The man accused of killing four people a year ago in Farmville pleaded guilty Sept. 20 in Prince Edward County Circuit Court. Richard Samuel Alden McCroskey III, 21, pleaded guilty to two counts of capital murder and two counts of first-degree murder in the bludgeoning deaths of his girlfriend, Emma Niederbrock, 16, her mother and former Longwood University professor of sociology, Debra S. Kelley, 53; Kelley's estranged husband, Pastor Mark Niederbrock, 50; and Emma's friend, Melanie Wells, 18, of West Virginia.
The court was under the impression that a motion for a change of venue would be requested from the defense. Instead, McCroskey surprised the court by pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder of Kelley Emma Niederbrock and two counts of capital murder of Melanie Wells and Mark Niederbrock. McCroskey said he understood the charges and was able to make the decision under his own power.
Judge Richard S. Blanton sentenced McCroskey to life in prison for the counts of first-degree murder and life in prison without the possibility of parole for the two counts of capital murder. He could have received the death penalty.
McCroskey was silent after the sentencing was read to the court filled with family members of the victims as well as police investigators who have worked the case. When he exited court Monday, he only showed a slight smirk.
Cindy Sams, director of victim assistance program for Prince Edward County, released a statement from Kelley's parents, Thomas and Margaret Kelley, as well as family members of Niederbrock and Wells, after the hearing. The statement reads, "We are thankful that the trial of these cases is over and that we may now have some degree of closure. While we will never forget our loved ones or the circumstances of their deaths, we hope to move forward and begin the healing process." They went on to thank the Farmville Police Department and the Virginia State Police for their efforts.
Defense attorney Cary B. Bowen said his primary objective was to minimize McCroskey's sentence and "serve our client's interest the best we could." Bowen said McCroskey expressed remorse and understood the severity of what he did. The attorney described his client's mood as "solemn" on Monday. "He said how bad he felt about it," said Bowen. "He's left families without their loved ones. We have four people dead here. He's not proud of that."
Bowen said McCroskey allowed his anger to get in the way. "This became an issue regarding his perception that his girlfriend wasn't being loyal to him." Bowen said there was a "deterioration" of the relationship between McCroskey and Emma. He said McCroskey plans to write a statement for the victims' families sometime this week.
"Four bodies is pretty compelling evidence," said Bowen when asked if the evidence wasn't convincing enough to allow McCroskey to plead not guilty. Bowen said the decision to accept the plea was McCroskey's and it was made after all the evidence was reviewed.
"As a participant in the criminal justice system, I am pleased," said Bowen. Prince Edward County Commonwealth's Attorney James Ennis said McCroskey's fading relationship with Emma most likely lead to her murder. He said when McCroskey was asked why he killed the additional three instead of only his girlfriend, he replied, "Wrong place, wrong time."
Ennis described McCroskey as a "closed-off individual." He said there was no history of violence or bad acts in McCroskey's life. He thanked police for their hard work in filing search warrants and collecting evidence.
McCroskey did not speak to authorities until two weeks ago according to Ennis. He said the plea agreement came about within the last eight weeks. "Over the course of the last eight weeks, we've met with the various family members and went through the case with them." Ennis said members of the victims' families supported the decision to reach the plea agreement instead of going to trial and seeking the death penalty. Ennis said the family played a large role in going over the specifics of the case.
"He's going to be in prison for the rest of his life," said Ennis. "What it really means is death in prison."
Ennis said, "Hopefully it will bring some measure of closure to the family. It won't go on for years in the appellate system with no resolution in some of their lifetimes."
McCroskey, who recorded "horrorcore" music with lyrics that spoke of murder and violence, had been in an online relationship with Emma for about a year before he traveled to visit her in September of last year, Ennis said. He described the timelines of the homicides, three of which occurred on Sept. 15 approximately 3 a.m. in the morning.
Kelley and Mark Niederbrock took Emma, McCroskey and Wells to the "Wicked" horrorcore music festival in Detroit, Mich. a few days before the homicides. Ennis said McCroskey was angered by some text messages Emma sent from her phone during the festival. The group returned home, and McCroskey became more angry about the failing relationship, said Ennis. "I think he had a certain expectation of what that relationship with Emma Niederbrock was going to be like after a year on the computer. It did not turn out to be what he had imagined it was going to be."
Ennis explained on the evening of Sept. 14, 2009, or early Sept.15, McCroskey drank beer, smoked marijuana and might have taken painkillers for a migraine headache before he killed the three female victims in their sleep. Ennis said that McCroskey first killed Wells, who was asleep on a sofa located on the first-floor of the home. He then walked upstairs into Kelley's office, killing her, and made his way to Emma in her downstairs bedroom. He struck each with an eight-pound wood-splitting maul multiple times in the head. "No one awoke," Ennis said. He added there were no defensive wounds on the victims.
Mark Niederbrock arrived at the home Sept. 17 around 5 p.m. McCroskey hit him with the maul in a living room as he walked through the door, Ennis said. McCroskey later moved Mark Niederbrock's and Wells' bodies into Emma's room. Afterwards, he attempted to clean up the blood-covered den. McCroskey told authorities he did not move the bodies until after the first welfare check to the home, of which there were three.
McCroskey stayed at the home and contemplated suicide after the homicides, according to Ennis. He used a digital camera to record a video of himself saying he knew he had to pay for what he had done. The camera was recovered from McCroskey's backpack with him at Richmond International Airport the day after the murders. He was awaiting a flight home to Castro Valley, Calif.
Ennis said McCroskey called police to check on noises in the basement because "Mrs. Wells told him to." He explained during one of the many conversations he and Wells' mother had, which often involved fictitious stories of where her daughter and the family members were at, she told him to call the police since he felt uncomfortable.
Ennis said McCroskey will go to a diagnostic facility and will likely be detained at Red Onion State Penitentiary in Wise County.