SUSPECT DODGED COURTS BEFORE
Author: HENRY EICHEL, Staff Writer
* Staff writers GREG BARRETT, KATHLEEN MCCLAIN and DAVID PERLMUTT
ALLENDALE, S.C. :
Nearly four years before he was charged with killing 10 Charlotte women, Henry Louis Wallace escaped prosecution for sexually assaulting at least three women in South Carolina, authorities said Tuesday.
Lack of evidence, lenient prosecution and overburdened courts left Wallace, a convicted felon still on probation, a free man until this week.
On Tuesday, Barnwell County authorities charged Wallace with murdering Tashanda Bethea, 18, by strangling her and pushing her body into a pond. Wallace confessed to the March 1990 slaying on Monday, Sheriff Joey Zorn said.
Zorn said Wallace was ``our No. 1 suspect'' at the time of Bethea's murder, but was not arrested because of a lack of evidence.
The day after Bethea's body was found, on April 1, 1990, Wallace was arrested and charged with the attempted rape of a 16-year-old Barnwell girl.
He was never prosecuted. Instead, 14th Circuit Solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III allowed Wallace to enter a program normally reserved for first-time, nonviolent offenders.
In 1992, Wallace was also charged in Rock Hill with raping a teenage acquaintance at gunpoint. Buried in a backlog of other cases, those charges still haven't come to court.
On Tuesday, as Wallace made his first court appearance in Charlotte, the 28-year-old restaurant cook was also questioned in the 1987 murder of an Allendale, S.C., woman.
His appearance in Mecklenburg District Court touched off anguished sobs from the sisters of one of the women he's accused of killing.
At the sight of Wallace in an orange jail jumpsuit, hands cuffed behind his back, Virginia Adams cried,''Oh, Jesus!'' and rocked forward, sobbing. Wallace has been charged with murdering Adams' sister, Caroline Love, and 10 other women.
After District Judge David Cayer said he would appoint a public defender. A probable cause hearing was set for April 6.
Wallace, already on supervised probation for S.C. larceny and burglary convictions, had missed meetings with his Charlotte probation officer, said N.C. probation and parole branch manager George Pettigrew. Wallace had served 3-1/2 months in a state prison in Allendale on those charges.
It was in Allendale that Wallace was first charged with a sexual assault.
Allendale Police Chief J.H. Grant said a 16-year-old girl and Wallace were on a date March 31, 1990. After visiting two Allendale nightclubs where Wallace bought beer for the girl, Grant said he drove her to a motel.
According to an Allendale police report, ``(The) suspect grabbed her and knocked her to the bed and tried to disrobe her. During the struggle, victim alleges suspect produced a weapon and pointed it at her head, saying they had to make love. Victim kept on screaming. Finally, suspect took victim home. . . . ``
The girl's mother swore out an arrest warrant, Grant said. Wallace was arrested in Barnwell on April 2, 1990, and spent at least eight days in jail before being released on bond.
Wallace was charged with assault with intent to have sex with a minor female. But court records show he was allowed to enter the Pre-Trial Intervention program designed for nonviolent, first-time offenders.
That happened despite the violent nature of the assault charge, Wallace's 1988 burglary conviction, the fact that he was already a suspect in Bethea's murder and his failure to show up for trial in October 1990.
Even though Wallace never completed the required counseling sessions and community service necessary to avoid prosecution under the PTI program, he still was never prosecuted, records show.
``I'll be damned if I can remember'' why Wallace was never prosecuted, Murdaugh, the circuit solicitor, said Tuesday. ``I have 6,000 cases a year coming through my office.''
The day before Wallace's arrest in that incident, on April 1, 1990, two fishermen in western Barnwell County found the body of Tashanda Bethea.
Barnwell Sheriff Zorn said Wallace quickly became the prime suspect because witnesses had seen Bethea with him shortly before she disappeared on March 18 - and also because Wallace was in jail in Allendale on the attempted sexual assault charge.
Investigators found no physical evidence, and Wallace denied any involvement in the murder.
But during a 90-minute taped session with Zorn and one of his deputies late Monday afternoon, the sheriff said, Wallace admitted killing Bethea ``down to the fine details.''
Zorn said Wallace appeared relaxed and eager to talk. Wallace told him he was confessing ``to give something back to the family'' of the victim.
According to Zorn, Wallace described what happened this way:
He was driving in downtown Barnwell shortly after dark when he saw Bethea walking along the street and offered her a ride. He drove 8 miles west of town and pulled onto a dirt road near the pond, and told her ``this is where you get out.''
Outside the car, he took a .357 Magnum pistol from his pocket and threatened her with it. They had sex, and he asked her if she planned to tell anyone and she said yes.
He then put her in a choke hold from behind, rendering her unconscious but still alive.
He put her in the backseat of his car and drove about two-tenths of a mile and again took her from the car. As Bethea regained consciousness, Wallace again choked her, cut her throat and wrists with a box-cutting knife, dragged her into the pond and watched her sink.
Wallace washed and vacuumed his car to erase evidence.
Allendale police Officer Demetrious Davis, who said he has known Wallace for years and played basketball with him, assisted in Grant's interrogation of Wallace. He asked Wallace, ``Henry, were you able to sleep at night?'' Wallace replied, ``Off and on.''
Meanwhile Tuesday, Grant said he has developed evidence linking Wallace with yet another murder. Grant said he will travel to Charlotte today to question Wallace in the May 1987 murder of Pernetta Riddle, 22, of Allendale.
Riddle was raped, and she was strangled with one of her headbands, which matched the way some Charlotte women died, Grant said.
Since then, Grant said he has established that Wallace, who was home on leave from the Navy then, was in Allendale around that time. Grant said that physical evidence from the crime scene, on which he wouldn't elaborate, now leads him to suspect Wallace.
Caption:Photo by the Associated Press: Emotional day: Kathy Love (center) is consoled by friends and family as she leaves the courtroom in tears Tuesday after a first appearance there by Henry Louis Wallace. Wallace is charged with killing Love's sister, Caroline Love.photo