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York man found guilty of murder

A York man who police charged as a co-conspirator in the 2010 shooting death of a former minister was found guilty of murder Thursday night.

Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III sentenced Steven Spagnoli, 49, to life in prison without parole Thursday night after a jury found him guilty of murder, attempted murder, criminal conspiracy and using a firearm in the commission of a violent crime, said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett.

“He’s not getting out of prison,” Brackett said Friday.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on Sept. 28, 2010, authorities responded to a home on York Farms Road after a gunshot victim sought help. When York County deputies arrived, they found 44-year-old Richard Leach dying of a gunshot wound.

Deputies also found Erick L. Harris, 37, who had been shot twice through the window of a car but managed to escape.

Spagnoli and Christopher L. Varnadore, 51, were arrested at the scene and named as suspects in the shooting.

In June 2011, Varnadore pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, criminal conspiracy and accessory after the fact to attempted murder. He faces a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison, but agreed to assist in Spagnoli’s prosecution.

Varnadore testified against Spagnoli on Thursday, Brackett said, confirming that both men beat Leach numerous times with a baseball bat before Spagnoli delivered the killing blow – a gunshot to the brain.

A series of letters Spagnoli wrote while in jail awaiting trial showed that he attempted to change his defense while trying to convince his father and son to lie on the stand, Brackett said.

Spagnoli instructed his father in one letter to find a shotgun, shoot it twice and then hide it so his attorney’s investigator would find it.

In a letter to his son, Spagnoli asks his 21-year-old son to say Leach was his drug dealer.

Neither the son nor Spagnoli’s father carried out Spagnoli’s wishes, Brackett said.

Spagnoli consistently altered his defense based on evidence found during discovery, he said.

“At some points, he would say, ‘I wasn’t even there,’” Brackett said. “At some points, he would say he acted in self-defense.”

On Thursday, prosecutors detailed Spagnoli’s motive in killing Leach when they revealed that, for years, Leach was Spagnoli’s drug supplier.

Spagnoli probably owed Leach a significant amount of money at the time of the murder, Brackett said.

Spagnoli called Leach numerous times, but Leach ignored the calls. A couple of days before the killing, Brackett said, Leach had made “sexual overtures” towards Spagnoli’s son’s girlfriend.

“And he (Spagnoli) was not happy about that,” he said.

On Sept. 28, Leach and his cousin, Erick Harris, went to Spagnoli’s home, probably to collect money Spagnoli owed him, Brackett said. Leach went inside the house while Harris stayed in the car.

Minutes later, Spagnoli walked outside.

Harris “didn’t think anything of it at the time,” Brackett said. “He was just waiting for his cousin to come out.” Spagnoli then shot Harris in the face through the window with a .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol.

Harris tried to crawl out of the car through the other side, Brackett said, and Spagnoli shot Harris again, hitting him near the ribs and lodging in his kidney.

Harris ran into the woods, where he hid in a gulley and took off his white T-shirt. He watched Spagnoli climb into Leach’s car, turn on the high beams and circle the area, hunting for him.

Eventually, Spagnoli ended his pursuit.

Harris ran to a home on Paraham Road and asked a woman for help. York County deputies went to property shared by Spagnoli and his son. They confronted the son, who confirmed that he heard gunshots coming from his father’s house.

Officers found Spagnoli standing on his front porch smoking a cigarette, and Varnadore sitting near the foot of the house, Brackett said. They entered Spagnoli’s home and found a large rug rolled into a lump on the floor – a limp arm sticking out of it.

Police found Leach in the carpet, barely alive, he said.

His skull was fractured after repeated blows from a baseball bat. Spagnoli had shot Leach in the head, Brackett said.

Leach died on the way to the hospital.

On Thursday, Spagnoli’s attorney, Bill Hancock, maintained that Spagnoli acted in self-defense, arguing that Leach and Harris were both armed, said Deputy Solicitor Willy Thompson. Efforts to reach Hancock were unsuccessful Friday.

“(He) argued that Richard Leach, a known drug dealer, was coming after him that the phone calls that were back and forth between them was supposed to be Spagnoli calling Leach” and warning him not to bother his son’s girlfriend again, Thompson said.

Spagnoli’s threats enraged Leach, Hancock argued, prompting him to go to Spagnoli’s home with his cousin and attack.

The bullet extracted from Leach’s brain matched the bullet doctors extracted from Harris’ sinus cavity.

Forensics found traces of the victim’s blood on the baseball bat, carpet and both suspects’ clothing, said Detective Eddie Strait with the York County Sheriff’s Office.

Almost two years later, Harris walks with a cane and limp. He still has a bullet in his kidney doctors are reluctant to remove, Brackett said.

During sentencing, Spagnoli apologized to Leach’s family.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I never meant for it to go this far. It just got out of hand.”

C.T. Kirk, pastor of Sanctuary of Life Outreach Center in Charlotte and Leach’s cousin, said, “I think justice has finally been served.”

Kirk said he used to call Leach “uncle” because they were so close. Though he’s glad of Spagnoli’s conviction, Kirk said he hopes someone in prison will minister to him about Jesus Christ.

“That’s what Richard would have wanted,” he said.