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Woman found guilty in square dancer death

Capital murder conviction means life term for 67-year-old by Lynn LaRowe | February 8, 2016 at 10:34 p.m. | Updated February 9, 2016 at 4:35 a.m.
Virginia Hyatt 67, shields her face from the camera Monday evening as she is taken back to jail after being convicted of capital murder in the 2013 fatal shooting of a fellow square dancer. Hyatt blamed Patricia Wheelington for the end of her 40-year marriage.
Photo by Helaine R. Williams
Lunsford and Carol Bridges

It took about an hour for a Miller County jury to find a 67-year-old woman guilty of capital murder Monday evening in the 2013 shooting death of a fellow square dancer.
Virginia Ann Hyatt remained stone-faced as Circuit Judge Randy Wright handed down an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, but others in the courtroom gasped. Wright then kept the courtroom doors closed until bailiffs had time to escort the jury of nine men and three women to their cars.
Hyatt shot Patricia "Patti" Wheelington five times Dec. 3, 2013, as the victim sat sipping coffee on the front porch of her South Valley Road home in Texarkana, Ark., because she blamed Wheelington for the end of her 40-year marriage to James Hyatt. Both women were members of the Guys and Dolls Square Dancing Club in Texarkana.
"The prosecutor's office is here to seek justice for those who have been wronged, especially those without a voice, like Patti Wheelington," Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Black said. "I want to thank the jury for their sacrifice and time spent away from their families. Chief Deputy Charles Black and the Texarkana, Ark., Police Department did an outstanding job for which I am very grateful."
During five days of testimony, witnesses described Virginia Hyatt as intensely jealous of other women, especially Wheelington, and very possessive of her husband. Sisters of James Hyatt, who did not testify, said Virginia Hyatt would not permit them to hug their brother in front of her. James Hyatt told the jury that he and his wife had not been intimate in 10 years, that the couple slept in separate bedrooms and that he locked his door at night.
"Virginia was a very difficult person to live with. She's right where she needs to be (in jail)," James Hyatt testified Monday morning as a witness for the defense. "She needs to be there for the rest of her life for what she's done."
James Hyatt testified Wednesday that he and Wheelington became romantic in late 2009.
"She trusted me; she shouldn't have," James Hyatt said Monday morning. "I got her killed."
James Hyatt said he and his family began to fear for his life when Virginia Hyatt told his sisters she thought he was suicidal, leading them to suspect that Virginia Hyatt was plotting to kill him and make his death appear self-inflicted. After packing a few personals Nov. 29, 2013, James Hyatt fled Texarkana for Florida with his sister. He said he warned Wheelington that he feared for her safety as well.
Wheelington was in New Orleans with a female friend the weekend James Hyatt left his wife. While Wheelington was gone, Virginia Hyatt left her voice mail messages pleading with her to "give my husband back." Hyatt also made repeated drives by Wheelington's home on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, looking for Wheelington and her husband.
Wheelington was home the morning of Dec. 2, 2013, when Virginia Hyatt drove to the residence at about 8 a.m. to confront her. At a square dance lesson later the same day, Wheelington told a friend Virginia Hyatt had left her feeling "freaked out."
The next morning, Wheelington was sitting in a swivel chair on her front porch in a thick, bathrobe talking to her friend, Ken Caldwell, who died shortly after the murder. Caldwell told investigators that Wheelington had told him Virginia Hyatt was coming up her driveway before ending what would be the last phone conversation she would ever have.
Stephanie Black and Charles Black theorized Wheelington was sitting in the chair when Virginia Hyatt came within three feet of her and fired the first of five shots from a .38 caliber pistol. Fabric from Wheelington's robe was lodged in the chair's back and stipling from the soot and gun powder of a bullet marked Wheelington's face.
As Wheelington stood up and attempted to reach an exterior door and the safety of her home, she was shot four more times. The bullets that ripped through Wellington's lungs and heart caused her to collapse in front of the door, a cigarette still perched between the fingers of her right hand.
Later that day, Barbara Ricketts and Phyllis Nabors discovered Wheelington's body on the porch. The friends had spoken with Caldwell and feared something was amiss when Wheelington didn't answer her phone or respond to text messages for hours.
Investigators quickly identified Virginia Hyatt as the lone suspect in Wheelington's murder. Wheelington's friends and fellow dancers described her as a vivacious, loving person who freely gave of herself and her finances. The dancers said Virginia Hyatt often expressed a hatred of Wheelington and made no attempt to disguise her displeasure when her husband would dance with other women.
"This was personal. The person who killed Patti had a personal reason to do it," Chuck Black argued in closing remarks. "This was not a robbery murder and Virginia Hyatt is the only person who had a motive to do it."
Texarkana, Ark., police arrested Virginia Hyatt at about 2 a.m. on Dec. 4, 2013. Detective Jason Haak said Virginia Hyatt never asked why she was being arrested and appeared unaffected by the news of Wheelington's murder.
"All this testimony about how elderly and feeble she is," Stephanie Black said in closing remarks, "she is a lot more able bodied than she wants to act today. It doesn't take a lot of agility to walk up and shoot somebody five times."
Haak and Detective Paul Nall said Virginia Hyatt lied about where she was at 8 a.m. the morning of the murder. While Virginia Hyatt claimed she was in the drive-through line at McDonald's buying her mother a sausage biscuit, video surveillance footage from the restaurant put her there an hour and a half later. Virginia Hyatt claimed she spent an hour at her mother's nursing home but video recorded there showed she left after 12 minutes.
"The only thing Virginia Hyatt did do right was she got $100,000 out of her marital estate to hire this legal dream team over here," Stephanie Black said of Texarkana lawyers Damon Young, John Pickett and Bruce Condit. "And they're good. They're saying motive is not murder. But I submit to you that you can't have one without the other."
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