As Solicitor Walt Wilkins painted a picture of the prosecution’s case in the double homicide of an Eastside couple, he alleged for the first time publicly that the couple's ex-housekeeper was involved in the slayings, although she has not been charged.
Jonathan Donell Rhodes, 25, of Greenville, is on trial this week. He was charged with murder in the 2012 deaths of Gary Wells, 78, and Helen Wells, 77. Wilkins said during his opening argument Tuesday that Rhodes did not kill the Wellses by himself and implicated Shirley Ann Rogers, the former housekeeper.
“Shirley and Jonathan Rhodes, you’ll learn later, decided that Mr. and Mrs. Wells didn’t need to be around anymore, and they went to Terramont (Drive) on Oct. 1, 2012, and they brutally murdered them,” Wilkins told the jury.
Wilkins did not elaborate on Rogers’ involvement, only adding that Rogers was the link between Rhodes and the Wellses. Rhodes has pleaded not guilty to all charges, including four counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, two counts of kidnapping and first-degree burglary.
Wilkins said the case against Rhodes was like piecing together a picture puzzle.
“You start with one piece and you find the next matching piece and the next matching piece,” he said. “And over the next couple of days, we’re going to present to you a picture — a perfect picture — of how this occurred and what happened. And once you get that picture made out perfectly, you will look down and you will see that Jonathan Rhodes murdered Gary and Helen Wells.”
Jake Erwin, Rhodes' public defender, talked to the jury in his opening statements about wrongful convictions and how people are exonerated years later.
“The common thread in those cases is that the crime itself is so horrible and so emotional that the jurors at the trial were not able to separate the emotion and the passion from the evidence and the facts,” Erwin said.
The defense attorney also urged the jurors to “detach” themselves from the tragedy and withhold judgement until all the evidence is presented.
“I’m confident that when that happens that you’re going to see that Jonathan over here is not actually guilty of this crime,” Erwin said.
The prosecution, following opening arguments Tuesday, called more than a dozen witnesses, including law enforcement officers, bank employees, employees at major cellphone companies and Rhodes' former roommate.
In September 2012, Helen Wells filed a report with the Greenville County Sheriff's Office alleging her bank account was compromised and fraudulent charges were made against her account.
In February 2013, Rogers pleaded guilty in federal court to aggravated identity theft and fraudulent use of a debit card in connection to that case.
Within weeks, Gary and Helen were found dead at their home at 10 Terramont Drive in the Terra Pines Estates subdivision. Wilkins said there was no forced entry into the home and the weapons came from inside the house.
On Oct. 3, 2012, Douglas Doughty was doing yard work at his father-in-law’s house, which was next door to the Wellses. He testified that Rogers alerted him that something was wrong at the Wells home while he tending to the yard.
Doughty said Rogers told him that, through a window, she saw Gary Wells lying on the floor inside the home. Doughty said he knocked on multiple doors, trying to get someone to respond. When that was unsuccessful, they entered the front door, which was closed but unlocked. He located Gary Wells first.
"I could tell by looking at him that he was already passed and there was nothing I could do," Doughty said.
He saw another body lying on the floor of a bedroom with the head behind a bed. It was Helen Wells and he called 911.
Members of the forensics team testified Tuesday to seeing pools of blood.
Under cross-examination, Sheriff's Office investigator Chris Hammett said Rhodes' DNA was not found in any of the roughly 130 items tested from the crime scene.
Wilkins said the state plans to introduce evidence, based on cellphone records, that puts Rhodes in the area of the Wellses' home when they were killed.
Eric Cade, Rhodes' roommate at the time, testified that he was a mentor and father figure to Rhodes. They lived together and Cade provided Rhodes with a cellphone. Cade testified that when he went to work he allowed Rhodes to drive his MINI Cooper.
Authorities believe the Wellses were killed on Oct. 1. That evening, Cade said Rhodes left with his car and did not return for hours. Cade said he tried to reach Rhodes while he was gone, calling him and texting him repeatedly. No response.
"I didn't know where he was with my car so I was angry," Cade said.
Rhodes returned after 2 a.m. Oct. 2, Cade said. On multiple occasions, they discussed Rhodes' whereabouts that night. Cade testified that Rhodes told him he was with a different person each time.
In the third discussion, Rhodes said he drove to Rogers' home and fell asleep. Cade testified that Rhodes told him that when he woke up the car was facing in a different direction. Rhodes told him, "The reason he didn't answer the phone was because his phone was in the car."
Under cross examination, Cade said that Rhodes would leave his phone in the car from time to time.
Authorities said the MINI Cooper had the blood of both victims inside.
“That is very powerful evidence because how could the Wells DNA be in the car,” Wilkins asked the jury.
The prosecution will continue calling witnesses Wednesday.
Staff writer Romando Dixson covers crime for The Greenville News.