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Witness who skipped Albemarle murder trial held in contempt

Luke David Yates is the witness who got away.

The 51-year-old Appomattox resident was supposed to testify in the recent murder trial of a Scottsville-area man, but failing to appear Yates was instead recently convicted of contempt.

"I was scared," Yates said during his contempt trial earlier this month. "I panicked."

Yates had been subpoenaed for the mid-March trial of Kevin Michael Moore, a former jail cellmate. While people connected to the Moore case have been tight-lipped about what Yates might have revealed had he taken the witness stand, they have hinted that it had a forensic aspect that would have cemented the case against Moore.

Despite Yates’ absence, an Albemarle County jury found the 39-year-old Moore guilty of the first-degree murder of 47-year-old Fluvanna County man Jesse Hicks, who disappeared in 2004 and whose remains were found 10 years later. Much of the evidence against Moore was his own words, surreptitiously recorded by an ex-convict in a specially outfitted van courtesy of local law enforcement.

Unlike some so-called jailhouse snitches, who have been accused of concocting tales to please prosecutors in hopes of winning a reduction of their own sentences, Yates had no pending criminal matters at the time of the trial.

In the surreptitiously recorded tapes, Moore can be heard boasting of a killing that matched key details in Hicks’ slaying. Even at the May 3 contempt trial, which took place in the Albemarle County Circuit Court’s main courtroom, what Yates heard Moore say behind bars was not publicly revealed.

"He had made some specific statements about the crime?" prosecutor Richard Farley asked Yates.

"Yes," answered Yates, without elaborating.

"Why were you concerned about your safety?" Farley asked.

Although Yates has his own criminal past, which includes an abduction conviction, he told Farley that he felt rattled by the prospect of testifying against an accused killer such as Moore.

"One of my family members put the idea in my head that he could wind up coming after me," said Yates.

Yates’ court-appointed attorney Anthony Martin emphasized the potential danger of testifying against Moore, part of a large family that operates a Scottsville-area general store and hunt club, the latter of which is where Hicks’ body was found. Moore’s father, Richard Glenn Spradlin, was also implicated in the slaying, but Spradlin died of cancer the year before the trial.

"This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill burglary or shoplifting case," said Martin. "This was a homicide case. It was someone who was violent."

Even the prosecutor seemed eager to absolve Yates.

"Frankly, his safety concerns are justified," said Farley.

Despite the understanding words from both sides of the aisle, Albemarle Circuit Judge Claude Worrell convicted Yates of contempt.

"It doesn’t sound like the commonwealth was really enthusiastic about prosecuting him," said local legal analyst David Heilberg, taking note of a widespread desire for prosecutors to avoid punishing their witnesses.

Although Virginia law gives Worrell the right to jail a contempt violator for up to 10 days, Heilberg suspects that Yates will emerge with nothing more than a fine.

One thing that Worrell has ordered is that Yates return Sept. 3 for his sentencing. And in an unusual twist, Worrell also ordered Yates to return the prior week to attend Moore’s sentencing, which is set for Aug. 30.


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