Accused killer was free for 3 days
Murder defendant Michael Joseph Whisnant was released from the Avery County jail on Tuesday, three days before the Caldwell County Sheriff's Office found out, according to the Avery County Sheriff's Office.
Whisnant, 37, was in the Avery jail as part of the state's misdemeanor confinement program to serve a sentence for violating the terms of his pre-trial release on a separate charge, assault inflicting serious injury, that was filed in August 2011. But the jail had not been informed that Whisnant also was charged with murder, Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye said, so when his misdemeanor sentence ended on Tuesday he was released.
Caldwell County did not discover the snafu until about 3:30 p.m. Friday, when a Caldwell official called Avery to say that Caldwell deputies were coming to get Whisnant for a court hearing.
Capt. B.J Fore of the Caldwell County Sheriff's Office said a copy of Whisnant's release order and bond information showing he was charged with murder should have gone with Whisnant when he was sent to Avery County in July.
"That knowledge should have been on his paperwork with the state," Fore said. "Can I honestly say that happened? No. There's human error somewhere. We're trying to find out where so it doesn't happen again."
Whisnant's first call was to his father, Richard Whisnant.
"They gave him his clothes and $150 in cash and told him he was free to go," Richard Whisnant said. "Michael called me on Tuesday and said, 'Daddy, I'm free.' I thought they didn't have enough charges on him. He thought he was free."
Michael Whisnant was charged with her murder on April 5 after the body of his girlfriend, Tammy Benge Cassels, 38, was found wrapped in a comforter in the home Whisnant shared with his mother, Patty Triplett, at 810 Wild Cherry St. The charge of assault inflicting serious injury also involved Cassels: Whisnant was accused of breaking her jaw with a hammer on Aug. 21, 2011.
Whisnant is to appear in Caldwell Superior Court today for a hearing where prosecutors will reveal whether they are pursuing the death penalty.
Richard Whisnant wasn't sure how his son made it from Newland to Lenoir but guessed he walked.
"He looked really worn out, thin and hungry," he said.
The news that Whisnant had been free for three days set off a frantic, six-hour search, but Whisnant wasn't hiding. He spent much of the time with his father.
Richard Whisnant said he talked with Michael Whisnant about the murder charge.
"I asked him what happened (that night), and he said he didn't know, he was asleep and there were a bunch of people at the house," Richard Whisnant said. "Now, if you were guilty of murder, would you not have run, gone out of the country, or something, instead of coming to my house?"
On Friday about 9 p.m., while Michael Whisnant was on an errand to the store, sheriff's deputies stopped by Richard Whisnant's house on Conway Drive.
"I told them he had gone to the store and that I would take him up there and make sure he surrendered," he said.
Deputies returned about an hour later and arrested Michael Whisnant.
"They must have followed him from the store," Richard Whisnant said.