ERWIN - The shootings of two people, who were discovered Tuesday on Rich Mountain in remote Unicoi County, appear to have been a double suicide, authorities said, but only a tentative identification of the victims was available Wednesday.
Sheriff Kent Harris said he has reached a preliminary conclusion of suicide based on the wounds the 29-year-old man and 31-year-old woman sustained, the location of the 12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun that was used, and the note inside the car. He said authorities would have to wait for the autopsies' completion and forensic evidence before they could finalize that determination.
Maj. Ronnie Adkins said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which is overseeing the case, wanted to wait to disclose the identities of the man and woman until after the autopsies were completed and the families consented.
Harris provided the names of Ronnie Huskins and Sandra Foster, and Valley Funeral Home said it was handling arrangements for a Ronnie Huskins and Sandy Foster. A representative of the funeral home said it was "our understanding" these were the two people who had been found on Rich Mountain.
Harris said authorities determined the victims' identities early Wednesday morning. The sheriff said family members of the two people had assisted authorities by alerting them to marks on their bodies.
"We spent probably an hour with them last night," Harris said of the families. "They're good people. They're really distraught over this."
According to Harris, the man and woman were shot in the "neck area and above." A preliminary review showed the two were struck with one shotgun blast that would have included more than one pellet, he said.
The sheriff said the shooting occurred Monday night and the man was the last to fire a shot. The gun was still partially in the man's hand, he said.
Terry Cantrell, a grouse hunter from North Carolina, found the car Tuesday morning and saw the man with what appeared to be blood on his face inside. The car was about 10 miles on Rich Mountain Road from Bumpass Cove Road, and Cantrell walked until he received cell phone service before calling 911. Adkins said Cantrell went beyond the call of duty, including checking with the sheriff's department to be sure it had found the car.
"He's been more than helpful," Adkins said.
A few other aspects of the case became clearer Wednesday.
The man and woman were close friends who confided in each other but were not romantically linked, Harris said. He said one family member described the two people as being as close as she was to her twin brother.
Although the families were troubled by what happened, they knew the man and woman had had thoughts of suicide and previously had talked about it, he said. He said the families had lent assistance to the two over the years and were still trying to help.
Harris said a note several pages long was found in the car and "basically was left for the families." The families recognized both of their handwriting in the note, which contained information only the victims would have known, he said.
"It was evident they were in a state of depression," Harris said. "Both had sought mental health help, and it didn't work."
The pair might have had a reason to go to Rich Mountain. The sheriff said the man's father told authorities that that place was "one of his favorite places to go."
Adkins said the TBI on Wednesday interviewed people who had been with the two in an effort to piece together what happened the day of the shooting.