Cambria man agrees to plead no contest to murder, then changes mind

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comSeptember 12, 2013 

Moments after he agreed to plead no contest to murdering his half brother, a Cambria man reversed himself Thursday, telling a judge he wanted to resume his trial.

“I’m not admitting to killing my brother at all,” Brandon Henslee said in court Thursday. “I believe the odds are against me, and people are saying things that are not true.”

The surprise plea — followed by the even more surprising withdrawal — came before the first day of testimony in Henslee’s murder trial. Henslee is accused of killing Tyler Hanks, 20, in August 2012 and dumping his body under a tree about a half-mile from their home.

A no-contest plea is similar to a guilty plea in felony cases. It results in a conviction without an admission of guilt.

Before the prosecution’s first witness was to be called Thursday, Henslee, 23, met with his attorney, Fred Foss. In court, but outside the jury’s presence, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jacquelyn Duffy announced that Henslee had agreed to plead no contest to murder. But as Duffy questioned him about the plea, Henslee began asking about potential witnesses.

“I don’t believe there are any witnesses that have any information involving this case,” he said.

When Duffy asked whether he wanted to continue with the trial, Henslee said, “I would like to carry on with the case, absolutely.”

The jury was then brought in, and the trial resumed.

According to prosecution witnesses, Hanks was stabbed with a Phillips screwdriver 20 times — 12 times to the left side of the head, eight times to the back of the head. When his body was discovered, investigators found a screwdriver embedded just under the base of the skull. Floating in a pool of blood near his body were sunflower seeds, food wrappers and a plastic spoon. There was a shovel nearby, and someone had begun digging a grave, but the body was not buried.

Gary Walter, a pathologist, said several of the screwdriver puncture wounds penetrated the brain. He also said Hanks had blunt-force trauma to the head that was consistent with strikes from a wooden baseball bat found at the home.

Investigators were not able to extract fingerprints from the bat or screwdriver, though prosecution witnesses are expected to testify that Henslee’s DNA was found on the bat handle.

Hanks’ body contained “potentially toxic” levels of methamphetamine, Walter said.

Before the discovery of the body Aug. 26, Hanks had been missing three days. James Newberry, a friend of Hanks, said he was approached by Hanks’ mother, Sheri Grayson, and her housemate, Steven Smith, about the missing man Aug. 26.

“She didn’t know where Tyler was,” said Newberry, who wore a T-shirt with Hanks’ image on the front. “As soon as I heard ‘blood,’ the first thing that came to mind was to call 911.”

Newberry didn’t say how blood was mentioned, though blood was found in a yard trash bin at the home.

When Newberry offered to call 911, he said, Grayson was reluctant to have him do so.

“She said, ‘Noooo!’ ” he recalled.

Newberry said Hanks looked after Henslee, and the two generally got along well but occasionally “they’d be angry at each other.” Roughly eight months before Hanks went missing, he said, Henslee gestured toward his sibling and said, “I’m going to get that fool.”

Family members have said that Henslee has battled mental health issues throughout his life. Newberry said when Henslee doesn’t take his medications, “it affects his behavior.”

Earlier, as Henslee prepared to enter a no-contest plea, Duffy asked him whether he was on medications, and he said he was.

“I could do without,” he said. “I don’t need the medication. I’d actually rather be off of it.”

As it became clear that Henslee didn’t really want to enter the no-contest plea, he continued to talk: “My family has been a wreck since this incident happened,” he said, adding that a year in solitary confinement had impacted him as well. “Anyone that goes through something like that is going to break down eventually.”

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