An Eagle Township resident accused of killing a homeless man under a bridge in rural Faulkner County earlier this year currently faces the death penalty.
Joe Bernard Nowell, 51, faces capital murder and abuse of a corpse charges following 60-year-old William Ray Holt's brutal slaying.
Holt, a homeless man from Little Rock, was found dead under the East Fork Cadron Creek bridge along Highway 287 during the evening hours of July 24. A juvenile found Holt's body, with hist throat "slit on both sides and his abdomen splayed open" shortly before 8 a.m. on the night in question. Authorities believe the man was out in the water for about 24 hours before being located.
Last week, 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Luke Ferguson approved felony charges against the 50-year-old suspect, and on Friday, the capital murder suspect appeared in shackles before Circuit Judge Charles "Ed" Clawson Jr.
Wearing a black-and-white stripped jumpsuit and orange flip flops, Nowell looked up to attorney Lynn Plemmons as the public defender entered a not guilty plea on his behalf just after 11:20 a.m Friday.
"Given the nature of the charges," a request by Deputy Prosecutor John Hout was made to keep Nowell behind bars without bail.
Clawson ultimately ruled in favor of the request just before Plemmons addressed the court regarding Nowell potentially facing the death penalty.
As of Friday, prosecutors had not taken the death option off the table. With the capital punishment on the table, it is likely that Nowell's case will instead be represented by other attorneys from within the Arkansas Public Defender Commission.
"The state has not waived the death penalty at this time," Hout confirmed before court officials.
Plemmons said that for the time being, he would continue representing Nowell.
However, while it "was [his] understanding [prosecutors] do intend to seek the death penalty," Plemmons did not ask to toll speedy trial standards.
A two-week trial in Nowell's case is set to begin in May.
The Faulkner County Sheriff's Office pinpointed Nowell as the suspect killer after testing his DNA and comparing it to DNA extracted from a hand-rolled cigarette that was found at the crime scene. Prior to comparing the DNA samples, investigators learned Nowell picked up 60-year-old Holt in Little Rock and was having him panhandle money for him locally, according to an affidavit filed against Nowell.
Holt’s body was identified via a fingerprint scan at the Arkansas State Crime Lab on July 25. As the investigation continued, authorities learned the 60-year-old homeless man had been living with Nowell at a residence on Berry Gap Lane in eastern Faulkner County.
The victim’s body was discovered on a Tuesday evening. Nowell reportedly told authorities he last saw the 60-year-old the Sunday prior to his discovery in the creek.
While speaking with Eiss at the hospital, investigators learned evidence was burned at Nowell’s residence on Berry Gap Lane in the Eagle Township, which is about eight and a half miles from where Holt’s body was found.
Nowell previously told authorities he last saw Holt on July 22. When he initially spoke with sheriff’s deputies, he said he was saved during the church service that night and he and Holt got into an argument over Holt’s “drinking problem.”
According to Nowell’s statement, Holt packed all his belongings, including $700 and a red wallet, and left walking that night.
After speaking with others in the area, investigators learned Nowell and Holt had a close relationship.
“A neighbor of Mr. Nowell told investigators that Nowell put up a mail box for Mr. Holt, which we later found to be a requirement to get his Social Security benefits,” the affidavit reads in part. “In addition, we found that Mr. Nowell helped Holt open an Arvest Bank account in which Mr. Nowell was made power of attorney.”
FCSO also learned Nowell reportedly had a reputation for picking up homeless man and having them collect money for him.
Jessica Eiss, who is Nowell's girlfriend, told police that Holt said he wanted to leave for Branson, Missouri, and that she and Nowell left to drop him off along Highway 65. However, she said the three never made it to Highway 65 before she and Nowell went back to Berry Gap Lane as Nowell attempted to destroy evidence linked to Holt’s death.
Holt, according to Eiss’ statement, wanted to go panhandle in Branson instead of collecting money for Nowell. As the three drove toward Highway 65 on the night in question, the pulled over by the East Fork Cadron Creek along Highway 287.
“Mr. Nowell and Mr. Holt then got out of the vehicle and walked down to the creek and sat on the bank,” Eiss recalled. “She stated that she had her phone and was looking down at her phone so she doesn’t know what happened but that Mr. Nowell came back and got in the vehicle along ... [and] was covered in blood. She stated that they went back to their residence and he rinsed the blood off of his arms using the water hose and then smashed her phone and burned the clothes he was wearing and her phone in a burn pile.”
Nowell is scheduled to appear next at 9 a.m. Jan. 10 in Faulkner County Circuit Court for a pretrial hearing. His jury trial is set for May 13-24.