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Body found at bridge

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Charge dismissed against one murder defendant

By John Barnhart

Three people charged with killing Sean Peter Placko late this winter and dumping his body in the James River faced a preliminary hearing in Bedford County General District Court, Monday. Although the murder allegedly occurred in Augusta County, Bedford County has claimed jurisdiction because the body was found near the Snowden Bridge in Bedford County.

    Andrew Clay Ottinger, 22, waived a preliminary hearing on a first degree murder charge. Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Krantz told the Judge Harold Black that he would not prosecute a charge of conspiracy to commit first degree murder against Ottinger. This means that the Commonwealth is not prosecuting the charge now, but could do so at a later date.
    Ottinger is testifying against the two other people charged in the case, Christopher and Susan Dudley, accused of being involved in the murder.
    Christopher Dudley, 28, has been charged with first degree murder and conspiracy, but his preliminary hearing was delayed. Dudley’s attorney, Webster Hogeland, asked to withdraw from the case because he has represented an inmate that the Commonwealth plans to call as a witness.
    Hogeland said that he has a file of confidential information on the man. Hogeland also asked that Christopher Dudley’s hearing be delayed until he is represented by another attorney. Judge Black agreed with both requests.
    Ottinger testified that he has known Christopher Dudley for four years and the two men sold marijuana together. The Dudleys were living in Placko’s house — Placko was Christopher Dudley’s uncle by marriage.
    According to Ottinger, he was at the home the night of Placko’s death. He said that he was high on methamphetamine at the time and that Christopher Dudley had also been smoking meth.
    He recalled hearing the Dudleys argue about a credit card, but wasn’t paying attention to it. Susan Dudley left and, later, Ottinger said he heard the sound of three or four thuds come from Placko’s room. He said he went to see what happened and saw Christopher Dudley going through Placko’s closet. He was holding a hatchet.
    “Sean was lying on the bed pretty bloody,” he testified.
    Ottinger said he immediately went to the bathroom and threw up.
    When he returned to Placko’s room, he said he saw Dudley stuffing Placko’s body into a plastic bag.
    Ottinger made another trip to the bathroom to vomit.
    Finally, he went back to Placko’s room, saw a Rubbermaid tote on the floor and helped Dudley take it to a back room. Ottinger testified that Dudley told him to help or he would “join Sean.”
    Later, Susan Dudley returned to the house and she and her husband talked in another room. Ottinger said he didn’t know what they talked about.
    At Christopher Dudley’s insistence, Ottinger said he helped him load the tote into Susan Dudley’s SUV.
    “Me and Chris don’t have licenses,” he said.
    He testified that Susan Dudley drove the SUV for about two hours until they came to a bridge. During this time Christopher Dudley threatened to kill Ottinger if he said anything to the police, he said.
    Ottinger described Susan Dudley as “out of it” during the drive. He said she is usually bubbly, but was very quiet during the trip; Christopher Dudley was giving his wife directions on where to go.
    Once they reached the Snowden Bridge, Ottinger said that he helped Christopher Dudley throw the tote, containing Placko’s body, off the bridge, while Susan Dudley stood in front of the SUV.
    They then returned to the house and Ottinger stayed the night there.
    According to Krantz, Placko had come into some money due to an inheritance and he said that the Commonwealth’s theory is that the three were conspiring to get it off of him. Josh Hubbard, an investigator with the sheriff’s office, testified that he found surveillance video at a number of ATMs showing Christopher Dudley making withdrawals with Placko’s ATM card before the murder and after Susan Dudley reported Placko missing. Ottinger said he wasn’t aware that Placko had come into money.
    Ottinger said he didn’t say anything afterwards.
    “I was scared of Chris, “ he testified. “I didn’t know what would happen.”
    Hubbard testified that Placko died from blunt force trauma to the head and torso.
    Hubbard also testified that he found surveillance video from a Harrisonburg Wal-Mart that showed Susan Dudley purchasing several items that included the items found with Placko’s body. The purchase was made on Feb. 16 at 2:47 a.m.
    Krantz argued that the evidence shows that Susan Dudley was involved in Placko’s murder both before and after the fact.
    “We have no evidence of an agreement between Mr. and Mrs. Dudley,” countered Lee Kilduff, Susan Dudley’s defense attorney.
    “Many other items were purchased in addition to items in which Mr. Placko’s body was found,” she went on to say, adding that it’s unclear if the items were purchased before or after Placko was killed.
    Judge Black dismissed the conspiracy charge against Susan Dudley. He said that it appears that the tote was purchased before Placko’s death, but the issue is whether it was purchased for the purpose of carrying Placko’s body.
    “It doesn’t get there,” Judge Black said, stating that the Commonwealth’s evidence doesn’t rise to the point of showing conspiracy.
    Krantz said that charges against Ottinger and the Dudleys will go to a grand jury. Ottinger could be indicted for murder, or a lesser included offense such as accessory after the fact. Susan Dudley could also be indicted as an accessory and illegally disposing of a body.