Police: Carter County man confesses to murdering missing Sullivan County couple
Published 1:11 pm Thursday, April 23, 2015
The search for a Sullivan County couple missing since January ended Wednesday with the arrest of a Carter County man who police say has confessed to murdering and dismembering the two and disposing of their bodies.
Officers of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department arrested Eric James Azotea, 43, of 135 Woodland Drive, Johnson City, on Wednesday afternoon and charged him with two counts of first degree murder, two counts of abuse of a corpse and one count of tampering with or fabricating evidence.
Azotea was booked into the Carter County Detention Center at 4:50 p.m. on Wednesday and remains there, held without bond. He is scheduled to be arraigned Friday morning according to the Carter County Circuit Court Clerk’s Office.
On Wednesday, Azotea was interviewed by CCSD Deputy Chief Investigator Mike Little and TBI Special Agent Brian Fraley regarding the disappearance of Arthur Gibson, Jr., and his girlfriend, Amber Terrell, both of Kingsport.
“During the course of the interview, Azotea admitted to the murder of Arthur Gibson, Jr. and Amber Terrell, stating that he stabbed both individuals to death at his residence,” Little said, adding Azotea also confessed to abandoning the couple’s vehicle on Big Springs Road. “Azotea further stated that after killing (Gibson and Terrell), he moved their bodies into an outbuilding on his property, and after keeping the bodies hidden there for a period of approximately two days, then dismembered the corpses and disposed of them in a burn pit on his property.”
Investigators are working to verify the statements made by Azotea in his confession, Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said, adding there have been some discrepancies between Azotea’s description of what happened and the evidence recovered.
While Azotea said he stabbed the couple, Lunceford said it appears Gibson and Terrell were shot and officers believe the murder weapon to be a pistol.
“We are attempting to recover the weapon at this time at a different location,” Lunceford said.
On Wednesday, police executed a search warrant at Azotea’s home and TBI agents found what are believed to be bone fragments near the area where Azotea said he burned the bodies.
Forensic scientists from the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, commonly called “The Body Farm,” were called to the home on Woodland Drive Thursday afternoon to help with the recovery of the bodies.
“We have reason to believe the bodies are under the house,” Lunceford said, adding that while some fragments of what appeared to be bone had been discovered at the scene, forensic testing would have to be completed to determine if the bone fragments were human and if they belonged to Gibson or Terrell.
Officers began investigating the disappearance of Gibson and Terrell in mid-January after family members reported them missing. The couple was last seen on Jan. 7, and family members told police the couple had gone to visit a relative in Carter County.
The couple’s car, a 1999 Ford Escort, was found abandoned off Big Springs Road in Carter County on Jan. 12. “The vehicle was found to have an ignition switch that had been tampered with and was found abandoned in a rural section of the county,” Little said in the warrant for Azotea’s arrest.
After the car was found, a search of the area was conducted by the CCSD, the Sullivan County Sheriff’s office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s Aviation Unit, but came up empty, Lunceford said.
Because the couple was reported missing in Sullivan County and the vehicle was found in Carter County, a joint investigation was launched involving the Carter County Sheriff’s Department, Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
During the investigation, officers learned Gibson and his roommate, Cory Logan Peters, were involved in selling drugs, and sometime in November 2014, Gibson had given drugs to Azotea but had not been paid, Little said.
In early January, Azotea contacted Gibson about buying more drugs and the two argued about the money Azotea owed Gibson from the previous drug sale, Little said. According to Peters, Azotea invited Gibson to come to his home at 135 Woodland Drive, in the Pinecrest community of Carter County, with a promise to not only pay him the money owed but to buy more drugs as well.
On Jan. 7, Gibson and Terrell went to Azotea’s home “and were never heard from nor seen again,” Little said.
When Gibson left to go to Azotea’s home, he was carrying a firearm, about $700 in cash and drugs, Peters told police.
During interviews with police, Peters said Azotea called him on the evening of Jan. 7, asking if Gibson had any drugs or money with him and also asked about Gibson’s firearm.
“Peters advised that at the time of the telephone call, Azotea sounded frantic and ‘out of breath,’” Little said. “During the course of the conversation, Peters stated that Azotea told him that neither Gibson nor Terrell had ever shown up at his residence at planned.”
Investigators were still gathering evidence at the home on Woodland Drive Thursday afternoon, but Lunceford said he anticipated they would finish up before the day was done.
Lunceford praised the work of not only his officers, but the officers of the other agencies involved for their work on the case.
“I’m very proud of the work done by all these guys and agencies,” he said. “They put a lot of time and effort into this and they didn’t give up.”