Year in Review: Murders topped court cases in 2015

One defendant was convicted and the fate of two others remained undetermined in a trio of murder cases that weighed heavily on the scales of justice in area courts during 2015.

Nicole Dawn Miller once faced a possible death sentence in the beating death of a 20-month-old boy. Judge Dennis L. Hupp called Miller “for all intents and purposes” the mother of the murdered boy, Talon Vermillion.

Vermillion was the son of Jeremy Vermillion, who was Miller’s fiancé at the time of the killing. Jeremy Vermillion was away from the apartment at 135 Valley Vista Drive in Woodstock when Miller called police on June 3, 2014, to report an injury to Talon.

The boy died several days later at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. The cause of death was listed as blunt force trauma to the head, neck and trunk.

Shenandoah County Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley initially sought the death penalty for Miller, 28, but later agreed to allow her to plead guilty to first-degree murder, which led to a sentence of 50 years in prison.

In Warren County, authorities accused Clay Marshall Curtis, 62, of killing Front Royal cab driver Simon Funk Jr. with a single gunshot in mid-December 2014.

Curtis was arrested around the same time as Funk’s death but the defendant spent most of the year jailed on a federal probation violation before a grand jury indicted him on first-degree murder and several other offenses.

Funk, 42, was described in court documents as an acquaintance of Curtis.

Authorities found Funk dead from a gunshot wound in the early morning hours of Dec. 10, 2014, in the 700 block of Kildare Drive.

A search warrant document states that a woman identified as Funk’s girlfriend placed a cell phone call during which Curtis told her: “I’m going to prison forever, and I killed him.”

Curtis ended the year held without bond in the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail. He was assigned two court-appointed attorneys to defend him on the murder charge and several other offenses linked to Funk’s death.

A murder case carrying a potential death sentence continued to grind on in Shenandoah County Circuit Court with a trial still more than a year away.

Claude Delmus Shafer Jr. is scheduled go on trial April 3, 2017, almost four years after authorities first accused him of fatally stabbing Phyllis Kline, 65, in the bedroom of her Edinburg home.

Wiseley and Shafer’s defense attorneys spent most of 2015 bogged down with efforts to restore Shafer’s mental health so that he could be deemed fit to help in his defense.

Hupp ordered Shafer to be transferred from Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail to Central State Hospital in Petersburg in late February. Shafer’s attorneys, Edward Ungvarsky and Timothy Coyne, told Hupp that their client’s mental condition was deteriorating quickly at RSW.

After several months at Central State, Shafer returned to RSW where his mental state became an issue again. Ungvarsky and Coyne said the jail staff’s doctor was refusing to prescribe a drug that had helped improve Shafer’s mental well-being and allowed for his return to RSW.

Ungvarsky warned Hupp that the case “has great potential and risk to be derailed” if Shafer continued to have trouble obtaining proper medication.

Shafer’s attorneys were not the only ones calling for better inmate access to medications.

Eric Wiseley said it has become much easier for him to confer with clients now than in July 2014 when the jail first opened. Wiseley filed a motion at the time mocking the jail for leaving him stranded on the grounds for long periods of time without being able to see his clients.

“When I go over there, they treat me well,” Wiseley said of the jail staff. “I don’t find myself stuck in rooms.”

But Wiseley said he continues to hear stories of jail staff being unreliable in administering medications to inmates.

RSW superintendent William Wilson said Wiseley had never spoken to him about inmate access to jail medication.

“As far as medication, we give whatever is prescribed by our doctors or if it’s an outside doctor, and it’s a legitimate prescription,” Wilson said.

Wilson said he was pleased at the number of education and rehabilitation programs that started in the jail in 2015 and plans to add to them in 2016.

Wilson said the jail is working with the Workforce Solutions program at Lord Fairfax Community College to establish a pilot program that would give inmates the opportunity to obtain a manufacturing technician certification. The program is expected to enroll six to eight inmates initially.

“If that works, we’ll enlarge on it later on,” Wilson said.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision in October 2014 removed the last legal obstacle to the issuance of same sex marriage licenses in Virginia. Circuit Court clerks in the area reported none of the discord and resistance that arose in Kentucky and other places in response to the court’s ruling.

The state’s Division of Vital Records showed the 43 same sex marriage licenses issued in Winchester to be the highest total in the area between October 2014 and Aug. 31. There were 32 licenses obtained in Frederick County, 13 in Warren County and five in Shenandoah County during the same period.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, said in an email message that he considered the passage of a stand alone human trafficking statute, which he co-sponsored, to be the most important change in the law passed by the General Assembly this year.

“Police and prosecutors now have tools to catch and punish predators who subject women and girls to unspeakable degradation for their own profit,” Gilbert said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com