HARLAN — More than seven years after a charismatic former sheriff of Harlan County was shot to death while trying to win back the office, the last person charged in the crime — a former deputy — admitted his role in the slaying.
Roger D. Hall, 41, pleaded guilty Monday to two counts of facilitation to murder Paul L. Browning Jr. in March 2002, acknowledging that he supplied the gun and a $1,000 payment to kill Browning.
The plea could put the sensational case to rest.
Hall is the fourth person convicted in Browning's murder. There is no evidence that anyone else was involved, state police detective Michael H. Cornett said, although he is seeking an interview with Hall to make sure.
Browning's widow, Jayne, and son Paul L. Browning III said they were glad to hear Hall admit that he took part in the murder.
"Year after year after year, that's what we've been waiting to hear," said Browning's son, who had known Hall when both were children. "This has been a very long, very hard, very strange road."
Hall also pleaded guilty to four counts of being involved in drug trafficking with Dewayne Harris, a large-scale dealer who once bribed Hall for protection but turned on him after learning of an affair between his wife and Hall.
Hall entered an Alford plea, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged strong evidence against him. The effect is the same as a guilty plea.
The recommended sentence for Hall is 30 years. Special Circuit Judge James Bowling scheduled sentencing for Nov. 2.
If Bowling approves the deal, Hall would be eligible for parole in six years.
Browning had been a mercurial figure in Harlan County for nearly three decades. He was sheriff in the early 1980s, but he was stripped of the office after being convicted of plotting to kill political enemies. After his right to hold office was restored, he was running against incumbent Sheriff Steve Duff in the 2002 primary.
Hall investigated drug cases for the sheriff's office. But he also was taking thousands of dollars a week from Harris in return for information on investigations and for transporting drugs for him, Harris has testified.
Cornett said that Harris said he also gave Browning cash. Browning had discussed taking a 25 percent cut of Harris' profits in return for protecting him if elected, Cornett said.
Hall became concerned that Browning would win and fire him, costing him not only a paycheck but access to bribes, Harris said, and so he decided he wanted Browning eliminated.
At one point, according to Harris, Hall considered pulling Browning over on U.S. 119 and shooting him, then concocting a story to justify the shooting, Cornett said.
Instead, Harris' uncle, Raymond Harris, volunteered to kill Browning after overhearing Harris discussing the crime with Hall, according to earlier testimony.
The plan was to kill Browning in Tennessee and burn his truck in Virginia.
That would have meant three police agencies would have had pieces of the mystery — the body, a burned truck and a missing person — potentially making it harder to solve the crime, said Cornett, who was once a deputy with Hall.
But Raymond Harris shot Browning prematurely in Kentucky. He and Johnny Epperson, a cocaine addict who helped Dewayne Harris sell drugs, burned Browning's body in his pickup at a secluded spot in Bell County, according to trial testimony.
Raymond Harris was convicted in the murder. Dewayne Harris and Epperson pleaded guilty.
Police knew early on that Harris and Epperson had been with Browning the day he died, but it took a while to put together the pieces of the case.
A break came after De wayne Harris was arrested on federal drug charges in 2003 and went to prison. His wife, Edna, had had a sexual relationship with Hall and recorded a conversation in which they discussed the affair and mentioned selling Dewayne Harris' baseball card collection.
Edna Harris later gave police the tape. Dewayne Harris decided to give information against Hall after Cornett played the tape for him, Cornett said.
"I believe that he thought Roger had his baseball cards and was going to sell them," Cornett said.