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Teller identifies defendant as Pennington Gap bank robber

WALTER LITTRELL • Jan 25, 2007 at 12:03 PM

JONESVILLE - The bank robbery trial of James Kirby "Red" Nelms is expected to go to the jury today before lunch.

Nelms, 40, formerly of Pennington Gap, is charged with the Feb. 1, 2006, holdup of the Pennington Gap branch of Powell Valley National Bank.

Wednesday's testimony began with several law enforcement officers telling of their various roles in the investigation and how they identified Nelms as a suspect. A Virginia State Police tracking dog handler told of how he located a red toboggan similar to what witnesses had described the robber wearing during the holdup. A day before, a state forensics expert testified that she had tested the toboggan for DNA, and while she had found some, it did not match samples provided by Nelms.

Another VSP investigator told how he dusted areas in the bank for fingerprints, and while some were found, none matched Nelms. He also helped narrate a bank security video that depicted the robbery and compared scenes from the video to still photographs introduced earlier into evidence.

Pennington Gap Police Chief Mike Nunley testified that he ordered a photo lineup to present to the teller who was a victim in the robbery and detailed how the teller readily identified Nelms when he laid down a mug shot provided by the Lee County Sheriff's Department.

Nunley said Nelms' photo was either the fifth or sixth picture presented, and the teller immediately recognized Nelms as the robber. Nunley added that he continued to show the teller the remainder of the 12 pictures, and she remained steadfast in her contention that Nelms was the robber.

Michelle Davis, the victimized teller, provided corroborating evidence about the lineup and gave details on how the bank robber approached her, demanded money, indicated that he might be armed without actually claiming to be, and then fled with the loot.

Under cross-examination, Davis acknowledged to defense attorney John Qualls that the picture of Nelms was taken from a closer angle - making his face larger than that of any other picture in the lineup - but said that had no bearing in her identification of the suspect.

The teller said her duties involve manning both a counter in the main teller line and helping man the drive through at the bank. Davis said on the morning of the robbery she assisted a customer, checked the drive through and found it empty, so she scanned the teller line to see if there were other customers she could assist. At that time, she said, she noticed a customer wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt with what she believed to be another red hooded sweatshirt underneath. The hood was over his head obscuring his face, so she leaned forward to see if she could see the face and identify the customer.

Davis said she thought it was out of the ordinary for a customer to have a hood up in that manner but said all sorts of customers visit the bank, and she wanted to know if this was a regular customer.

As she leaned, Davis said, the man looked her directly in the face, and she was struck by the prominent bags under his eyes. The man then stepped from the line he was in and headed toward her. This prompted her to whisper "look, look, look" to the other tellers. Just as she finished, the man stepped to her counter, took one hand out of his pocket and left the other hand in his pocket.

From the exposed hand, he produced a white plastic grocery bag folded into a perfect square and laid it on her counter with the instruction to "put the money in the bag."

Davis said she became alarmed and stated "what?"

This action prompted the man to become very agitated and demand that she put the money in the bag before looking toward his hidden hand and back at her. Davis said she believed at that point that he had a gun, and she proceeded to carry out his instructions.

However, she shook the bag open loudly in hopes of getting another teller's attention. She began filling the bag slowly while mouthing for another teller to notify the bank manager, but the robber admonished her to hurry. Once she gave him the bag of money, he fled out the back door, she said.

Following her testimony, Commonwealth's Attorney Shawn Hines rested his case and Qualls entered a motion to strike the evidence. Qualls argued that the case should be grand larceny because Davis did not actually own the money because the bank did. If the case was not one of larceny, he continued, then it should be a federal bank robbery case. Hines countered that ownership of the money was not an element of the charge and that his case had met all the elements of the case as charged.

Judge Birg Sergent agreed with Hines and overruled the motion.

Qualls then presented testimony from Nelms' boss, who said Nelms had worked for him for several months and that they'd worked late the evening prior to the robbery.

Nelms then took the stand and detailed his activity the evening before the robbery. He then went into his activity the morning of the robbery, saying he'd risen early, walked to Pennington Gap about 8 a.m., and walked back home shortly afterward. He was home by 9:10 a.m. and headed back toward town about 10:45 a.m. when he was stopped by police and questioned about the robbery.

Nelms said he has never owned clothing like that worn by the bank robber, does not wear toboggans, and has never owned one. He emphatically denied being involved with the robbery and said he cooperated fully with investigators, even volunteering to allow his residence to be searched and to donate DNA samples.

He further claimed that another man in town, Robert "Little Red" Lawson, resembles him greatly and said his being implicated in the robbery must be "a bad case of mistaken identity."

Nelms also purported not to know any of several witnesses who testified Tuesday that they all knew him prior to the robbery. Qualls also pointed out that Nelms has large mole-like birthmarks on each cheek, yet no witness ever mentioned those as being prominent features in their description of him. All had mentioned the prominent bags under his eyes.

Upon completion of his testimony, Qualls rested his case and renewed his motion to strike the evidence. Sergent again overruled the motion and recessed court until 9:30 a.m. The trial will resume with the reading of jury instructions and closing arguments before it goes to the jury.

The judge estimated that deliberations should begin by 10:30 or 11 a.m.

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