EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an account of the events leading up to the stabbing death of Michael Hogg on January 1, 2014, taken from testimony at the trial of James R. Huffman IV, now in its ninth day in Letcher Circuit Court, and from witness documents filed in the case.
The night of December 31, 2013, and January 1, 2014, was bone-chilling cold.
The temperature had not been out of the 30s all day, and a brisk wind cut through clothing, stung cheeks and threatened to freeze tears in eyes.
Michael Hogg, Stacy Phillips, and Chris Puckett had plans to spend the night indoors. The three friends were to meet up at the apartment of Morgan Wilson, and pick up her, Samantha Mullins, and a few others to go to Streetside Bar and Grill to ring in 2014 with friends.
It was a good night for a New Year’s celebration. The roads were dry, and the warmth of the crowded bars on Main Street in Whitesburg would be a respite from the cold. Mullins, who they didn’t know well, had agreed to take her sister’s place as designated driver, and make sure they got home from the bar safely.
Even the liquor selected by Hogg on his way to the rendezvous reflected the season — a cinnamon-infused whiskey called Fireball.
By all accounts, December 31 was a night to remember, with good friends, good music and good times. But when the ball dropped and the calendar turned over, the dream night of December 31 turned into the nightmare of January 1.
Before daybreak, Hogg was dead, and Puckett was in the Level 1 trauma center at Holston Valley Medical Center for treatment of a knife wound more than three inches deep in his back. Phillips had more than a dozen stitches in one hand.
Two Pike County men, James R. Huffman IV and Patrick Smith were in jail, accused of stabbing the three men, then cutting all four tires on Hogg’s Jeep Grand Cherokee as Mullins tried desperately to get the SUV in reverse and get away with her three friends.
The night began about 9 p.m., when Hogg, home on Christmas Break from Eastern Kentucky University, picked up Phillips in his father’s 2000 Jeep Grand Cherokee and rode into Whitesburg, stopping at Big Daddy’s liquor to buy a 30-pack of Bush Light beer and a fifth of Fireball cinnamon whiskey. Philips said Hogg wanted the whiskey, but he chipped in some money, too.
About the same time, Puckett was preparing to leave Jenkins. He already had Rolling Rock Beer and Jägermeister that he had picked up after his workout at the Letcher County Recreation Center, and he and friends Mark White and Spencer Fields left town with plans to meet Hogg, Phillips, and others at the apartments above The Washboard laundry at Pine Mountain Junction, where Wilson shared an apartment with Kelsey Mullins.
Hogg and Phillips had gone to elementary school together and played sports together. Puckett had gone to different schools the whole time, but was still best friends with Hogg, who had played opposite him on sports teams their entire school careers.
Kelsey and Spencer were to be their designated drivers for the night so no one drove home drunk, and no one would get arrested or hurt, but Kelsey had to work, so her sister, Samantha, agreed to take her place.
It was close to 10:30 p.m. by the time the two carloads of friends arrived in downtown Whitesburg. The men wanted to go to Streetside, but Mullins, Wilson and Tia Taylor wanted to see if anyone they knew was at Summit City, just across the street. A band called Fodder Shock was playing there, and the place was crowded, but there really wasn’t anyone the young women knew. They went straight through the bar, out the front and across the street to meet the others.
While the two young women didn’t like Fodder Shock, two young men from Pike County did, and they picked up a third friend on the way to see the band. Matthew Blackburn and Patrick Smith followed the band, and were anxious to go to Whitesburg to see them. James R. Huffman IV was acquainted with Blackburn, but was good friends with Smith and went with them to the celebration.
Blackburn is a hipster with a shaggy beard and long blond dreadlocks. At New Year’s 2014, he had no money, no permanent address and no steady job. He was an ardent fan of Fodder Shock, however, and borrowed his landlord’s truck to go to Whitesburg. Alcohol was in his plans, but he didn’t have money to buy it. If someone else bought it for him, that would be fine.
Smith might have seemed a somewhat unlikely companion. He had been a Marine and had served in the Middle East. He was interested in Norse mythology, and when he got home, he shaved his head, grew a long beard, and professed to be a follower of an ancient Norse religion. He was prone dressing dramatically in chainmail and plate armor he made himself, and carrying knives. That New Year’s Eve, he wore knee-high leather boots covered in straps and buckles and a long, leather trench coat.
Huffman shared his interest in knives. One picture on his Facebook page was of him lying on a couch, seemingly asleep, with a Nordic sword in his right hand, cradled in the crook of his left arm. From a well-off family, Huffman had a troubled past. Less than a month earlier, he had been involved in a long standoff with police who attempted to arrest him on a warrant related to drug possession charges. He pleaded not guilty, and a Pike County judge dismissed the charges with prejudice, meaning they cannot be filed again, soon after the New Year.
Smith, Huffman and Blackburn might have been in Summit City when Mullins, Wilson, Taylor Hogg, and Phillips walked through on their way to Streetside, but if they were, none said they noticed them. Phillips did testify last week that he had noticed them in Streetside once during the night, but by all accounts, none had any contact with them until after 2013 turned to 2014. Puckett said he had never laid eyes on them until they went back to the bar later.
It was about 12:30 a.m. when the Letcher County friends decided to leave and go back to the apartment, where they all planned to stay the night. Mullins and Wilson went back to where they had parked behind Summit City, because, she said in a statement to police, the men had been drinking and she didn’t think they should be walking down the street to the car.
She got into the driver’s seat of Hogg’s Jeep, and Wilson got into the backseat, but she was unable to back up because of the crowd of New Year’s revelers leaving the bars and crowding around her vehicle. She said in a statement to police, that her foot slipped onto the gas pedal and revved the engine, and what happened from that point until she picked up her friends is something the jury will never hear.
Mullins said when the engine revved, Smith came to the car window, knocked, asked if she was OK, if she had been drinking, and could she drive.
Mullins said she told him she hadn’t had anything to drink, but while Smith was talking, Huffman peered through the back window, then went to the other side and climbed in the back with Wilson. When he was inside, Smith came around and got in the front seat beside Mullins.
Mullins said both men were “extremely drunk,” and she tried to get them out of the car. Huffman, she said Huffman was groping Wilson and “saying sexual things to her” in the back seat and she was crying, while Mullins tried to tell them she was her little sister, and “way too young for you.”
While she was trying to get them out of the Jeep, Blackburn was knocking on the windows telling them that he had to go home, and if they were going to go, they should go with him then.
She described Smith as “really nice,” but drunk, and said he apologized for the way Huffman, who she thought was his brother, was acting.
Smith and Huffman got out of the Jeep, but when they did, Blackburn testified last week, Huffman showed him a bottle of Fireball whiskey that he said “the girls” gave him, and Smith reached through the open truck window and hit him, and pulled some of his hair out. Blackburn said he got out of the truck and he and Smith fought on the ground behind the Jeep. Mullins said she was still trapped in the parking lot because they were right behind the Jeep. When the fight stopped, Blackburn told Smith and Huffman they could find another way home, and left them in the parking lot. Mullins said she had locked the doors, but Huffman continued to stand beside the Jeep, telling her he needed her to take him back to Pike County. Mullins refused and said she finally managed to get out of the parking spot and drive away, but as she did, Huffman climbed on the back bumper and rode on it all the way back to Streetside, where he again got down and tried to get her to let him the vehicle. She said he stopped when the Hogg, Puckett and Phillips came out of Streetside to get in the Jeep.
It was 1:23 a.m.
Mullins said she didn’t say anything about what happened until after they got back to the apartment. It was there, she said, that Hogg went out to get his whiskey and found it missing. When he came back, he asked if anyone had been in the vehicle, and she told him what had happened.
According to Phillips and Puckett, they were at the apartment 15-20 minutes, searching the Jeep for the Fireball and to make sure nothing else was missing, when they decided to go back to Streetside and look for it. Mullins drove the three back to the bar and dropped them, then drove around back and parked in a spot Puckett and Phillips said they often used when they went to Streetside.
It was 1:45 a.m.
Video surveillance footage shows the Jeep coming up Main Street and stopping just outside the camera range, then Hogg walks into the frame, across the patio where people are still talking and milling around, and through the front doors of the bar. Phillips is a few steps behind him, and Puckett a couple of second behind him. Just as Puckett steps on to the curb, Huffman and Smith come out of an alley between Streetside and the old Post Office. After the first three go inside, Huffman and Smith go in a few second behind them. Footage from inside shows the bar is still fairly full. Hogg and Phillips go through the bar area and turn the corner at the back of the room as Huffman and Smith open the front door and go to a table at the front of the bar. Puckett had just walked behind the wall that separates the bar area from the dining and dancing area.
The video shows Puckett come from the back of the bar toward the front, then stop, and reverse course. A couple of seconds later, he, Hogg and Phillips come back through the bar and go the table where Huffman is standing. Smith, at that time, is at the bar.
It is here, in the distance, that the video becomes murky. The defense claimed during Huffman’s trial last week, that the three formed a semi-circle around Huffman and threatened him, and that Hogg shoved him. Defense attorney Robert Wright pointed out a tiny figure in the back of the image and prompted Puckett during cross examination on whether he saw a hand go up. Certainly, the video shows someone stagger backwards, and under questioning from Wright, Puckett conceded that it looks like Huffman. However Puckett, a prosecution witness, testified repeatedly that there was never any physical contact between the two groups until after they left the bar. Phillips also testified to the same thing.
And while Wri g ht pressed Puckett on why he would go to the bar looking for the whiskey when he had no ownership interest, Puckett said he didn’t go for that reason.
“It was because I wanted to find out why they were bothering the girls earlier,” he said.
Wright, who had successfully argued to keep that evidence suppressed, switched to another line of questioning, returning time and again to the whiskey and how much Puckett and the others had to drink. He also questioned why Puckett was standing within what Wright said was “arm’s length” of Huffman.
“That’s usually where you stand when you have a conversation,” Puckett answered.
“You and I aren’t standing within arm’s reach, and we’re having a conversation,” Wright said, standing in the middle of the room.
“I’ve got a microphone,” Puckett said.
Wright also questioned if Puckett had asked Huffman to “step outside.” Puckett said it was “probably because I wanted to smoke.”
Under subsequent questioning from Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison Banks, Puckett confirmed that the music was still playing loud inside, and people were still dancing.
The video shows only a short conversation between the three and Huffman, then Hogg, Phillips and Puckett go out on the patio and begin mingling with other patrons. A few seconds later, Huffman comes out with his phone held in front of him as though dialing or talking on a speaker phone. While the defense says he never spoke to anyone on the phone, the prosecution says he talked to Smith, pretending that it was Blackburn on the other end of the call.
Puckett testified that Huffman was trying to find a number, and Phillips testified that Huffman had someone they thought was Blackburn on the phone, and that he told them Blackburn was on his way back with the whiskey.
The defense is accusing Hogg of telling Huffman if the whiskey wasn’t brought back he would “take it out of his ass.” However, Phillips testified that while Hogg did say something like that, he was talking to whoever was on Huffman’s phone, not to Huffman. Wright argued that Phillips had changed his story. Phillips’ testimony took hours as both sides objected to each other’s questions and characterizations. At one point, the prosecution asked for a bench conference for what they said was Wright’s badgering. He changed the wording of his question when he resumed questioning, but continued to assert that Hogg was the aggressor.
In the video footage from the patio, Huffman walked out of the frame with his phone briefly, and Hogg, Phillips and Puckett followed.
They returned and began talking on the patio, Huffman gesturing wildly as he spoke. During the time they were talking to Huffman, Smith came out of the bar and also walked out of the frame. When Huffman turned to walk down the street with Hogg, Puckett and Phillips behind him, Smith comes back into the picture and is seen walking down the street, several feet behind the others.
That is the end of the video footage that is available. From there, testimony is that as the five walked up the alley, the conversation seemed friendly. They were waiting for Blackburn to come with the whiskey. At one point, Mullins said in her statement that Hogg walked up to the Jeep and asked if she was sure they were the men who got into the car, because it didn’t seem as though it would be them.
But when Hogg walked back to the group, Mullins said she heard Huffman say he wished he had a knife and then he turned and ran up Pine Street. Phillips said Huffman went to the corner, to a rock wall, and bent over to his foot, then “charged at Chris.”
Puckett said he knew he had been punched in the face, and felt pain and something running down his back. Hogg yelled that Huffman had a knife, and Puckett realized he had been stabbed. Phillips testified that he ran to him to make sure he was all right, and when they turned around, Hogg was on the ground, Huffman was on top of him, hitting or stabbing him. Puckett said Smith was at Hogg’s head with his knees on his shoulders. They ran to separate them, and Phillips said as he grabbed for the knife, he felt it cut into his right hand.
Phillips and Puckett testified that Hogg couldn’t walk on his own, and they helped him to the Jeep and got him inside while they fought off Huffman and Smith, and them jumped into the back seat and locked the doors. Mullins said in her statement that she was nervous and not used to the Jeep, and was having trouble getting it into reverse. One of the men reached across the seat and pulled it into reverse as, they say, Huffman and Smith beat on the windows, attempting to break them out. The Jeep would barely move, Puckett said, and they realized the tires were flat. Hogg was telling Mullins to drive anyway, that he had to get to the hospital.
“Once we backed up and started down the hill, they were beating on the windows,” Puckett testified. “Once I felt like we had some distance between us, I turned around to see if they were chasing us, and they were (running after the Jeep).”
“Samantha was screaming, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”, and I looked over the seat and Mike was holding his neck and his chest and blood was going everywhere,” Puckett sobbed.
“Did you ever hear Mike say anything?” Banks asked.
“No. He was struggling to breathe.”
The Jeep got as far as the Letcher County Recreation Center, and Mullins pulled in beside it to hide, and called 9-1-1. When police arrived, Hogg was not breathing and had no pulse. He was pronounced dead at Whitesburg ARH Hospital emergency room. Puckett was flown to Holston Valley Medical Center, treated for the stab wound to his back and released. Phillips received stitches to his hand at Whitesburg ARH.
Huffman and Smith were arrested when they arrived at recreation center and asked a police officer if they could use his telephone.
Watch www.themountaineagle.com for updates on the trial during the coming week.