Friday, November 30, 2012

Kenny Strickland: He Killed Both of Them

Rusty L. Earnest was 47 years-old when he was brutally murdered three years ago. If he had died one hundred years earlier, perhaps there would have been those who felt Rusty had lived a long life; when he died in 2007, many speculated on the number of years that had been taken from him. All who knew him agreed on one thing: Rusty Earnest had lived life to the fullest.

Rusty left several relatives, among them his sister Patsy Earnest Michael of Athens. The following is an account of Rusty's life in her own words:

Rusty grew up in the small town of Loretto, Tenneessee. There he attended high school and was selected as most friendly, a trait he carried through his 47 years of life. At the time of his death, he lived on the Tennessee River in Rogersville, Alabama, where he had resided since 1984.

He had traveled around the United States in the Nuclear Power Industry since the early 1980s. He had worked locally at Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant and was working at the TVA Muscle Shoals Power Shop at the time of his murder. Rusty was a Christian man, an active member at Faith Church in Florence, where he served on the greeters ministry. Rusty had a God given gift of helping others. He was always ready to lend a helping hand and would take the time to talk to others, never drawing attention to himself.

As family we knew the sincere kind of person he was, but since his death have learned from co-workers from all areas-church family, neighbors, and friends-of the many positive impacts he had made in their lives. All of these people were devastated by his horrible and senseless death. Rusty worked very hard for his material possessions and was thankful for them. He loved to have people to enjoy fellowship at his home on the river, only to have everything destroyed.

Rusty’s life being taken has been devastating for my family, and only with God's help in our lives and prayers from others, have we survived. It’s something we will never get over, but have to learn to live with. We are members of the group Vocal (Victims of Crime and Leniency) in which we now support other families when the same devastation and pain comes to them.

In so many people's eyes, Kenny Strickland should never get out of prison. Yet as sad as it is, by Alabama Law he will become eligible for parole one day, and we will be there to fight for Rusty. We are now in the process of working on this, even though it should be years in the future.
Rusty Lynn Earnest's home on Travel Path Road in Rogersville wasn't palatial, but it offered a panoramic view of Roberson Beach on Wheeler Lake. It was also usually surrounded by vehicles and boats that Earnest collected or just bought to help out those who needed some extra cash. It was the sale of one of these boats on May 1, 2007, that ultimately led to his death. Earnest was known to carry large amounts of cash, and his neighbors on the lake front road knew that the boat's sale had brought even more ready cash into the pockets of the health physics specialist.

When Earnest didn't show up for work the next day, a worried co-worker contacted Rogersville police. Together the friend and Chief Ty Barrett arrived around 10:30 to find Earnest's house filled with smoke; both Rusty and his dog were dead inside. Assistant Rogersville Fire Chief Morris Lentz stated the house was so well sealed there wasn't enough oxygen to fuel the flames, and much evidence to the crime remained. There were obvious blood stains on the small patio, but not so obvious was the killer's identity.

Neighbors and family all spoke well of Earnest, but they also mentioned his habit of carrying copious amounts of cash. Lauderdale County investigators who had arrived at the scene now had a motive--what they didn't have was a suspect.

According to Kenneth Bradford Strickland's family, he had been an addict his entire adult life. Frequently family members intervened, and Strickland always managed to retain his freedom. In a 2006 attempt to rehabilitate Strickland, his grandfather allowed the then 23 year-old to move into his lakeside cottage--a cottage next door to the home of Rusty Earnest. For a short time, Kenny Strickland seemed on the road to a drug-free life. During this period, Earnest helped the younger man in any way he could.

However, it was not long before Strickland relapsed and was evicted from the small beach house. According to those who knew Strickland, by 2007 his life had become a cycle of theft, drug use, and more theft to fund his drug of choice--methamphetamine.

In late April, Rusty Earnest sold his fishing boat to a co-worker, a fact Earnest casually mentioned at a local restaurant belonging to Strickland's family. Whether Kenny Strickland knew the exact details of the sale is unknown, but what is known was Strickland's desperation for money and drugs on the day of May 1, 2007.

Strickland had unsuccessfully attempted to sell a knife before borrowing $25.00 from a friend. According to those who saw him later that day, Strickland, along with two female companions, had spent the money on whiskey and was again broke. Around midnight, he decided to pay Rusty Earnest a visit.

When Lauderdale County detective Travis Clemmons learned that Kenny Strickland (pictured) had spent the night in the Wheeler Lake cabin from which he had been previously evicted, the 24 year-old meth addict became a prime suspect in the brutal murder of Rusty Lynn Earnest. Informants reported that on the day of May 2, 2007, Strickland was seen at various drug houses flashing a large roll of hundred dollar bills. After two interviews, Clemmons returned to Strickland's new home in Eva, Alabama, and arrested him on capital murder charges.

Because of the gravity of the charge, Strickland was initially denied bail; but when an April 2008 grand jury indicted the suspect only on felony murder, burglary, and arson charges, Strickland's family provided the bond for his release. Strickland was scheduled to stand trial in November 2008, but had other ideas.

Seeking to place the blame for Earnest's death on an uncle against whom he had a grudge, Strickland placed an anonymous phone call to Lauderdale authorities. Pretending to be an acquaintance of the uncle, Strickland called from a payphone at an Elgin convenience store. Authorities traced the call and obtained both the suspect's license number and a video tape of him leaving the scene.

During the phone conversation, Strickland told of the brutal attack on Earnest, whom he bludgeoned on the small porch before returning hours later to drag the body inside and set fire to the lake house. Only parts of the conversation have previously been published, but family members who are familiar with the tape tell of the depravity of the crime--Strickland even throttled Earnest's small dog in an attempt to keep it silent, leaving its body lying in the living room with its owner.

Arrested a second time for giving false information to police, Kenneth Strickland decided to enter a plea. At the time of the defendant's court appearance, Rusty Earnest's sister Patsy and her husband were visiting in Pennsylvania, but Earnest's mother Dorothy and brother Grant were in attendance. When Dorothy Earnest asked Strickland why he killed her son, he replied that he didn't know.

Now serving a life sentence at Holman Prison for Rusty Earnest's murder, Kenneth Bradford Strickland will be eligible for parole at some point, perhaps as early as 2015. If you would like to write a letter of protest to be maintained in Strickland's file, you may address it to:

Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole
Post Office Box 302405
Montgomery, Alabama 36130-2405
Re: Kenneth Bradford Strickland - AIS# 234843

Thanks to D.K. for his help with this series on the murder of Rusty Earnest, with whom he had once worked.

Special thanks to Patsy Earnest Michael for her assistance with previously unpublished information. Mrs. Michael has been especially kind to help with these blogs and wants others to know her brother as he was--not as a faceless victim.

While Det. Clemmons and some others characterized Rusty as one who carried large sums of money, Mrs. Michael has further related to us that, while these amounts may have seemed large to Kenny Strickland, Rusty usually just carried enough cash to carry on day-to-day living in Rogersville where debit cards are not always welcome. Rusty had sold his fishing boat in order to help finance a Lasik eye surgery not covered by his insurance.

We're happy to make these addenda, but it should be noted that no matter how much money anyone carries, they do not deserve to be the victim of a brutal beating, to have perhaps half their life taken from them. We're sure that all those who knew Rusty, and many who never met him, have been moved by the story of this sadistic murder, a crime that even took the life of Rusty Earnest's dog.
Originally published in Shoalanda Speaks on March 16-20, 2010.