The family of Iraq War veteran Lewis Berlin Hilpert thinks the drugs he took for post-traumatic stress disorder led him to murder Edward Starr Cook III, a man Hilpert had described as his best friend.
Cook's family refuses to accept that theory. Hilpert shouldn't hide behind the "talisman" of PTSD, said Cook's sister, Dale Swanner. It demeans the military and true sufferers of the illness, she said.
Hilpert, 31, of Fayetteville, pleaded guilty late last year to second-degree murder and robbery with a dangerous weapon for shooting Cook to death and stealing his property in August 2010.
Friday afternoon, Jim Ammons, Cumberland County's senior resident Superior Court judge, sentenced Hilpert to a minimum of 18 years, five months in prison and a maximum of 23 years, eight months. Hilpert will get credit for the 2 1/2years he had been in jail awaiting trial.
Swanner said he should have gotten a life sentence.
According to testimony, Cook, 51, lived on the Cape Fear River near Linden and enjoyed the outdoors. He was a grounds supervisor at Methodist University, which built a memorial for him last summer.
Hilpert regularly visited Cook, and on the day of the murder, Aug. 14, 2010, he attended a cookout with him and others on the property.
Assistant District Attorney Robby Hicks said that after the other guests left, Hilpert took his gun and "shot his friend in the back of his head."
Hilpert moved Cook's body into a tree line and covered it with pine needles, Hicks said. Hilpert stole property from Cook's home, including coins, guns and a duffel bag. Hilpert pawned the coins and tried to pawn the gun, Hicks said.
Cook's parents reported their son missing and spent several days looking for him. Swanner said she and her husband found the body.
"It was obvious my brother had suffered a vicious and brutal death," she said.
Members of Hilpert's family testified that he was a hard worker before he joined the Army. He enlisted because he felt he had an obligation and because his parents had served, said his father, Lawrence Hilpert.
Lawrence Hilpert and his wife, Elizabeth, said their son drove a truck in convoys in Iraq during the war's surge in 2007. He was injured when a mortar landed on or near his truck, Lawrence Hilpert said.
Lewis Hilpert also suffered a head injury when a steel door fell on him and knocked him unconscious for two hours, his father said. He was eventually classified as nondeployable and given a medical discharge.
In 2008, after he was back from the war, Lawrence Hilpert said, he found his son in the bathtub, scrubbing his bare feet. He said he asked him what was wrong.
"I can't get the blood off my boots," Lawrence Hilpert said his son told him.
"Lewis," he said he responded, "You're not wearing any boots."
Lawrence Hilpert said there was a similar incident in which his son scrubbed his hands to wash off nonexistent blood. He said it reminded him of symptoms he saw in Vietnam veterans with PTSD during his service in the Army.
Elizabeth Hilpert said she sometimes heard Lewis screaming from his bedroom: "Take cover! Take cover! Incoming! Take cover!"
In early 2010, Lewis Hilpert moved in with his sister's family in South Carolina to look for work, his family said.
He was on medication from the Veterans Affairs hospital nearby, said Lewis Hilpert's sister, Anna Hilpert.
The medicines did not appear to work properly, she said. One day he became enraged and smashed his video game console, she said. Later, after taking medication, he fell asleep at the lunch table, food still on his fork.
Hilpert's mother said she found 14 pill bottles in his room after he was arrested. They included drugs for nerves, anxiety, seizures and pain. He got some of the pills after the shooting.
Hilpert's lawyer, David Smith, argued that Hilpert should serve as little as 10 years and five months. Hilpert wasn't taking his drugs correctly, Smith said, and violence is a side effect of suddenly stopping some of the drugs. Mixing the medications was risky, he said.
Hicks, the prosecutor, said none of the evidence showed that the medications had anything to do with Hilpert's actions.
After Hilpert killed Cook, Hicks said, "he engaged in a pattern of deceit to try to get out of it."
Hilpert stood briefly, hands behind his back, to speak to Cook's family just before Ammons sentenced him.
"I'm sorry for it all happening," Hilpert said. "I can't take it back. If I could, I would."