When her father didn’t answer his cell phone, Kaitlin Buckley knew something was amiss.
“I was at work and I sent him a text. Didn’t get anything. When his cell went straight to voicemail, I automatically knew something was wrong,” Buckley said through tears Wednesday as she told an Horry County courtroom what happened when her father went missing three years ago.
The trial began Wednesday for 32-year-old Johnathan Hillary of Augusta, Georgia, who is charged with murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, and possession of a deadly weapon during the commission of a crime. He's accused of killing Tim Buckley in September 2016.
During the state's opening arguments in front of Judge William McKinnon, assistant solicitor Jonathan Miles said Buckley had been drinking and was in a vulnerable state the night he went missing.
"Exactly what the defendant was looking for – an easy victim," Miles said.
At that time, Hillary and his friend Bernithia Young (who is not on trial this week and whose case is pending) had just moved to the area and were floating between hotels and jobs, waiting for a paycheck.
“They were in desperate need of money,” Miles said.
Miles told the jury Buckley was robbed of his wallet and phone, and shot in the center of the back and the back of his head. He said Hillary then put him in Buckley's own truck and drove him to a wooded area across from Tanger Outlets in Carolina Forest and dumped Buckley's body. He said Hillary then took Buckley's truck and drove it to Myrtle Beach to hide it. Young picked him up on Ocean Boulevard.
Buckley’s body wasn’t found for two months.
Miles said that Scott Joye, Hillary’s attorney, might try to say it was self-defense.
“Was he coming at him backwards? This isn’t a self-defense case,” Miles told the jury.
Joye’s opening arguments noted that the prosecutor referred to Hillary as “the defendant” and not by his name.
"As if he is any less of a person than Mr. Buckley,” Joye said. “He [Miles] wants you predisposed to have nothing but contempt for Mr. Hillary. Not one single thing he said was evidence.”
He reminded the jury that it’s their job to take in all of the evidence, exhibits and testimonies, and remember that there “should be a presumption of innocence.”
Tim Buckley moved to Myrtle Beach with his wife Ruth and three daughters in search of a slower pace of life in 2011. He had been a police officer for 30 years.
Kaitlin Buckley said her father got a job at Anderson Ocean Club as a valet because it was something to do for fun.
Her mother was very sick and Buckley was the main cook, cleaner and driver for the family, she told senior assistant solicitor Nancy Livesay.
Mrs. Buckley passed away not long after her husband’s death.
After he didn’t show up to pick up her little sister from cheerleading practice and didn’t answer his phone, Kaitlin Buckley made numerous attempts to track him down, contacting local friends, buddies back in New York, and his employer.
Once she found out he didn’t show up for his work shift, she called the police to file a missing person’s report.
“We knew it was really serious,” Ms. Buckley said.
They even checked their RV spot at the Springmaid Pier that was a vacation getaway for their family, but there was no sign of him.
She formed a group and started looking, and put together a poster to help find her father and his black Ford F-150 truck, which was still missing.
Carl Wenner, who along with his older brother were friends of Buckley’s since childhood, came down from New York to help search for him.
Wenner told the court that during their searches they checked the camper, and where his last cell phone ping was located. They realized that with the city closing down that day at 3 p.m. due to the impending arrival of Hurricane Matthew, they didn’t have much time.
As they canvassed the areas between 30th Avenue North and 40th Avenue North, they crisscrossed down each avenue, also checking out every black Ford F-150 they saw along the way against Buckley’s license plate number.
As they rounded 29th Avenue North, Wenner said he and his brother spotted another one.
Sure enough, the license plates matched.
Wenner knew not to touch the truck, as it was evidence, but as he and his brother looked in the windows, they saw the passenger door inside panel was covered with blood, along with some on the passenger seat.
“I thought ‘Tim is in serious trouble,’” Wenner said. “This is not going to end well.”
Hillary’s trial continues tomorrow.