Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 8, 2013

Man gets 22 years in murders

Kenneth Hart
The Independent

GREENUP — A Garrison man was sentenced Thursday to 22 years in prison for his role in a 2008 double homicide and arson.

Greenup Circuit Judge Bob Conley sentenced Mitchell Royster, 26, in accordance with the terms of his plea agreement, which provided authorities with the ammunition they needed to charge four others, including Royster’s wife, in the murders of Jeffrey Long, 45, and Pamela Willis, 21.

Royster, who was originally charged with two counts of murder and one count of arson, pleaded guilty last month two counts of second-degree manslaughter, one count of facilitation to first-degree arson and one count of conspiracy to commit first-robbery.

His plea deal requires him to testify against the other four defendants in the case, all of whom were arrested last month after the agreement was reached. They are Chrissie Bertram-Royster, 23, of Garrison, Royster’s wife; Sammy E. Bertram, 22; Willie Burns, 23; and Ashley N. Craft, 23, of Garrison. Bertram-Royster, Bertram and Burns are all charged with two counts of capital murder and one each of first-degree robbery, first-degree arson and tampering with physical evidence. Craft was charged with first-degree conspiracy to commit robbery.

The charges all stem from a Feb. 23, 2008, blaze at Long’s trailer in the 4900 block of Leatherwood Road. The fire was so intense it destroyed most of the evidence at the scene, and the Greenup County Sheriff’s Department spent nearly five years investigating the murders of Long and Willis.

Royster was indicted in 2010 and had been the only one charged. However, investigators say they always believed others were involved, but couldn’t prove it until Royster agreed to testify against the others.

According to Royster’s attorney, James Lyon Jr., Royster will be eligible to meet with the parole board after he had served 20 percent, or roughly 53 months, of his sentence. He has already served about half that, having been in custody since Dec. 17, 2010, meaning he will be parole-eligible in a little more than two years. However, studies have shown most Kentucky offenders don’t make parole the first time they seek it.

Prior to Conley pronouncing sentence, an emotional letter written by a family member of one of the victims was read into the record. One of the purposes of doing so, according to its author, was so it will be there for the parole board to read in the future when Royster goes before it.

The letter was written by Long’s sister, Pamela Bryant. Commonwealth’s Attorney Melvin Leonhart said Bryant was too emotional to read it herself, so her son, Charles Bryant, 25, who’s home on leave from the Army after serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan, read it for her.

In the letter, Pamela Bryant said her brother’s murder had caused unimaginable pain for her and her family, particularly her father, whom she said was still too grief-stricken to visit his son’s gravesite.

Bryant described her brother in the letter as a kind, loving and generous man “who would give anyone the shirt off his back.” The fact Royster, someone he had liked and trusted, was one of his killers made his death particularly hard to accept, she wrote.

According to Bryant’s letter, Long’s body was so badly burned it to be identified through DNA testing, and there was so little left of him the director of the funeral home that handled his arrangements suggested the family bury his remains in a casket intended for a baby. However, Bryant said she refused to do that.

Bryant said her father asked her to oversee her brother’s funeral arrangements, telling her: “You should never have to make arrangements for your own children.”

Bryant also said the fact the family was unable to have an open-casket funeral for Long and had never seen his body had deprived them of a sense of closure, which made it all the more difficult to terms with his death.

“When an eye for an eye means giving up one’s soul to anger, it’s best to give it up to justice and to God,” the letter stated.

Royster showed no emotion as Charles Bryant was reading his mother’s letter. Afterwards, Lyon said his client was remorseful for his actions, and had “done what he has to do to try to make it right,” including cooperating with authorities and giving them “hours and hours” of statements.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.