FAYETTEVILLE -- A triple murder trial set to begin Monday in Madison County is on hold until at least April after the gun believed to be used was turned over to authorities Sunday morning and is undergoing restoration at the Arkansas State Crime Lab in an effort to make it fire for ballistic testing.
Hunter Nolan Chenoweth, 25, is charged with three counts of capital murder and faces life in prison without parole or the death penalty in the deaths of his mother, Tammie Lynn Chenoweth, 51; sister, Cheyenne Chenoweth, 26; and stepfather, James Stanley McGehee, 59.
The three bodies were found in a home in Wesley, which is between Elkins and Huntsville, the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2021, according to the Arkansas State Police.
Chenoweth left the area after the killings. State police, using cellphone data, found him driving a blue Dodge Caravan, which matched the description of one of two vehicles that were at the house, traveling west on Interstate 30 near Benton. Police believe Chenoweth left Wesley in a pickup found abandoned on Interstate 40 near Mayflower and was picked up by family members.
At a hearing Wednesday, Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett told Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay a man who was fishing near Mayflower found the gun believed to have been used in the killings some time ago buried in mud and turned it over to state troopers he met in a diner Sunday.
The gun was registered to Tammy Chenoweth and had been reported stolen, according to Durrett.
Troopers turned the rusty gun over to the state crime lab where firearms and tool mark experts are trying to remove rust and restore the gun to working order so they can test it.
As of Wednesday, the gun couldn't be tested, Durrett said. The gun will be left in a cleaning solution until Monday when it will be checked again to see if it can be fired. If the gun can be fired, the crime lab could have results in about a month, Durrett said.
The gun was found near where Chenoweth told police he ran out of gas and where Chenoweth told police he lost the gun, according to Durrett.
Durrett said the area was searched extensively three years ago by police on foot and using a drone but they found nothing at the time.
"It was found buried in mud by happenstance," Durrett said Wednesday.
The gun is the same model Tammy Chenoweth reported stolen and the ammunition in the gun is similar to that used in the killings, Durrett said.
Lindsay continued the case until April 22 to allow time for crime lab testing and to give the sides time to assess any new evidence.
Kent McLemore, an attorney for Chenoweth, spoke in favor of a continuance, saying testing the gun may produce evidence that would help his client.
Durrett said the prosecution had been prepared to proceed to trial without the gun.
"But, in good conscience, I don't think I can stand up here and object," he said.
According to police, Chenoweth confessed to the killings, saying the incident began with an argument between him and his mother, according to the preliminary report from the Prosecuting Attorney's Office. Chenoweth told police he shot his mother after she pointed a weapon at him. Then he got into a fight with his sister, Cheyenne, who was in another room, and stabbed and shot her.
Chenoweth told police he waited for McGehee to get home from work and locked the front door, but McGehee saw his wife's body on the floor through a window and he busted in the door. Chenoweth said McGehee had a knife, and he shot his stepfather multiple times, according to the report.
Madison County Sheriff's Office deputies were called to the home earlier that day for a complaint against Hunter Chenoweth and his girlfriend Kalea Long , according to the prosecutor's report. When deputies arrived, Chenoweth wasn't there, and deputies asked Long to leave.
Chenoweth and Long were living in De Queen but were temporarily staying at the home in Wesley, according to Durrett.
Chenoweth was free on bond at the time of the killings and had been ordered by a judge to have no contact with McGehee, according to court records.
Chenoweth is charged in Washington County with domestic battery and endangering the welfare of a minor for stabbing his stepfather in front of his 17-year-old sister Feb. 17, 2020, according to court records.
A Fayetteville Police Department incident report said Chenoweth was drunk and throwing things at his apartment at 2071 N. Chestnut Ave. McGehee went to the apartment to get Chenoweth's sister and, during an altercation, was attacked with either a knife or pair of scissors, suffering cuts to his right hand and neck during the struggle. Chenoweth denied having a knife or scissors and told police he did not know how McGehee was injured.
Chenoweth bonded out of jail on those charges but failed to appear for his arraignment a month later, resulting in his arrest in December 2020. He was free on a $50,000 bond on the failure to appear charge when the killings occurred.
The examination of evidence from firearms that may have been used in a crime. When a bullet is fired from a gun, the gun leaves microscopic marks on the bullet and cartridge case. These marks are like ballistic fingerprints. If investigators recover bullets from a crime scene, forensic examiners can test-fire a suspects gun, then compare the marks on the crime scene bullet to marks on the test-fired bullet then assess how similar the two sets of marks are and determine if the bullets are likely to have been fired from the same gun or different guns. Cartridge cases are compared in the same way.
Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology