FAYETTEVILLE -- Thirty-one years after her 4-year-old daughter was brutally murdered a Farmington woman faces the horrifying possibility that Christopher Segerstrom, who was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, may be released from prison.
"He doesn't need to get out, that's what's important. He doesn't deserve to get out. He doesn't deserve anything. He got what he deserved. He got life without parole and that's what he should do," Jena Muddiman said. "If all those little do-gooders think different then let him go and stay at their house for a while and see how he does with their kids. I just don't want him out."
Three teens, three murders
• Christopher Segerstrom was one of three men sentenced to life without parole for murders they committed as teenagers in Washington County.
• James Dean Vancleave, 55, of Springdale was convicted of capital murder for killing 23-year-old Debra King. Vancleave was 16 when he killed King on Jan. 29, 1978, at a convenience store on Elm Springs Road. He is eligible for parole.
• Dennis Wayne Lewis was ordered released from prison last fall, because in his case, no valid sentencing options were available. Lewis, 59, of Wichita, Kan., was convicted of capital murder and assault with intent to rob. Lewis was 17 years and 5 months old when he killed Jared Jerome Cobb at Cobb’s Western Store and Pawn Shop in Springdale during an armed robbery April 8, 1974. Lewis was discharged last fall from the Arkansas Department of Correction.
Lewis’ case was unusual among the 56 Arkansas cases in which juvenile life sentences have been vacated because state statutes were overturned as unconstitutional and no sentencing options were available to the court based on state law in effect at the time Lewis committed his crime.
Source: Staff report
Q: Who is a victim?
A: A crime victim is defined by statute as a victim of a sex offense, an offense against a minor, or a victim of violent crime.
Q: What steps do I need to take to speak against the parole of an inmate whose hearing is coming up?
A: Contact the parole office (501) 682-3850 to schedule a hearing. Have the inmate’s name and Arkansas Department of Correction number available when you call.
Q: To whom and what address/agency should I write to express my desire for a person not receiving parole?
A: All statements, including the inmate’s name and number should be sent to the Arkansas Parole Board, Two Union National Plaza Bldg., 105 W. Capitol Ave., Suite 500, Little Rock, AR 72201
Source: Arkansas Parole Board
Segerstrom was 15 on July 26, 1986, when he took Barbara Thompson into a wooded area behind the Lewis Plaza Apartments several blocks west of the University of Arkansas. He sexually assaulted her before bashing her head with a 40-pound rock, crushing her skull, and suffocating her. He had promised to help the child catch butterflies.
The defense contested Segerstrom's mental fitness after conflicting opinions from the Arkansas State Hospital, but he was declared mentally competent to stand trial. A motion to transfer the case to juvenile court was denied. Segerstrom was tried as an adult.
Prosecutors waived the death penalty and Segerstrom, 45, was convicted of capital murder on June 10, 1987.
The jury deliberated less than two hours and recommended a sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Although given the option, the jury declined to reduce the charge to first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter. Circuit Judge Mahlon Gibson followed the jury's recommendation in sentencing Segerstrom.
"Both the rape and the murder were outrageously violent," Arkansas Supreme Court justices said in their opinion denying Segerstrom's postconviction appeal.
Eligible for parole
The U.S. and Arkansas Supreme courts have since ruled juveniles cannot be sentenced to life without parole, and Arkansas changed its law to allow life with the possibility of parole after 30 years in order to comply with the rulings.
Circuit Judge Mark Lindsay resentenced Segerstrom on May 3 and he is now eligible for parole.
"I can't stand the thought of people knowing what he did to her. They need to know, but they don't. It's still kind of personal and it hurts," Muddiman said. "If people did know what he did, then they'd know why I want to keep him in there so bad."
Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett said he will oppose parole for Segerstrom.
"I think he is and always will be a danger to society. And anyone who would do something like that, I think, forfeits their right to walk among free people in a free society," Durrett said. "I don't think you can rehabilitate someone who does something like that to anyone, much less a 4-year-old child. I've been of the belief ever since the first time I heard the name Christopher Segerstrom that he did not deserve to ever get out. Ever."
Durrett met with Barbara Thompson's family after Segerstrom was resentenced to discuss the parole process.
"It's still confusing because this is a family that was told 30 years ago that this guy was never, ever going to get out again," Durrett said. "There's a lot of confusion, a lot of emotions."
Muddiman and her brother, Connie Harris of Elkins, said they are having trouble wrapping their minds around the fact Segerstrom could be paroled.
"I can't believe that they're doing this. I don't understand why they seem to think that this is OK," Muddiman said. "I mean all of a sudden it's unjust and inhumane for him to be done that way? Well, I'm sorry, maybe they should go to Stuckey Cemetery and go visit my daughter. She doesn't get that chance to get up out of there."
Harris said there's too much focus on the perpetrator and it's misplaced.
"They make it so much about the killers, their civil rights are being violated," Harris said. "I don't understand that, there's too many of these do-gooders now days. They're not facing what we're facing."
What the family is facing is the possibility of having to repeatedly relive the nightmare of Barbara's murder at parole board hearings as they fight to keep Segerstrom behind bars.
When an inmate becomes eligible for parole, hearings are held for both the inmate and victims or their families. The full Parole Board and any staff deemed necessary by the board are present during victim input sessions. Inmates will never be present at a victim input hearing, according to the parole board.
There is no application for parole. Eligibility dates are automatically computed by the Arkansas Department of Correction based on the crime, date of conviction and the length of the sentence. If parole is denied, an inmate can immediately ask for reconsideration.
"It's gonna be every year until I can get it situated with the Parole Board to hopefully, and I pray to God that they'll do it, every two to five years. But, that's up to them," Muddiman said. "We kind of went through this like 10 years ago when he was seeking clemency from the governor and that just terrorized me to think that he'd be out, period, any kind of out. I just can't see it. I don't understand.
"And what happens if one of them decides he's done his time and he needs to go ahead and go? Then what? I just can't grasp the concept of people thinking that people like him and anybody else like him deserve to get out," Muddiman continued.
Harris said there was a flood of letters in opposition to clemency for Segerstrom.
"Everybody that could wrote some kind of a letter saying they detested him getting out, period. Everybody that feels like we do sent in letters and I'm doing the same thing now," Harris said. "Everybody that'll listen to me, I tell them about it. We're going to be needing all the support from people that we can get to hopefully keep him in for life."
No parole hearing date had been set for Segerstrom as of Friday.
Segerstrom grew up across the street from the apartments. He lived with his mom and rode his bike and hung out at the Lewis Plaza playground, Muddiman recalled. But he was also troubled.
Major Rick Hoyt, with the Washington County Sheriff's Office, worked for Fayetteville police at the time of the murder. Hoyt said he couldn't talk specifics, but officers knew Segerstrom as a multiple-time juvenile offender.
"That wasn't our first go-around with him," Hoyt said.
"Come to find out, he was stealing people's dogs. We had people that lived up the road and they had chickens," Muddiman said. "I don't know exactly what all it was about, but he'd been killing them behind their house in a little field. Dogs and whatever else he could get back there. He wasn't no pride and joy, I can tell you that."
Police said there were incidents of cats being tortured and killed around Lewis Plaza at the time. They believed it was Segerstrom, but they could never catch him in the act or prove it.
Muddiman said Segerstrom was released from a juvenile lockup about a month before he killed Barbara.
July 26, 1986
That Saturday afternoon, it was a sweltering 99 degrees, with a few clouds. The heat index said it felt like 105 degrees.
Mark Hanna was working patrol and was sent to Lewis Plaza to take a missing persons report on a little girl.
"I was on duty that day. I'll tell you this, that's one of the things that for years I kind of tried to block because it was such a horrible experience," Hanna said. "It was totally senseless and just brutal."
As he canvassed the area, people started coming out of their apartments to see what was going on. Some started searching for Barbara. Someone told him they had seen her walking off into the woods north of the complex with "Big Red."
"We were familiar with him. When whoever it was in the crowd called out his name I knew it was Segerstrom, and he was just one of those kids that I'd had dealings with probably for two years prior or maybe more," Hanna said. "I just knew he was going to turn out to be a bad seed and sure enough he was."
Barbara's partially clothed body was found about 2:40 p.m. She was reported missing about 30 minutes earlier.
"Before I could walk up there, I see Russ (Cole) come walking out of the woods," Hanna said. "Russ was white as a ghost and he told me he had found the body."
Segerstrom was seen in the wooded area with what appeared to be blood on his pants shortly before the girl was found, according to testimony in the trial. Segerstrom was surrounded by residents of the complex about 100 yards from the scene. He admitted on four occasions he killed the little girl, according to news stories from the time.
Harris and Muddiman said Segerstrom had blended into the growing crowd that had gathered to search.
"He even helped look for her that day. I asked have you seen her and he said no," Muddiman said. "But when they caught him, when the neighbors got hold of him, he was standing right next to my apartment. That look he had, like he didn't care, it was like he wanted to get caught. He's just plumb crazy."
Police faced an angry group as they took Segerstrom to the police car.
"They were wanting to get to him. They wanted us to let him go," Hanna said. "That's one of those instances where I thought a little street justice would probably be good, but I couldn't do that. I knew that we needed to get him out of there as quickly as possible."
On the way to the old city jail, Segerstrom taunted, then threatened to kill the policemen.
"We had problems with him the entire time," Hanna recalled. "He would constantly be back in his cell yelling 'pig' and kicking on the door and cussing at us and things like that."
Testimony during Segerstrom's trial indicated he had several violent episodes and apparently banged his head against the wall on more than one occasion. He was treated twice at Washington Regional Medical Center while he was awaiting trial, but the nature of his injuries was not revealed, according to news accounts.
"I can recall thinking the entire time, up until he was actually pronounced guilty in court and sentenced to the state pen, I was convinced that he was gonna get off by being sent down to a youth facility or he was gonna be found crazy," Hanna said. "I thought he was the perfect candidate to win an insanity plea. I thought he was just a little nut job."
Hanna said he doesn't think Segerstrom should be released.
"My personal feeling is if he gets out of the pen he will kill again. I think he is a true sociopath," Hanna said. "I certainly don't think he ever needs to be out from the confines of a cell, whether it's a mental facility where he is locked down and at least getting some medical help or if he's just locked in a cage. He doesn't need to be out roaming the streets unaccompanied."
Segerstrom, 46, is now housed at the Arkansas Department of Correction Ouachita River Unit in a mental health residential unit, according to the prison website. He has been found guilty of two major disciplinary violations this year, both involved sexual activity, according to the website.
Segerstrom completed anger management programs in 2002, 2007 and 2009; a thinking errors group in 2010, communications skills in 2016; and, two stress management programs last year, records show.
"Where's he gonna go?" Muddiman said. "I don't know of any family that he has left."
Kent McLemore, the attorney appointed for Segerstrom, said when the resentencing process began that during the three decades in prison, Segerstrom had had only three visits, two from attorneys and one from his mother. McLemore said Segerstrom's mother died shortly after he was convicted.
Attempts to contact Segerstrom at the Department of Correction were unsuccessful.
A mother's unbroken love
Three decades after her daughter's murder, Muddiman still wonders what life would have been like for her beloved daughter.
"It'll be 31 years. There's not a day goes by you don't stop and think about where'd she be right now, what would she be doing in her life, what kids would she have, who would she be married to," Muddiman said. "I don't have that, so it's kind of hard-pressed to think the person that took her life is going to be granted life. What he did to her is unforgivable and I don't see how anybody in their right mind or soul and can live with themselves at night, think that it would be OK for him to get out after what he did to her."
Butterflies were special to Barbara, Muddiman and Harris said.
"Three or four months before all this happened she was out at my house and we were out in the front yard walking around and a butterfly landed right on her chest and she said, 'look Uncle Connie, that butterfly loves me,'" Harris recalled.
Barbara was always chasing butterflies, Muddiman said.
"She had plastic bags and an old pickle jar she kept them in," Muddiman said. "They didn't live. I kept trying to tell her they're not going to live in there. That day she kept coming in to tell me how much she loved me."
The little girl was strong-willed and very outspoken, Muddiman said.
"She never hesitated to tell you how she felt about you. She had a strong love for her sister, her and Samantha were so close, she didn't allow anybody to pick on her, she couldn't handle that," Muddiman said. "Family, I think family meant a whole lot to her. She didn't have a lot of friends, just mainly me and Sammy."
Samantha was two years older than Barbara and lives overseas, Muddiman said. The family moved to another part of town within a few weeks of Barbara's death and Segerstrom's mother moved to Springdale, she said.
Muddiman said she still visits Barbara's grave regularly and leaves little gifts.
"I don't put flowers and stuff like that on her grave. I do bubble gum and candy and the things that she liked," Muddiman said. "She has an angel at the end of her grave, so far she's got grandma's necklace, she's got a set of wedding rings that I bought and put on there for her, just little things like that. I don't do a lot of the traditional things, flowers occasionally, but usually it's bubble gum."
NW News on 06/05/2017