Witness credibility challenged in murder case

Claude Shafer Jr.

WOODSTOCK – Capital murder defendant Claude Delmus Shafer Jr. was far from the only suspect in the hours after law enforcement officials launched their investigation into the stabbing death of Phyllis Kline in June 2013.

Testimony Friday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court disclosed that others were with Shafer in and around Kline’s house at 14887 Old Valley Pike, Edinburg, on the night of her death.

Shafer faces a possible death sentence at a trial that is scheduled in April 2017.

Shafer’s attorneys, court-appointed death penalty specialist Edward Ungvarsky and Public Defender Timothy Coyne, presented an alternative theory of the case during a hearing on two motions, one of which challenged the credibility of prosecution witnesses.

Ungvarsky argued those same witnesses had ample motive to steer members of the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office toward Shafer and away from themselves during the investigation into Kline’s death.

Tom Shelton, a former member of the Sheriff’s Office and now a special agent with the state’s Division of Motor Vehicles, testified that Shafer was linked to several other people who were questioned in trying to determine Kline’s killer.

“They were all suspects,” Shelton said under questioning by Ungvarsky.

Shelton’s testimony came after Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley played almost two hours of audio recordings of Shafer being questioned by Shelton and Stuart Leake, another former member of the Sheriff’s Office now with the Woodstock Police Department.

Shafer’s story about his actions on the night of the killing changes during the recording, but each time he stops short of admitting he was the one in the group who stabbed Kline to death.

He identifies several other males with him at Kline’s house – Joshua Shores, Wayne Runion, Dusty Baker, and someone the defendant didn’t recognize. At one point in the recording, Shafer states that they decided to burglarize Kline’s house at the suggestion of a woman with whom they had been partying earlier in the night.

Shafer denied to Leake during an interview at the jail that he was the killer.

“I’m just telling you straight up,” Shafer said. “I didn’t kill, hurt nobody.”

Shafer first denied entering the house and or going upstairs where Kline died. He said he and Baker remained outside while Shores and Runion broke in through a door. Later, Shafer admitted he joined Shores and Runion upstairs where he saw Kline lying in her bed. Shafer said it was too dark for him to see her injuries and insisted he didn’t know she was dead.

Coyne told Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp that all of those who were suspects in the case changed their stories and contradicted themselves. As a result, Coyne argued, Shelton lacked probable cause to single Shafer out from the others and accuse him of stabbing Kline.

Hupp ruled the arrest was legally justified after stating that the credibility of witnesses was an issue also to be determined at the trial.

Hupp said he would issue a written opinion within a few weeks on another motion that challenged statements authorities obtained from Shafer. Coyne argued that Shafer did not waive his Miranda rights “knowingly, intelligently and voluntarily” when he allowed Leake and Shelton to question him.

Michael Hendricks, a Washington, D.C., psychologist hired by Coyne and Ungvarsky to examine Shafer, said the defendant lacked the capacity to understand what he was doing when he waived his Miranda rights.

“At the time of police questioning, it’s highly unlikely he had competency to waive his rights,” Hendricks said.

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