Investigator: Ex-SEAL trainee Turner should be freed
NORFOLK, Va. — A retired Navy SEAL who investigated a notorious Virginia Beach murder for the Navy has come forward in support of ex-SEAL trainee Dustin Turner’s petition for a gubernatorial pardon.
The retired officer says his investigation convinced him Turner was only an accessory, not a murderer, and was railroaded by the justice system.
Turner, 38, of Bloomington, Ind., has served 18 years of an 82-year prison sentence for the 1995 murder of Jennifer Evans, a Georgia college student who was vacationing at the Oceanfront. Evans was choked to death in Turner’s car outside the Bayou, a now-defunct Beach nightspot.
Turner’s co-defendant and SEAL “swim buddy,” Billy Joe Brown, was sentenced to 72 years. The two were convicted in separate jury trials in 1996 that drew huge media coverage.
At the time, each blamed the other for the murder. But in 2002, Brown confessed that he alone killed Evans, saying he had become a Christian in prison and could no longer allow an innocent man to pay for a crime he committed.
John Floyd, a retired SEAL now living in Lakeland, Fla., was a staff officer at Naval Special Warfare Group 2 at what is now Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek, where Turner and Brown had undergone training for the Navy’s elite commando corps, at the time of the trials.
He was assigned to investigate the case in 1997 after Evans’ family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Navy. The two-month investigation included reviews of the police and court files and interviews with recruiters, trainers and other personnel who had contact with the two trainees. The chief focus was on the Navy’s recruiting and training procedures, not the issue of guilt or innocence.
Nevertheless, Floyd says, his investigation convinced him that Brown was the killer and that Turner was guilty only as an accessory after the fact – a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail – because he helped Brown dispose of the body and cover up the crime.
After several days of questioning, Turner led police to Evans’ decomposed body in a wooded Newport News park.
Floyd decided to go public with his opinion this year after learning of a new documentary film about the case, “Target of Opportunity: The U.S. Navy SEALs and the Murder of Jennifer Evans.”
Floyd contacted the filmmaker, who interviewed him and has incorporated his observations into the documentary. The newly edited film will be screened Thursday in Richmond in conjunction with a vigil on Turner’s behalf.
Floyd retired in 1998 as a lieutenant commander after 30 years in the Navy. Between his two Navy hitches, he was a civilian police officer in Tampa for six years.
He has never been able to get Turner out of his mind, he said in an interview.
“It’s bothered me ever since,” he said. “For him to get shut in prison for the rest of his life, basically, I just thought it was a travesty.”
Virginia abolished parole shortly before the Evans murder.
Since Brown’s confession, there is little dispute about the facts in the case. According to both ex-trainees’ accounts, Turner and Evans were sitting in Turner’s car in the club parking lot when Brown, who had been drinking heavily, climbed into the back seat and began making sexual advances toward Evans. When she rebuffed him, he reached over the seat back and choked her.
Then, at Brown’s urging, Turner drove to Newport News, where the pair buried the body in a shallow grave.
Turner’s complicity was wrong, Floyd said, but understandable in the context of the relationship the two men had forged during the grueling SEAL training program.
Trainees are paired up in two-man teams by the trainers.
“Your swim buddy is like an appendage to you,” Floyd said. “That’s pushed all through training. You never leave your swim buddy.
“You’re young and impressionable. And I got the feeling that Brown was a very dominant personality and Turner was more of a following personality.”
After the murder, Turner would have been shocked, confused and afraid, Floyd said. He might have thought: “He just killed her. He might kill me.” So he went along with covering up the crime.
“I could see myself doing the exact same thing in that scenario as a young man,” Floyd said.
Brown should have never been accepted into the Navy given his record, Floyd said. A high school dropout, at age 17 he beat up his 14-year-old wife in front of several police officers in his hometown of Huber Heights, Ohio, according to court records. Later he was discharged from the Coast Guard under other-than-honorable conditions for assaulting a superior officer.
Turner, by contrast, was a multi-sport high school athlete, junior church deacon and Boy Scout who had no criminal record before the Evans murder.
Prosecutors conceded that they couldn’t prove which man killed Evans, but argued that the two colluded to abduct her for the purpose of a sexual assault – a theory that Floyd called “total nonsense.”
Turner has exhausted his legal appeals. He came close to being released in 2009 when a three-judge appeals court panel ruled in his favor, but that ruling was overturned by the full court. His only hope now is a pardon from Gov. Bob McDonnell or one of his successors. A McDonnell spokeswoman said Turner’s petition is still under review.
Turner has more than served his time as an accessory, Floyd said: “Without a doubt, they ought to let him out.”