25 years later, victims’ families still wait for the men who committed Huntsville’s ‘Cell Phone Murders’ to pay

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Today everyone has a cell phone. But in 1996, there were more expensive and less common.

The theft of something that is so commonly traded in, dropped and lost today led to a horrific crime back then. Four lives were lost, two people were severely wounded, and three people went to prison.

The four victims of the “Cell Phone Murders”

“It was protracted and heartless,” Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard said. “The problem with this crime — there’s a problem with every crime — but with this one, it was a protracted, kinda psychological torture on the young folks in the room.”

“I’ve been a part of a lot of different homicides in town since ’94, ’93, and that was the worst one, even today,” said Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner. “That’s the worst one I’ve been a part of.”

Court documents lay out the graphic details of what happened that night, a night etched in the memories of so many.

September 18, 1996

Michelle Hayden and Ashley Rutherford, who were engaged at the time, lived in a house with Rutherford’s aunt. Joseph Wilson, Nicholas Acklin, and Corey Johnson visited the house, acting like they were interested in buying some marijuana. After seeing the drugs, the three men left.

Corey Johnson came back later though asking to see the marijuana again, grabbed it, and left.

Corey Johnson, during his prison sentence (Photo: Alabama Department of Corrections)

After Johnson was gone, Lamar Hemphill, who was visiting Rutherford at the time, realized his cell phone was missing. Hemphill called the phone, and Joey Wilson answered.

Hemphill filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department, alleging that Wilson stole his cell phone. A few days later, Wilson learned of the complaint.

September 25, 1996, 10 p.m.

It was late on a Wednesday night. Michelle Hayden, Lamar Hemphill, and Brian Carter were watching TV at Ashley Rutherford’s house. Rutherford was at work.

Michael Skirchak and Johnny Couch, who were on their way to pick up a friend, Michael Beaudette, stopped to visit them.

Door leading into the Rutherford home.

It was around 10 p.m. when Joey Wilson, Nick Acklin, and Corey Johnson arrived at the home. Wilson started asking who had filed a warrant against him for taking a cell phone.

Hemphill said he didn’t know anything about a warrant, saying he only filed a complaint.

Johnson began slapping Hemphill, Couch, Carter, and Skirchak. Using the bottom of a Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle, Johnson hit Hemphill in the head and Carter in the mouth. He then grabbed Couch by his hair, which was long, using it as leverage to slam his head into a dresser several times.

At one point, Johnson held Couch up by his hair, while Joey Wilson cut it. Wilson also stomped Couch while he was laying on the floor.

Michael Beaudette arrived later and was instructed to empty his pockets.

Inside the Rutherford home.

Acklin, Wilson, and Johnson were all armed with pistols.

Wilson laid his gun on a table, daring the others to grab it. He also held his gun to Skirchak’s head and asked again about the warrant. Wilson also made some of the males to take their pants off and give him their IDs.

He continued taunting them, saying things like, “Y’all don’t know who you’re f____ with. Y’all are fake. We’re real,” and, “I ain’t even supposed to be here. I’m the leader of this crew. I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be at home with my wife or girlfriend.”

Broussard said, “It was heartless. Both Acklin and Joey Wilson had guns on them. One guy was forced to strip down to his underwear. Another guy, they cut his ponytail off, so it was all building. And then … and then once it cut loose … it was heartless. And it was brutal.”

Several times throughout the night, Wilson said, “This is my crew.”

11:20 p.m.

It was around 11:20 or 11:30 when Ashley Rutherford arrived home from work. Wilson, Acklin, and Johnson questioned him about the warrant, warning him not to lie to them. They forced him to take his pants off, and Wilson took two necklaces from him. He yelled at Rutherford, slapped him, and spit in his face. He also made Michelle Hayden say, “My boyfriend ain’t s___.” Acklin also shoved a gun in Rutherford’s mouth and made him gag.

Inside the Rutherford home.

Throughout the night, Wilson kept saying, “Let’s buck them”, and, “You don’t f___ with Joey’s crew.” Witnesses that night testified that “buck” meant “shoot” or “kill.” At one point, Hayden told Wilson to be quiet so he wouldn’t wake up Rutherford’s aunt. Wilson replied, “Well, we can take care of her, too.”

The violence kept escalating. When Johnson tried to stop Wilson and Acklin, they made fun of him.

Finally, Wilson told Acklin that if Acklin would shoot the first one, he would shoot the rest of them. It was shortly after that comment that Acklin grabbed Rutherford and shot him in the back of the head. Wilson immediately started shooting.

As soon as the gunfire started, Michael Skirchak bolted out the back door and ran for help.

After firing a total of 19 times, Wilson, Acklin, and Johnson left the home. Rutherford and his aunt called for help.

Midnight

It was just after midnight when first responders arrived at the house. Rutherford, though suffering from a gunshot to his head, was able to immediately identify Wilson as the perpetrator.

Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong was a new narcotics agent at the time but had served as a paramedic before that. He was first on the scene and vividly recalls even minor details.

“The first thing I recognized was I could smell gunpowder,” said Strong. “The next thing I remember is the shell casings, as we cleared and went into this home, I heard the shell casings that we were actually kicking with our feet, and then I can remember turning … and I had never seen anything like that in my life.”

Authorities at the scene of the crime the night of September 25, 1996

Being the first on the scene, it was hard for Strong to tell who was a victim and who was a threat among those that were still alive inside the home.

“You had a total of six that had been shot, four ended up dying, three were dead on the scene. But I could remember trying to figure out who was a viable patient, who we could work on, and all of a sudden I said ‘Man, we’ve got to get additional help, we’ve got to get additional trauma supplies.’”

Joey Wilson in the back of a patrol car.

Around 12:15 a.m., officers arrested Wilson and Johnson. They also found a revolver that had been used in the incident in their vehicle. Later, officers found a Ruger P89, two Lorcin pistols, another revolver, and Beaudette’s driver’s license at Nicholas Acklin’s house.

Kevin Turner, now Madison County Sheriff, was a Juvenile and Gang Investigator for the Sheriff’s Department at the time.

Joey Wilson made a statement to Turner after he was arrested, admitting that he, Acklin, and Johnson went to Rutherford’s house because of a dispute over a cell phone. He said that he had a revolver, and Acklin and Johnson also had weapons. He admitted that they slapped some of the victims, that one thing led to another, and the shooting started.

“One of the worst acts in Madison County,” Turner said. “It’s definitely one of the worst things that’s ever happened here at the time when that went down. We’d never seen anything like that, to that extent of how many bodies and how many people were involved.”

When the shooting started, Wilson said he ran to his vehicle. Acklin and Johnson followed him, and they all left. Initially, Wilson told Turner he didn’t remember who did the shooting but then said, “[T]hat’s my crew y’all got locked up out here. I’m not going to turn and rat on them.”

Charles Lamar Hemphill, Michael A. Beaudette, Johnny Couch, and Bryan Carter were all shot to death during the incident. Michelle Hayden and Ashley Rutherford were also shot but survived.

“It was one of the most dicey situations that I have ever seen, and I’ve never seen one like that since,” Strong remarked. “Every time we looked around it seemed like there was another patient. I remember hearing the jingling of the shell casings and I’ll remember that forever.”

Forensic testing revealed Carter had been shot with a Ruger P89. Michael Skirchak, along with Hayden and Rutherford, testified that Wilson had been armed with a Ruger P89.

NOVEMBER 1999

At his trial, one of Wilson’s friends testified that he called him from jail after the incident, talking about what happened that night. The friend testified that Wilson told him to “finish the job,” which he took to mean to kill the surviving witnesses. One of Wilson’s cellmates testified that he bragged about his involvement that night. He also testified how Wilson had made comments about having friends “on the outside” who had persuaded Michelle Hayden not to testify, and who could “take care of” witnesses in the cellmate’s case.

During the penalty phase of his trial, Wilson admitted he was armed with a Ruger P89 and that he had shot Bryan Carter, but denied shooting anyone else.

Wilson also raised several issues on appeal that he didn’t raise during his trial. He has made appeals numerous times.

“They’re out here fighting to get their cases overturned, ultimately fighting for their life to be spared,” said Sherrie Carter, the sister-in-law of victim Bryan Carter. “You know, they’re appealing to complete strangers to save their life. And here we had seven young people in that room that night that never got the opportunity to appeal to even a stranger to live.”

Joey Wilson being led out in handcuffs.

Hope in the justice system has slowly been fading for the family of Bryan Carter — who have waited years for an execution date.

“[It’s] not evidence of ‘I just have a blood-thirsty spirit, I wanna see people executed,’ it’s not that,” said Broussard. “But it’s about justice. I can only imagine how the loved ones feel about not only their loss, but the passage of time — waiting on justice,” said Broussard.

Carter says 25 years is just too long.

“In the Joey Wilson case; I remember him taking the stand, in the death penalty part, and just how cocky he was, and really arrogant during that stage, which I think showed … kind of true colors of him,” said Broussard. “During Nick Acklin’s death penalty part, I remember his father taking the stand and looking over at Nick, and Nick crying over the council table. I mean it’s, it’s raw human emotion during that part of a trial.”

Nick Acklin cuffed, being led to a patrol car.

Joey Wilson and Nick Acklin were sentenced to death.

“We feel that that needs to be carried through, and I don’t think justice is served until that is carried through,” Sherrie Carter said. “We want Madison County to know that it’s been eight years, and we’re ready for an answer.

“We have family members that have fought cancer and all kind of illnesses to stay alive just to see the justice carried through, and unfortunately every one of our victims has lost a parent or grandparent or something during this time of us waiting.”

2016

Corey Johnson had a much shorter sentence, thanks in part to the victim’s families’ agreement to a deal where he would only serve 15 years. Johnson was released from prison in 2011.

In 2016, he was arrested for stabbing his girlfriend, Candace Wilson, to death in their Huntsville home. Candice Wilson was the sister of Joey Wilson.

Johnson pleaded guilty to the crime in 2020 and received a life sentence.

Present Day

Two and a half decades have passed since that night, but the families of the four victims are still faced with the horrors of that night today.

“We want Bryan and Lamar and Johnny and Michael to be remembered,” Sherrie Carter said. “We want the two [victims] that were attempted murders — they’re still around — we want them to be remembered. We want their names to be remembered over the criminals.”

It’s still known as one of Madison County’s most horrific crimes.

Rutherford home in Huntsville.

Today, the home where it happened has been demolished. Joey Wilson and Nicholas Acklin are both on death row, though no execution date has been set.

“It was heartless, and it was brutal,” Broussard said. “It really was. And very brutal, and they are exactly where they need to be.”

That one horrific night lasted for almost two hours. Seven people were held at gunpoint, assaulted, humiliated, and tortured — all over a stolen cell phone.

“I want these guys to even find love in their own heart, even sitting on death row I want them to know how it is to care about people and I want them to find that,” said Carter. “But at the same time, justice is what we are seeking.”

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