A Dade Superior Court jury today in short order found accused pipe bomber Teshena Renee Bates guilty of nothing worse than having an open container of an adult beverage while a passenger in an automobile, and not wearing a seat belt.
Ms. Bates, who goes by her middle name, began trial on Tuesday accused of 13 counts of possession and transportation of explosive devices, charges serious enough to land her a jail sentence in excess of two centuries. Her former boyfriend, Robert "Chris" York, who was arrested with her in Trenton on Dec. 4, pled guilty and negotiated a 20-year sentence—10 to be served behind bars, the rest on probation—as part of a plea bargain agreement that included a requirement he testify as a prosecution witness against her.
The couple were found in possession of three PVC-gunshell-and-gunpowder pipe bombs during a traffic stop. Ten more bombs were subsequently found at their home. York eventually admitted making the bombs, but he told the jury he’d made them on Ms. Bates’ behalf, that she had stood by handing him tape while he did it, and that she was as guilty as he was.
But the 13 jurors—eight men and five women, 12 regular and one alternate jury member—received the case around 11:30 Wednesday morning and had it wrapped up, and Ms. Bates exonerated, not long after lunch.
The whole case Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton presented against Ms. Bates, 36 when she was arrested in December, hinged on the testimony of York, and of Ms. Bates’ cohabitation with him in his doublewide trailer on PeeWee Street in Trenton. During his closing argument, Norton showed the jury photographs of female clothing in a bedroom in the home, demonstrating Ms. Bates lived there, then of bomb ingredients in a workshop in the garage, which he said proved she shared possession of them with York—and thus also shared culpability of the crime of owning them.
The jury didn’t buy it, and may also have had trouble with Norton’s insistence that York was a credible witness who was holding nothing back. York had told the jury that it was Renee Bates who must have put the pipe bombs in his truck where they were found during a traffic stop at the Circle K. He was baring his soul, said Norton. “Why fudge on that?” he asked.
Possibly because York had fudged on just about everything else, as demonstrated by one videotaped and one audiotaped interview of York by a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent presented to the jury by public defender Jennifer Hartline. First York told the agent he’d found the pipe bombs in a parking lot—“It’s weird; I keep finding them”—then, when the agent told him that just wouldn’t wash, that he’d made them. Then, as far as there being more bombs than the three found in his truck, he hadn’t admitted there were 10 more at home until the GBI agent said, “You know we’re going to end up going to your house to make sure.”
Then York allowed: “There might be some more plastic pipe bombs that I found a long time ago.”
And as for the matter of Ms. Bates putting the bombs in the truck, York testified on Tuesday that he was so surprised the pipe bombs were in the truck, he could have been “knocked over with a feather.” But on Wednesday, defense attorney Hartline had called to the witness stand Trenton Police Officer Michael Coleman, who had been at the traffic stop talking with York just prior to his Ford Ranger being searched. Coleman said York told him, before the bombs were discovered, that he might at some point have put some kind of homemade explosive in the truck and: “I bet they’re still in there.”
York, 56 at his arrest, had also presented himself to the jury as so tormented by love for Ms. Bates that he had first thought of taking all the blame on his own shoulders to spare her, and that the worst part of his sentence was an injunction not to communicate with her.
But the GBI interviews didn’t do much for his cred in the timeless love department, either. Even before the matter of the explosives came up, York had volunteered to the GBI agent that the reason he kept a shotgun in the truck was to defend himself against Ms. Bates’ low friends, who had stolen his tools when he allowed them to visit her at his house. He said she regularly left him to go with other men, that she was “wild” and that she used methamphetamine.
York later said he made the bombs to oblige Ms. Bates, to frighten a boyfriend she told him had abducted her, held her against her will, beaten and raped her. He said he had spoken with this bad actor on his cellphone. He told the GBI agent that shortly after Halloween, during one of Ms. Bates’ disappearances from his life, he had texted her begging for her to come home. The boyfriend—an individual named Kelly Sexton, apparently--had called him back and threatened him jealously, said York, had told him he and Ms. Bates were getting married and if York didn’t leave them alone he would “cut my heart out.”
The bombs, said York, he’d made so Ms. Bates could light one and throw it out the window should Sexton come calling; and she also spoke, he said, of going up to a place on Raccoon Mountain Sexton lived and blowing it up.
But prosecutor Norton admitted during closing arguments that there was no proof Sexton even existed, and defense attorney Hartline pointed out the prosecution had not even attempted to examine phone records of Sexton’s threats or York’s texts to Ms. Bates. GBI agent Daniel Nicholson testified at the trial that no cellphone had even been found for York—though in one of his recorded interviews with York he asks for York’s cell number and York gives it to him.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Norton demonstrated to the jury using two chairs that the pipe bombs being under the driver’s side of the truck seat meant they were more easily accessible to Ms. Bates in the passenger seat than they were to York behind the wheel. Again, there had been talk, according to York, of using the bombs to blow up the putative home of the alleged Kelly Sexton.
But again, there was some doubt of the existence of the home and of Sexton and, anyway, nowhere in the testimony had there been any mention that York and Ms.
Bates had been headed anywhere that particular day but the Krystal drive-through. York had in fact blamed Ms. Bates’ craving for the little square burgers for the traffic stop that led to their undoing.
Ms. Bates did not say anything about the bombs at all—she did not take the stand but relied on the presumption of innocence. Lacking her testimony, and with no other witnesses, there was really nothing connecting her to the pipe bombs at all but her presence in York’s home and in York’s truck, and of course the testimony of York himself, who in the recorded interview had seemed so eager to shift blame on her the GBI agent actually cut him off once as he told his rambling story about the tools, the shotgun and the dubious friends.
Presiding over the trial, Judge Brian House instructed the jury that one witness was enough to prove a crime if the witness were credible, though an exception was made for an accomplice to a crime, in which case some other credible evidence was needed. Clearly the jury didn’t find that.
Which ends the case against Renee Bates. Information about her sentence is not readily available at this writing, but after the December arrest bond was not granted until late March and even then she remained behind bars. Upwards of four months is a fairly heavy sentence for open container and no seat belt, so presumably she’ll get credit for time served.
Meanwhile, the question remains, if indeed there was no Kelly Sexton and no plan to frighten him or blow up his house, what were the pipe bombs for?
GBI Agent Nicholson said his agency had run York through “Intel” and come up with no evidence he was a terrorist or involved with any organization that might feasibly be associated with improvised explosive devices.
And how did York know how to make bombs out of PVC, shotgun shells, blue tape, duct tape and “Pyrodex,” a brand name of a gunpowder-like substance used in the explosives business? That is also unclear. York said he’d seen it on television but he was vague about when, sometimes saying it was when he was in 20s, others that it might have been a couple of times through the years. And defense attorney Hartline pointed out the prosecution had made no attempt to analyze computer records to see if York had researched the project online.
A GBI bomb expert testified at the trial that the pipe bombs York made had short fuses and short ranges--but were quite capable of killing people.