Murder suspect takes plea deal

Robbie Lee Covington

Robbie Lee Covington, 31, Loudon, accepted Sept. 11 a plea agreement for a life sentence for the first-degree murder of William “Bill” Roberts.

Covington also faced charges of aggravated burglary, especially aggravated robbery and unlawful carrying or possession of a weapon.

The incident dates back to Feb. 18, 2017, when officers responded to a call 9:36 a.m. at 3032 Dutton Road in Loudon after a neighbor noticed money in the driveway and an open door at 64-year-old Roberts’ residence. When officers arrived, Roberts was found in the bedroom with a single gunshot wound to the head.

Within a couple of hours, law enforcement got a tip that Covington planned to fly to Texas and he was taken into custody shortly thereafter. Covington told officers of James Albert Clapham’s involvement. Clapham, 33, of Sweetwater was subsequently arrested.

The driver of the vehicle, Lenoir City resident Brittney Ann Smith, was arrested later that month and pleaded guilty in August to facilitation of felony murder. Smith is serving a 15-year sentence.

“We are pleased with the guilty pleas to the felony murder charge and especially aggravated robbery charge that means Covington now will effectively spend the rest of his life in prison,” Johnson said in an email correspondence. “Covington, who is 31, will only be eligible for parole in 51 years when he is 82. The felony murder charge is the primary charge that we were seeking in the death of William Roberts. When the defendant came to us this morning offering to plea to the murder charge if we took life without parole off the table, it was a fairly easy decision once we checked with (Loudon County) Sheriff (Tim) Guider and the family knowing that he will probably not live to see 81 years old given what prison life is like.

“Sheriff Guider says that he is also pleased with this outcome and thanked the DA’s office and his investigators and deputies for his hard work,” he added. “(Guider) also said that he was glad that the Roberts family was present to hear the guilty plea go down today and acknowledged that they were happy with the outcome. In fact, one of the daughters of Bill Roberts spoke to the court after the plea was finalized and thanked Sheriff Guider and his office, the prosecutors and the judge. She was speaking for her father who could not speak for himself.”

Opening statements for the jury trial were held Sept. 10, with Covington initially pleading not guilty.

Defense attorney Stanley Barnett said Covington’s drug addiction failed to place him in an aware mindset.

“What you’re going to hear here for the next three or four days is a sad story about sad people,” Barnett said. “... People who are high and addicted.”

Barnett alleged Roberts, who was a former operator of school buses and had to later receive disability, began selling his pain pills and even sold oxycodone to Covington, his girlfriend’s son. Barnett said Roberts treated Covington like family and he would often stay at Roberts’ home.

Johnson said Roberts gained an extra $3,500 per month from selling the pills. He also said Covington’s part-time residence at Roberts’ home allowed him to be familiar with where Roberts kept money in a gun safe in the bedroom. He alleged Covington had ongoing plans to rob Roberts.

“Robbie started talking about robbing Bill, and he voiced this different times to different people,” Johnson said.

Barnett pointed to Covington’s addiction and mental status as a tipping point for following through on Clapham’s robbery plan.

“They’re sitting around the house at around 1 a.m., you’ll hear, and there’s methamphetamine,” Barnett said. “Everybody’s doing meth. My client’s an addict, no ifs, ands or buts about it. He’d been up for about a week without sleep. A week without sleep. This is junkies getting high and deciding at the last possible minute, or listening to somebody that persuades them at the last possible minute, that they need to do something. They need some cash. They’re out of meth. They need money for diapers and things like that.”

Johnson said Covington and Clapham found a hammer and water pipe in Roberts’ yard in the middle of the night, beat Roberts with the weapons and then shot him with one of the guns found in the case where the money was kept.

“The pistols fall out onto the floor, they pick them up, they threaten him with the pistols,” Johnson said. “They already had the safe open, they already had they money, they already had the guns. Whatever pills were stolen in the safe, they already had them. Already, they had what they came for. Why what happened next happened, we can’t be sure. But you’re going to hear irrefutable proof that a bullet was fired into Bill Roberts’ neck from behind.”

The entrance wound at the back of Roberts’ neck could not have been an accident, Johnson emphasized. “The only good thing I can say about this is Bill Roberts never knew what hit him,” he added.

Barnett denied the forensic report stating Roberts had been hit with the tools, and he pointed to Clapham accidentally firing the gun.

“The gun went off, but it wasn’t an execution,” Barnett said. “They didn’t need to execute. That wasn’t necessary at all. It wasn’t planned.”

The next jury trial is scheduled for Oct. 1 for co-defendant Clapham who faces the same charges as Covington.