "I hit her the 1st time with a low-velocity blow. — hoping that it would be enough," the written statement says. "She started screaming and flailing. I was in shock at what I had done. I had to stop her pain.

"I swung again and again until she stopped moving. I stood and stared at her for what seemed forever. I think about it daily."

In the recorded statement, Cram said he discarded the sledgehammer on his drive to Florida. From there he drove to Arizona, where he was arrested. In addition to murder, he is charged with tampering with evidence and fraudulent use of a credit card.

Also in the recorded statement, Harris said he thought Cram's story was true. But Donnell, the prosecutor, declined to say after Wednesday's hearing whether Harris truly believed Cram's account.

Judge Hickman made no ruling on whether to suppress the statements. He instructed the attorneys to submit written arguments before April 25. He will rule on the suppression motion before the final pretrial conference on May 6, six days before the start of the trial.

In another matter, Hickman denied Lowe's motion to reduce Cram's $500,000 cash bond. Hickman said Cram is a flight risk and is a danger to himself and to others. The judge also cited "the serious nature of the crime."

McNeely was the daughter of Kentucky State Trooper James McNeely, who died on duty during a flood rescue in the early 1970s.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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