Texas man takes a plea in 2009 cold case built on circumstantial evidence

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District Attorney Ben David, left, and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, right, announced today that Larry Karl Gonzales was arrested last week in Texas and charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Alton Corey Vann in January 2009. Photo by Christina Haley.
District Attorney Ben David, left, and New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon, right, during their 2014 announcement that Larry Karl Gonzales had been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in connection with the January 2009 death of Alton Corey Vann. (Photo by Christina Haley)

A Texas man charged with killing 20-year-old Alton Corey Vann in 2009 has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in the case, but prosecutors say it was the right outcome given the circumstantial nature of the case.

Larry Karl Gonzales, 53, pleaded guilty Wednesday in New Hanover County Superior Court to a charge of voluntary manslaughter, a reduced charge from the original first-degree murder he’d faced. All parties in the case agreed to the plea, according to Assistant District Attorney Doug Carriker. Gonzales’ plea came about three weeks before he was scheduled to go to trial on July 25.

Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham sentenced Gonzales to 46-65 months in the N.C. Department of Corrections with credit for time served in jail since his arrest on the murder charge in Tomball, Texas in September 2014.

“This was the most complicated case that the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has ever investigated,” Carriker told the court Wednesday during the plea.

New Hanover County Sheriff’s detectives worked the cold case for five years before Gonzales was arrested, but found several “significant” pieces of evidence that eventually led them to charge him in the case, Carriker said.

Vann was found around 12:30 a.m. Jan. 29, 2009 by a couple driving home to to Carolina Beach, Carriker said. He was lying partially on the asphalt roadway of River Road, and the couple stopped and immediately called police for help.

First responders pronounced Vann dead at the scene, Carriker said. A medical examiner later ruled that Vann died from a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Evidence from the autopsy further indicated that Vann had been hit by shotgun pellets.

At the crime scene, detectives found Vann’s cell phone and an insert to a flare gun that contained a .12-gauge shotgun shell casing inside, Carriker said, adding that the items were significant to the investigation.

Detectives eventually learned Vann was living with Gonzales in Wilmington and the two also worked together at Brunswick Cove nursing home in Winnabow. They went to the home to interview Gonzales in the case.

During that interview, Gonzales told detectives he last saw Vann alive during their shift at the nursing home the day before his death. Gonzales had also admitted to owning a flare gun, but said Vann had recently stole the gun along with other items.

“There were three key items of evidence that have pointed detectives toward [Gonzales] since early in this investigation,” Carriker said.

A part of that evidence was an audio recording made later by two friends suspicious of Gonzales, which was handed over to detectives and indicated the defendant had lied in his initial statement to law enforcement, Carriker said. The recording captured Gonzales telling his friends that he had driven Vann to a park off River Road and dropped him off for a drug deal.

Other items included security video from the port that showed Gonzales’ vehicle driving down River Road around the time the couple who found Vann called for help, Carriker said. Investigators also found a scrub top in Vann’s Jeep with several blood stains and the vehicle’s license plate had been removed.

Investigators also noticed Gonzales had an injury on his hand, which they would later discover to be consistent with firing a shotgun shell from a flare gun.

“This is an admittedly unusual case in that it is entirely circumstantial,” Carriker said. “That being said, there are sufficient facts to find that the defendant is the killer when one considers all of the evidence and asks, ‘What are the odds’?”

Several weeks after the investigation began, Gonzales suddenly left Wilmington and drove a rental car to Houston, Texas, abandoning the car in a Wal-Mart parking lot, Carriker said. Gonzales had left behind his possessions, including sentimental items such as family photos, and let his house go into foreclosure.

“Gonzales never voluntarily returned to North Carolina,” Carriker said. “The sheriff’s office has never slept on this case. The reason it took years and thousands of man hours on part of the sheriff’s office is because there was never a direct eyewitness. There was never a direct piece of physical evidence that the defendant could not refute.”

Vann’s mother was in the courtroom for the plea but declined to make a victim’s impact statement in court. In a news conference in the district attorney’s office after the plea, Carriker said the plea was discussed with the family before the case went into court on Wednesday.

“Often the district attorney’s office or law enforcement officers in general are asked whether they are satisfied with an outcome or even whether they are happy with an outcome. Don’t make any mistake this is not a matter of satisfaction or happiness. But it is, given the evidence in this case, the right outcome,” Carriker said.