The third day of testimony saw only two witnesses, but the latest final recess of the day.
The first to the stand was Dr. Donna Stewart, a forensic pathologist and medical examiner for the state of Kentucky and has been for almost 20 years. She performed the autopsies on both Valerie Dicus and Joe Hobson, who Joe Hambel, 30, is on trial for killing early in the morning on Aug. 20, 2016.
She told the court her final diagnosis was that Dicus was killed by a gunshot wound to the right forehead, resulting in inter-cranial damage.
“She suffered an … injury to her skull and brain,” said Stewart. The projectile entered the skull front to back, slightly downward, and caused death … It would have taken seconds to minutes for Valerie Dicus to die. There was a gun shot wound to her brain stem. She would have been immediately incapacitated and it would have taken her not much longer to die.”
Stewart said the gun was close, but not touching, Dicus’ head when it was fired. However, it was close enough to cause stippling, where soot from the gunpowder embeds itself in the surrounding tissues. She said there were no other injuries, defensive or otherwise, present on Dicus’ body. She later indicated the gun was likely between 8 inches and 3 1/2 to 4 feet from Dicus’ head when the bullet was fired.
Stewart said Hobson died from multiple gunshot wounds to his body. Stewart said she found six bullet tracks, pathways bullets made through a body, and four projectiles in Hobson’s body. The first she mentioned was a bullet that entered the shoulder and exited at the crest of the right shoulder.
“The bullet didn’t enter his chest cavity and would not have caused death,” she said.
The second and third wounds she mentioned were found in the right lower back. The second injured the kidney, colon and liver as it moved through the body and the bullet was found in the abdomen. The third bullet wound, like the first, Stewart said would have been survivable. The fourth bullet she discussed was found just left of the spine. She found the bullet in the left neck after it traveled through the muscles in the back. The fifth bullet went through his outer right arm and the sixth also went through the right arm and the bullet lodged at the head of the humerus bone. She said the injury caused by the second bullet discussed would be the one that would have proven fatal, but all would have caused blood loss. She said there was no evidence of defensive wounds or any other injuries not caused by the gun to Hobson’s body.
Hobson, Stewart said, would have taken minutes to die.
Hobson’s and Dicus’ toxicology screens were also admitted into evidence and showed that both of them had methamphetamine in what Stewart called large quantities, canabinoids and other drugs, some possibly legal, in both of their systems.
'I swear to God I never shot nobody'
The second witness testifying was Indiana State Police Detective David Mitchell. He became involved with the case around 1 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 20, after being told two people had been shot and the Salem Police department was requesting a state police investigation. Mitchell was the highest ranking detective on the case.
He was drawn to Hambel after Salem Police Detective Ronnie Mays reported Hambel had come to his home on Aug. 19, armed and concerned about 304 Small St., the home where the shootings took place.
Mitchell found Hambel at his home, 1023 Aspen Dr., Apt. 113, along with Hambel’s then-fiance, Jessica Reisert, and his mother, Carol Slack. He asked if Hambel would come to the sheriff’s department to answer some questions and said Hambel went willingly.
Much of the rest of the day’s testimony was watching three recorded interviews Mitchell had with Hambel, the first two on Aug. 20 and the next on Aug. 21. Mitchell said, throughout all three interviews, he used various tactics to draw the truth out of Hambel, including introducing fictitious information, victim blaming and siding with Hambel to encourage him to admit the truth that Mitchell believed matched evidence being gathered.
Hambel told Mitchell he and a friend, Dale Cattlet, had tried to keep drugs out of the county on their own, but they both eventually moved away and “it came back like a snake in the weekds. I came back to the area and saw how much it had taken over. I want to help you guys.”
He said he and Cattlet would run people they suspected of dealing drugs off and “tell people to get that sh** out of our town.” He said he moved to Jeffersonville and had moved back in 2015 and had moved into the Aspen Drive apartment a few months before the incident.
Later in the interview, Hambel said both he and Reisert had been addicted to pills in earlier years. He had used primarily hydrocodone and chose to get clean as he prepared to graduate from West Washington in 2006. He went to college and later worked as a repo man, which is when he said he began carrying a Smith and Wesson 9 mm handgun. He added he would also use the gun if he came upon a beleaguered police officer while out and about.
He told Mitchell he had been woken up Aug. 20 with the news that his cousin, Dicus, had been shot and learned that “both of ‘em had been shot” from the media. Mitchell later told him the police had yet to reveal that anyone had been shot, specifically, just killed, at that point in time.
“My eyes just popped open and I’m like ‘what?’” Hambel told Mitchell later. “I was getting ready to call Taco Bell that morning because Valerie had Hepatitis C and I didn’t think a person with that should be working at a food place.”
He said he did not know Dicus’ boyfriend Hobson. He told Mitchell he had heard “about a week ago my uncle was using meth with his grandson and nearly killed him. Now he’s staying in your cushy little hotel here,” referring to his uncle Tony Shelton’s arrest and incarceration at the Washington County Jail.
He claimed the last time he had been to the house on Small Street where Dicus was living with her father and two half-brothers, Seth and Logan Shelton, about a year before.
“I don’t care for drugs,” he said, adding he tended to stay away from that part of the family.
He told Mitchell that he had approached Mays and Salem Police Officer Eric Mills about going undercover and becoming a confidential informant for the police. He said he had told officers about the trouble Dicus had been in before and how “she’d been a thorn in your all’s side.”
He said Aug. 19 had been spent helping his fiance as she was going into early labor with their son and hanging out with neighbors. When asked to go into more depth as far as what they did, Hambel cited PTSD following an electrocution incident, anxiety and depression with medication that could cause memory loss. He said he remembered going to McDonalds and getting two McDoubles then going back home. He later went to drive around the block with RJ Sease, 17, a neighbor who planned to buy Hambel’s red Honda. After they returned, he said he “sat around with my old lady” and then later took Reisert to Clark Memorial Hospital due to labor pains. They sent her back home and they went to sleep around 6 or 7 a.m.
Mitchell asked Hambel if he knew of anyone who would have wanted to kill Dicus and said there was likely a list of people she had “snitched” on.
In that same interview, he recalled going to Circle K to get drinks while he and Sease were test-driving the Honda, which is where he later added he spoke with Mills while Mills was working a car wreck at the intersection of Jackson and South Main that night.
After further discussion and Mitchell’s mentioning that they could find out where Hambel was by looking at his phone, Hambel admitted he had driven by Small Street with Sease. He claimed he hadn’t thought it was relevant when Mitchell initially asked. He said no out-of-the-ordinary activities were going on at the home when he drove by, but he watched the house for a few minutes. He claimed he didn’t look in the windows and neither he nor Sease got out of the car.
“I don’t think you’re the type of guy to kill those people,” Mitchell told Hambel.
“No, Lord no,” Hambel replied.
Again, he denied going in the house, despite Mitchell saying he knew Hambel had gone inside. Hambel told Mitchell he had gone to look for drug traffic.
“When a house like that is in that part of Salem, with high traffic, you assume it’s drug activity,” he said. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen it.”
Hambel denied repeatedly going inside the house or getting out of the car, claiming all he could remember doing was watching the house as he drove by. Mitchell said he believed Hambel did go up to the house, but to tell them to get out of the area with their drug activity. Hambel said it was possible he got out of the car, but persisted in saying he didn’t remember doing it.
“I know you remember,” Mitchell said.
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Mitchell continued to insist he knew Hambel got out of the car and Hambel replied he may have taken more medication than usual because he’d had a panic attack stemming from stress with Reisert’s impending labor. He thought for a bit and said he may have stepped out of the car to light a cigarette.
He said he saw a couple of people in the living room, but not Dicus or Tony Shelton, whom he claims he did not know was incarcerated at the time. He said he saw the people in the dining room area. He then said he walked all the way around the house and saw a man with a shaved head who he claims he had never seen before. Then he said he got back in the car and he and Sease left.
As Mitchell pressed, Hambel continued to claim he didn’t shoot Dicus and Hobson.
“I know you shot them, but I don’t know why,” said Mitchell.
“I swear to God I never shot nobody,” replied Hambel.
He claims he didn’t initially tell Mitchell he had gotten out of the car for fear that he might look guilty.
Mitchell pressed further and Hambel said he may have leaned against the side door to get a better view through the windows as he needed to peek through the blinds to see. He said he looked through every window he could, but didn’t want to get too close because he didn’t want to be seen. Hambel repeatedly denied opening the door. He said he and Sease went to Circle K and then to Small Street and then drove home. Then Sease left to run an errand in Pekin.
Mitchell told Hambel he had people from Hambel’s apartment complex express relief the shooting had occurred and that they were worried about drugs.
“Just like some savior came in and took care of the problem,” Mitchell told Hambel in the interview. “… You got rid of the problem and there’s people who think you’re a hero.”
Hambel denied it, saying repeatedly he had nothing to do with the shooting and then agreed to sign a consent to a search warrant form for his phone and home, given to him by Mitchell.
'I don't remember'
They went back to Aspen Drive, where, while waiting for the search warrant with a judge’s signature to arrive, Hambel, who was waiting outside, told Mitchell he needed to use the restroom. Mitchell said he would have to go in with him to search the bathroom first to ensure no evidence that might be recovered could be altered or destroyed as a matter of procedure during these situations. Hambel consented to this and as Mitchell was checking the bathroom, he searched the top of the cabinet fastened above the toilet and found an empty .32 caliber Kel-Tec handgun, which Hambel had failed to mention when they were discussing firearms in Hambel’s possession. His 9 mm Smith & Wesson had been willingly surrendered from its spot inside Hambel’s red Honda and was locked in Mitchell’s trunk.
The Kel-Tec could hold seven bullets and Mitchell remembered seven shell casings had been found at the scene. He believed he’d found the murder weapon.
“You could feel the tension in the air,” Mitchell told the court Thursday. “There was a look on his face. I was nervous, too. … We walked out with him in front of me.”
He added Hambel never used the restroom and they went back to the Sheriff’s Department for a second interview.
Hambel was read his Miranda rights and was brought in in handcuffs, but he was not under arrest during this interview and spoke freely.
He admitted the gun was in his home as a result of it being collateral for a loan he had given his cousin and her husband a few months before, but claimed he’d put the gun in that spot on the cabinet and had forgotten it, which is why he hadn’t told Mitchell about it before. On Wednesday, Reisert testified in court the gun given as collateral had been locked in a safe under their bed.
Mitchell told Hambel he knew the ballistics tests would reveal that the Kel tec was the gun that fired the shots that killed Hobson and Dicus.
Hambel grew emotional then.
“I swear to God I didn’t kill anyone,” he said, his voice cracking and rising in pitch as he grew more upset. “I don’t know what to say! … I don’t remember!”
He claimed he only remembered looking in the windows. Mitchell insisted the evidence was overwhelming that he had shot and killed Dicus and Hobson.
“You either planned this out or it happened in the heat of the moment,” he said. “You’ve got to do the right thing and tell us what happened.”
Hambel continued to insist he didn’t remember the events of that night and that he didn’t shoot anyone.
“This is all like a bad dream and I just want to wake up,” he said.
Mitchell said he didn’t believe Hambel planned to do it. “Do you think [you shooting Dicus and Hobson] is possible?”
“Anything is possible,” Hambel replied.
He continued to insist he had no memory of entering the home or shooting anyone. Mitchell insisted if Hambel had experienced a blackout, there must have been something that triggered it. Hambel insisted just as hard that he couldn’t remember.
As he thought more, however, Hambel did admit to going inside the second time he and Sease arrived at Small Street. He said he looked in the blinds and saw Dicus and Hobson sitting on the couch and it looked like they were smoking a pipe of some sort. He continued walking around the outside of the house and noticed the side door, which, based on testimony Tuesday during the trial, was rarely used by the family, was ajar. He said he peeked in and then let himself in.
“I thought I’d scare the sh** out of them,” he said. “Valerie started shouting at me and the guy came toward me. I turned to run. He grabbed the pistol [later revealed to be the .32 caliber Kel-Tec] from my waist.”
He said he reached around to grab Hobson’s wrist and they struggled.
“I got his arm down and he must have pulled the trigger,” he said. He succeeded in getting the gun back and said Hobson ran toward the door, saying “I got something for you, m***********!”
“I didn’t mean to kill them,” Hambel said. “I just wanted to scare them. I never shot my cousin. I never shot my cousin.”
He said he didn’t remember how many rounds were fired.
“I was in fear of my life,” he said. “When I wrestled the gun away from him, I remember him saying ‘I have something for you m***********!’ and running for the door. That’s all.”
Mitchell put Hambel in handcuffs and arrested him.
The next day, Mitchell interviewed Hambel again, believing he hadn’t been able to get the truth out of him during that second interview. He re-read Hambel his Miranda rights and tried to get Hambel to open up further by using similar tactics to the ones used the day before, including trying to build a rapport with Hambel and convince him Mitchell was on his side, despite what the truth might have been regarding Mitchell’s real opinions.
“What you did is what a lot of people thought about and fantasized about, including me,” he said in the recording. “That’s what you did. Right? Legal? No, but the justice system is f***** up. You even went to the police twice that day for help. However, your story has a lot of holes in it.”
He said he was giving Hambel the opportunity to stand up and “be courageous like you did when you committed the act you did.”
Hambel said then he had gone to the house to try to buy drugs. He said both Mays and Mills had told him he had to “prove himself.”
“I figured what better way to bust the bad apple in my family,” he said.
Dicus, he said, didn’t believe him, but Hobson did. They began talking and brought up the incident with Tony Shelton and Dicus’ son, who became very ill using drugs earlier in the month. Hambel said Dicus became irritated at that, but Hobson simply said he hadn’t been there at the time. Hambel said he then asked how much drugs Hobson had on hand available for purchase. He said Dicus continued to object, but that Hobson had told her to be quiet. He said Dicus and Hobson went into the kitchen to discuss it and Hambel sat down. When Hobson returned, Hambel said his attitude had changed and he was angry. He said Hobson said Dicus told him he was a “narc,” and Hambel offered to let them check for wires. Hambel said it was then he decided he should make his exit and turned to go.
“Joe [Hobson] was following behind me and that’s when he saw the piece behind my back,” Hambel said. He reported that’s when Dicus shouted that there was a gun and Hobson accused him of being a police officer. Hambel denied it and Hobson reached for the gun and during his and Hambel’s struggle for the gun, it discharged and struck Dicus. When Hambel was wrestling the gun away from Hobson, he said he squeezed it and held the slide back. After getting the gun back, he said Hobson tried to leave the room, saying “I’ve got something for you.”
“It sounded like a threat and I thought he was going to come back with a firearm,” said Hambel. “That’s when I opened fire.”
Despite Mitchell’s insistence that story didn’t match the facts, Hambel insisted that his most recent reiteration was indeed the facts and the interview ended.
Following the recording, Prosecutor Dustin Houchin showed the jury some images taken from Hambel’s phone and Facebook page. The first, which was showed to both the jury and the gallery, showed the logo of the Marvel character The Punisher, a vigilante character, with the words “Despite what your mamma told you, violence does solve problems.” The others, shown to the jury, but not the public in the gallery, were taken from Hambel’s Facebook profile.
Defense attorney Dave Smith asked Mitchell if it was possible to tell if Hambel posted these images or if others could have posted those to Hambel’s page. Mitchell replied that all the images shown to the jury had been posted or shared by Hambel.
During Houchin’s redirect, he asked if Mitchell believed Hambel when Hambel said he had been wearing a red shirt and black shorts when he went to the Small Street home the second time. Mitchell said he did not believe that and evidence from the Circle K cameras indicated otherwise. It’s possible blood evidence could have been removed from the clothing Hambel was wearing by washing the clothing.
The jury asked a few questions as well and Mitchell responded that no, the gun was not tested for fingerprints and Hambel’s hands were not tested for gunshot residue. He also did not know what of Hambel’s clothing had been sent to the lab for testing or if the ankle holster that had housed the .32 caliber Kel-Tec had been tested for DNA.