Caretaker sentenced in murder case

Berryville woman to serve 20 years in slaying, dismemberment of Peg Sinclair

Frances Moss-Hopkins

WINCHESTER — Circuit Judge N. Randolph Bryant sentenced a Berryville woman on Tuesday to serve 20 years in prison after she entered an Alford guilty plea to killing a woman in her care.

The sentencing hearing for Frances Charlene Moss-Hopkins, 57, began on Monday in Frederick County Circuit Court, but after a full day of evidence from both sides, Bryant wanted time to think about the appropriate punishment. Prosecutors Ross Spicer and Andrew Robbins, as well as public defender Tim Coyne, presented their closing arguments on Monday.

Moss-Hopkins entered the Alford guilty plea in May. Authorities said she struck 85-year-old Peg Sinclair in the head with a hammer at Sinclair’s daughter’s Lake Frederick home on the night of June 17, 2016. Moss-Hopkins  maintained her innocence with the plea because the evidence against her was sufficient to convict, and because her long history of mental health issues made it difficult for her to remember committing the crime.

Investigators believe that when Sinclair threw soiled bed linens at Moss-Hopkins in the laundry room, the defendant responded by going into the garage where she picked up a hammer. She hit Sinclair in the head 10 times with it. Moss-Hopkins then dismembered Sinclair’s body with a hacksaw to fit her in the back of her SUV, and drove to West Virginia to hide the body just off of Scott’s Gully Road near U.S. 50, east of Romney.

Sara Boyd, a clinical psychologist who examined Moss-Hopkins in August, noted on Monday that the bipolar, complex post-traumatic-stress and conversion disorders Moss-Hopkins suffers from, which stem from significant childhood abuse, cause Moss-Hopkins to react negatively when she is faced with rejection or abandonment. Boyd also concluded that relationship problems were triggers for the symptoms she may face, which can include significant dissociation, or not being aware of one’s actions.

Peg Sinclair

The night of the murder, Moss-Hopkins left a lengthy note to excuse why the rugs in the house were missing and why the house may smell of bleach – Moss-Hopkins wrote that Sinclair had soiled the sheets and had made a mess all over the house as a result, and that Moss-Hopkins took everything to the cleaners.

On the morning of June 18, Sinclair’s daughter, Lisa Gilkerson, went to check on her mother, and unlocked her mother’s bedroom door to find the bed stripped of sheets. Gilkerson then called 911, and while filling out a missing person’s report, police informed her that they had found Sinclair’s walker along U.S. 522 in a place that Gilkerson said her mother did not have the stamina to travel.

Gilkerson’s daughter, Megan Walker, arrived at the house later that afternoon. She said that over the next two days Moss-Hopkins was more talkative than usual and the things Moss-Hopkins was saying were raising “red flags.” She said on that Sunday, June 19, Moss-Hopkins told her a story, which Moss-Hopkins had fabricated, about picking up a Hispanic woman and her son on the night of June 19, and they led her to West Virginia where the woman’s husband offered to dispose of the soiled linens for Moss-Hopkins.

Walker also said that Moss-Hopkins kept making excuses to go into Gilkerson’s house, and that Moss-Hopkins brought up character references that spoke highly of Moss-Hopkins when Gilkerson hired her.

“My grandmother’s missing and she’s talking about character witnesses,” Walker said during Monday’s hearing, noting that she felt it was odd.

On that Tuesday, June 21, Moss-Hopkins was leading investigators along the route she said she drove to take the Hispanic woman and her son to the woman’s husband. After showing signs that she was not clear on exactly where she was, investigators began to head back to Moss-Hopkins’ home. Then, in an audio recording from the car ride played for the court on Monday, Moss-Hopkins began hysterically crying as she confessed to hiding Sinclair’s body after dismembering it. Moss-Hopkins, who had been crying during much of Monday’s testimony, was heavily sobbing as the taped confession was played.

“I don’t know what happened,” Moss-Hopkins said in the car with investigators. “It wasn’t an accident. I don’t know what happened.”

During Monday’s hearing, the defendant’s family and friends painted a different picture of who Moss-Hopkins really was; they all said that she was a kind and charitable woman who was never malicious toward anyone. Moss-Hopkins’ husband, Joe Hopkins, said that she was a “good, Christian woman,” and was the most generous person he’d ever known. He added that he never would have predicted that she would kill anyone.

“I’m just absolutely dumbstruck because she loves people,” Hopkins said at Monday’s hearing. “She’s one of the most caring and giving people – I would say to a fault.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Moss-Hopkins spoke to the judge.

“I am devastated – I’m heartbroken over Peg’s death,” Moss-Hopkins began her statement.

She expressed regret that she could not change the past, and that Sinclair and Gilkerson were like family to her. Moss-Hopkins began sobbing as she read her statement, and, after composing herself a bit, she said that she could not have knowingly and purposely committed the crime. She added that she will be mentally and emotionally tortured about it for the rest of her life.

Moss-Hopkins also said that she had felt the return of her mental and physical problems for weeks before the incident, and that she had gone to a general physician to be referred for mental health care. She said that the referral card did not arrive until Moss-Hopkins was already incarcerated for Sinclair’s murder.

The judge said that Moss-Hopkins’ long-documented mental issues went largely unaddressed in remarks he had written for Tuesday’s hearing; Bryant said he doesn’t generally write out his remarks, but given the gravity of the case, he felt that it was appropriate. Bryant emphasized that while Moss-Hopkins’ mental illnesses could have played a part in the crime, there was no evidence of insanity at the time of the offense. He did note, however, that it was possible that addressing her mental troubles could have potentially prevented the murder.

Bryant also described the events in the case as “gruesome” and showing little or no respect for human life. He said that the defense, through Moss-Hopkins’ family and friends, successfully painted Moss-Hopkins as a kind, good Christian woman, but that a good Christian woman would not strike a woman in the head and dismember her lifeless body.

“The taking of a human life by anyone is a violation of society’s strongest commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,'” Bryant said. “…I believe society requires the service of a lengthy period of incarceration.”

Moss-Hopkins’ family cried in the quiet courtroom when she was sentenced to serve 20 years of a 40-year prison sentence. She must also complete 10 years of supervised probation upon her release. Bryant ordered Moss-Hopkins to  undergo  psychological testing and that she must take any and all prescribed medications.

He also prohibited Moss-Hopkins from making any sort of contact with Sinclair’s surviving family members, including extended family. Bryant expressed his hopes that Sinclair’s family comes to a point where they have only fond memories involving Sinclair.

Gilkerson said after Tuesday’s hearing that she was satisfied with the judge’s ruling. She said that Moss-Hopkins really was a close friend of her family, and that Moss-Hopkins did not show any signs that something like the murder could happen, because if she had, Gilkerson never would have hired Moss-Hopkins.

During Monday’s hearing, Walker expressed concern for Gilkerson if Moss-Hopkins were to be released while Gilkerson was still alive. Gilkerson reiterated that concern about the future, saying that she’ll always have concern about safety. Gilkerson also expressed sadness that before the incident, she had been planning to retire within a few years and would have been able to move with her mother closer to water, which Sinclair loved, and Gilkerson would have been able to spend more time with her mother.

“It’s a tragedy all the way across,” Gilkerson said.