Plea deal plan in murder case upsets victim's family

Apr. 06, 2013 @ 04:31 PM

The family of a man murdered in 2000 fear the case will never be tried.

George Kastanis was a Greek immigrant who settled in Union County, married and had four children. In 2000, was co-owner with Erwin Keziah of Avondale Grocery at 3704 Secrest Shortcut Road in Monroe.

Kastanis was shot dead the night of April 28, 2000 as he closed the store. Then-Police Chief Bobby Haulk told the Enquirer-Journal in an April 30, 2000 story that there was little evidence and no witnesses.

After years without movement in the case, the Union County District Attorney’s Office contacted Kastanis’s widow, Tammy Tadlock. This week during a meeting with the family, Tadlock said prosecutors told her they will offer Carvalho a plea bargain of assaultwith a deadly weapon with the intent to kill, a Class E felony, instead of first degree murder. Class E felonies carry a sentance of between 20 and 50 months, depending on the defendant’s prior record.

“The reason I feel they’re doing the plea bargain is because they’ve held him too long,” Tadlock said. “They’ve already held him for too long without a trial and if they hold him longer, they’re going to get in trouble.”

Kastanis’s murder was discovered the morning following the shooting by a store employee, according to the Monroe Police Department. Nearly every available detective was called to the scene. Inside there were items scattered on the floor, suggesting a struggle. Investigators found Kastanis’s body in one of the store aisles. Crime scene investigators found a few bullet fragments around the store. There were illegal poker machines in a small room off from the cash register.

Monroe Police set up road blocks on Secrest Shortcut Road for several days at about the time they believe Kastanis was shot. Officers asked drivers if they saw any suspicious people around Avondale Grocery the night of the slaying.

Investigators took photos and video of the scene. They collected and tagged evidence from the store. Officers looked for the small-caliber gun used to shoot Kastanis after receiving a tip that it had been thrown into a field off Secrest Shortcut Road. No weapon was found.

Tadlock said she told investigators about Carvalho the day after the murder. Carvalho had been a store employee until two weeks earlier when Kastanis fired him.

Having followed up on every possible lead, the rest of the investigation was handled mostly by the State Bureau of Investigation.

No arrest was made in the murder until Nov. 16, 2004. John Joseph Carvalho was charged with killing Kastanis and with the 2002 murder of his brother-in-law, Richard Long. The Union County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated the Long murder, then released a statement that the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation uncovered a link between Carvalho and the two deaths.

Since finishing a prior prison sentence in 2009, Carvalho has been in Union County jail under $1 million bond. He was tried for the Long murder in 2009 and 2010. The first jury could not agree he was guilty. In the second trial, another inmate who earlier testified Carvalho confessed to him the murder of both Long and Kastanis, refused to take the stand again. Since then, Carvalho was been sitting in jail awaiting the prosecution’s next move.   

Tony Underwood, now special agent in charge of the SBI Southern Piedmont District, took out the 2004 warrant charging Carvalho with Kastanis’s murder. Underwood said he is still following the case’s progress, but would not comment on details until it was disposed in court.

Carvalho has never been to court for the Kastanis murder charge. Tadlock said she regularly checked with the Union County District Attorney’s Office for updates on when prosecutors would go to court. She heard rumors that Carvalho was battling cancer while being held in prison on earlier charges. About two years ago, she said she contacted Union County District Attorney Pat “Trey” Robison for an update.

“He said, ‘What I want to tell you is that we’re in no hurry to get a trial done due to illness, if you know what I mean,’” Tadlock said. “So now because of a wait, a plea bargain has to be given. No option for trial. But we don’t want a plea deal.”

“I begged,” Nikki Russell, Kastanis’s daughter, said. “We’ve never had a trial in my father’s case. They said they don’t have enough evidence to try (Carvalho).”

Russell said she asked to see what evidence prosecutors had to work with, but they said that was not possible until the case was settled.

The family wants the DA’s office to try a different approach with the murder case, but prosecutors represent the state. While victim’s wishes are considered, prosecutors do not bring charges against a defendant on behalf of the family.

“I just asked them if they would give my dad’s case a try, and they said no,” Russell said. “They said they were going to do it the way we think is best.”

In court, Carvalho cannot be tried for both murders in the same trial. Because there were two years between the killings, they must be handled separately. The jury for one case cannot be informed that the defendant faces another murder charge. something the family is unhappy about.

“Because if you have two murders tried at once, the jury is more likely to believe that he actually did it,” the victim’s son, Elias Kastanis, said.

When prosecutors said they needed more evidence for the trial, Loula Bauer, Kastanis’s daughter, said they promised the family they would take another look at the case.

“We had a meeting with them not two months ago and they said they were going to use our interns and we’re going to go through this case again and see what else they can pull out for evidence,” Bauer said. “When I asked them about it today, they hadn’t done it.”

Carvalho’s attorney, Robert Trobich, would not comment on the case.

On Dec. 3, 2012, Trobich filed a motion to dismiss both murder charges. In the motion, Trobich states that law enforcement admitted to the media that lack of evidence led to the four year delay in arresting Carvalho.

“Since the second mistrial in the Long case, the State of North Carolina has failed to calendar either case for trial,” the motion states. “Defense counsel has repeatedly asked members of the Union County District Attorney’s Office as to their intentions with regard to these cases and has received no definitive answer.”

The motion alleges there has been no new evidence presented and the defense attorney believes the man who testified in the first Long trial would recant his statements if put on the witness stand again. Carvalho has a right to a speedy trial and due process under the U.S. Constitution, something the motion states is long overdue.

“The delay in bringing either of these cases to trial is a recognition by the State of North Carolina that it does not have sufficient evidence against the defendant,” it states. “The extensive delay in these matters has already prejudiced Defendant’s ability to defend himself on these charges and will continue to further erode such rights.”

For now, the family will wait to see if Carvalho accepts the reduced charges offered by prosecutors.

“They said that if he didn’t take this plea bargain, they would see which one they would try,” Russell said. “Probably the case with the most evidence, which would be the Long case again.”

An email to Robison asking for confirmation his office plans to offer a plea bargain was not returned by press time.