After more than four years, a case involving the death of Mount Airy convenience store owner Donald Claude Arnder is nearing a conclusion.
Three people accused of the crime await sentencing after recently pleading guilty to a series of charges stemming from a crime spree in the spring of 2012. It ended with Arnder, 58, being fatally shot inside Eddie’s Zip Foods on the night of May 25, 2012.
That incident touched off a multi-state manhunt to round up the suspects, involving North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia law enforcement authorities, leading to the arrest of the three suspects from Bluewell, West Virginia, located near Bluefield. They were charged with the local death and also robberies elsewhere.
Murder charges avoided
Originally, Joshua Robert Berry, 32; Emanuel William Foster, 27; and Sarah Lynn Looney Berry, 28 (wife of Joshua Berry), were each charged with murder, felony conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon and felonious attempted robbery with a dangerous weapon in the death of Arnder.
Sarah Berry additionally was accused of misdemeanor accessory to murder after the fact.
They were held in the Surry County Jail for more than three years after the store owner’s death. But their case subsequently was shifted from this state’s jurisdiction to the federal court system in Virginia, due to the interstate nature of their collective crimes.
It subsequently was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Virginia.
Foster, who was identified as the person who actually shot Arnder, and the Berry couple recently pleaded guilty to various charges relating to their crime spree — but murder was not one of them, according to information from the attorney’s office.
Joshua Robert Berry pleaded guilty in May in federal court in Abingdon, Virginia, to two counts of armed robbery, two counts of brandishing a firearm during those armed robberies, one count of conspiring to commit armed robbery and one count of using a firearm in the commission of an armed robbery that resulted in the death of another person.
The week before, Foster pleaded guilty to two counts of armed robbery, two counts of brandishing a firearm during those armed robberies, one count of conspiring to commit armed robbery and one count of using a firearm in the commission of an armed robbery that resulted in the death of another person.
At that same time, Sarah Berry entered guilty pleas to one count each of conspiring to commit armed robbery and using a firearm in the commission of an armed robbery that resulted in the death of another person.
In May 2014, Surry County District Attorney Ricky Bowman said the death penalty was being considered for the case. “It is definitely on the table.”
However, that will not happen based on the recent guilty pleas by the three, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Virginia.
“The maximum is a possible life sentence,” Brian P. McGinn, public affairs specialist with the office, confirmed Tuesday.
McGinn added that Foster and Joshua Berry are facing a minimum sentence of 32 years to a maximum of life imprisonment and Sarah Berry 10 years to life.
She is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 29 and Foster on Oct. 13.
No sentencing hearing has been set for Joshua Berry, according to McGinn.
Details of slaying
Federal court officials also have released details regarding the death of the Mount Airy store owner, based on accounts admitted to by defendants.
Foster and the Berrys conspired to commit a series of armed robberies in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina from April 2012 through May 2012, according to evidence presented at federal court hearings.
Before coming to Mount Airy, Foster and Joshua Berry had robbed a movie theater in Wytheville, Virginia, at gunpoint and another theater in Abingdon, with Sarah Berry driving them away from the scenes.
On May 25, 2012, at about 11:50 p.m., Joshua Berry and Foster entered Eddie’s Zip Foods, located on U.S. 52 in Mount Airy across from Mayberry Mall.
Arnder and a store employee, Gerardo Rojas, were reviewing the days’ receipts and getting ready to close the business at midnight.
Foster and Berry entered the store, with Joshua Berry carrying a rifle and Foster a handgun.
Berry admitted in court that Foster and Arnder, who had a .38-caliber revolver, exchanged gunfire.
Foster shot Arnder twice with a 9mm handgun, once in the arm and once in the abdomen. Arnder died at the scene.
During the exchange, Foster was shot once.
After Joshua Berry carried Foster to Sarah Berry’s waiting car, the two brought Foster to a nearby residence and tried to remove the bullet themselves. When they could not get it out, they took Foster to a hospital in Bland, Virginia, for treatment.
Foster eventually was transferred to a trauma center in Roanoke, before the three were arrested and transported to the Surry County Jail.
Arnder’s death was investigated locally by the Mount Airy Police Department, one of about five entities involved in bringing the trio to justice.
“It took a lot of work by a lot of different agencies to bring us this result,” city Police Chief Dale Watson said Tuesday.
“We are grateful they will be held accountable for their actions,” he said of Foster and the Berry couple.
“It won’t bring back Mr. Arnder — he was a longstanding member of the community who is deeply missed.”
The police chief also commented on the practice of defendants in such cases being allowed to plead guilty to lesser charges rather than face trial for murder.
“A lot of times in the justice system, plea bargains are used at the state and federal levels — I can’t say I always agree with it, but it is used quite extensively,” Watson said.
“There are a lot of factors the federal prosecutors look at, and it comes down to what they will offer and what they (defendants) will accept and what the judge agrees to,” the chief added.
Federal prosecutors, meanwhile, are pleased with the outcome of the case.
“These individuals took part in a crime spree that ultimately robbed a man of his life,” U.S. Attorney John P. Fishwick Jr. said in a statement.
“For nearly a month, a community was terrorized as these defendants committed armed robbery after armed robbery. Justice has been served…and I am thankful to the brave men and women who investigated this case and ultimately put an end to this group’s actions.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.