Crime

Former preacher accused of three slayings testifies during hearings

Kenneth Allen Keith, the former Pulaski County preacher accused of murder in the shooting deaths of three people at a Danville pawn shop, turned to say goodbye to his wife after a Monday hearing in Boyle Circuit Court.
Kenneth Allen Keith, the former Pulaski County preacher accused of murder in the shooting deaths of three people at a Danville pawn shop, turned to say goodbye to his wife after a Monday hearing in Boyle Circuit Court. gkocher1@herald-leader.com

The former preacher accused in the 2013 slayings of three people took the witness stand twice Monday during separate hearings in Boyle Circuit Court.

Kenneth Allen Keith, 50, testified that he thought telephone conversations he had with Michigan preacher Tracy Herald were private and privileged in the same way that pastor-parishoner conversations are considered private. Under state law, communications between a person and clergyman are “privileged” and should not be used against a defendant. Keith’s defense has sought to have recorded conversations between Keith and Herald suppressed so a jury will not hear them at trial.

“I was calling at his invitation,” Keith said of Herald. “I was speaking to him on a church phone at a church office. I believed these things to be private and with the hopes that he would do as he had always done, give me some advice, give me some spiritual guidance on how I should deal with these feelings.”

Keith, former pastor of Main Street Baptist Church in Burnside, has pleaded not guilty in the shooting deaths of Michael Hockensmith, 35, and his wife, Angela, 38, both of Stanford, and Daniel Smith, 60, of Richmond, in a Danville pawn shop co-owned by the Hockensmiths in September 2013. Michael Hockensmith formerly worked for Keith at the store before assuming ownership and changing the business’s name.

Herald, pastor of a Baptist church in Warren, Mich., testified that he had known Keith for 12 or 13 years. Herald had learned about the shootings through Facebook posts. Herald said that during one telephone conversation he referred to Smith, a gold broker, as the target of a “hit” and the Hockensmiths as “innocent victims.”

Herald testified that Keith’s tone changed at the mention of the Hockensmiths as “innocent.” Herald quoted Keith as saying, “They’re not innocent! They cost me a lot of money!”

I was speaking to him on a church phone at a church office. I believed these things to be private and with the hopes that he would do as he had always done, give me some advice, give me some spiritual guidance on how I should deal with these feelings.

Kenneth Allen Keith, a former preacher accused of killing 3 people

“I was kind of shocked by that,” Herald said.

Herald called Danville police about the conversation. After that, Herald had three more conversations with Keith, all of which were recorded for law enforcement.

Keith acknowledged during his testimony that he thought the Hockensmiths had “stolen” the Danville pawn shop from him and that Angela Hockensmith had notified state authorities that, under Keith’s tenure as owner, the business did not have insurance for workers’ compensation.

Keith also indicated he might well be considered as a suspect in the slayings, Herald said. Furthermore, in one conversation, Keith told Herald, “I am not going to prison.”

“I thought he was going to kill himself or something,” Herald said. Keith acknowledged in his testimony that suicide had crossed his mind.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Richie Bottoms asked Herald, “Was there ever that impression that you were providing pastoral counseling?” to Keith.

“No, sir.” Herald said.

“Did you ever feel that it entered the realm of pastor-parishoner privilege, from your side of the conversation? Did it ever enter into that realm at all?” Bottoms asked.

“No, sir,” Herald said.

Keith also testified during a separate hearing in which the defense sought the return of cash seized by police from a safe at a Somerset pawn shop owned by Keith.

Boyle Circuit Judge Darren Peckler made no ruling after the two hearings but gave the prosecution and defense 21 days to submit briefs stating their positions.

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