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UPDATE: Man avoids death penalty with plea in killing

Jeffrey Scott Easley, 33, pleaded no contest Tuesday to killing 41-year-old Tina Dyer Smith, a former South Boston resident.

In return for the no contest plea Tuesday, prosecutors dropped abduction charges against Easley.

He will spend the rest of his life behind bars with no chance for parole, according to Roanoke County Circuit Court Deputy Clerk Michael Galliher.

By reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors, Easley avoided facing the death penalty had a jury found him guilty of the capital murder and kidnapping charges at a trial that was scheduled to start March 21 and continue through April 3.

The plea agreement was reached one year and two months after Smith, a nurse, was found dead in her Salem home in December 2010, and her then 12-year-old daughter, Brittany, was kidnapped.

Brittany was found safe in San Francisco on Dec. 10, 2010 when a customer at a Safeway store recognized her and Easley after seeing national media reports. The two had been panhandling outside the store, authorities said.

The weeklong search for Brittany and Easley began Dec. 6, 2010 after Roanoke County Police found the body of Brittany’s mother when they were called to her Fort Lewis Circle home in Salem.

While at the scene, police obtained information indicating that a female child was missing from the home.

Virginia State Police issued an Amber Alert that day for the 12-year-old seventh grade Glenvar Middle School student who was described as five-feet tall, and weighing 100 pounds, with straight brown hair and brown eyes.

Tina Smith was a Halifax County native who spent much of her life in South Boston before moving with her daughter to the Salem area several years ago following a divorce from Brittany’s father, South Boston Police Officer Benjamin H. Smith.

Police said Tina and Brittany were last seen together leaving their Salem home sometime midmorning on Dec. 3, 2010.

Smith and Easley also reportedly were last seen in Roanoke County on Dec. 3, 2010, three days before Tina Smith was found murdered at the home the three of them shared in Roanoke County.

Thus began the nationwide search for Smith and Easley and the homicide investigation into the circumstances surrounding Tina’s death.

In January of 2011, Easley wrote a letter to The Roanoke Times saying the then 12-year-old willingly went with him on the cross-country trek that lasted a week.

Easley’s appointed attorneys asked the Roanoke County Circuit Court judge in November to approve a four-day trip to California so they could interview potential witnesses while there and review statements and evidence.

Brittany, now 13, continues to stay with her father and aunts in South Boston.

Attempts to contact Brittany’s father, Benny Smith, were unsuccessful at press time Tuesday.

Summary of evidence

According to the summary of evidence given in court Tuesday, Tina Smith died from blunt force trauma to the head, strangulation and suffocation.

In court, Easley’s defense attorneys suggested that Brittany was more involved in the crime than the prosecution indicated. Brittany was inside the house at the time her mother was killed, but detectives never uncovered any evidence to indicate she participated in her mother’s murder.

The Roanoke County Police Department is the agency that oversaw the murder investigation and search for Brittany. The Department’s Acting Assistant Chief Chuck Mason was in the courtroom and afterward said he and the department are satisfied with the outcome.

“Easley had almost complete access to Brittany for nearly five months prior to the murder. The investigation revealed that during that time Easley gradually increased his influence over the girl - even to the point of isolating her from family members. A text message sent from Tina Smith to a friend on the day of the murder stated that she thought that Easley had actually “brainwashed her daughter.”

After listening to the testimony, Circuit Court Judge James Swanson accepted Easley’s no contest plea and found him guilty of capital murder. The judge then dropped the “abduction with intent to defile” charge and sentenced Easley to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Mason said the outcome is the best possible for everyone involved. “Easley is the person responsible for this crime and will spend the rest of his life in prison.”