A chilling video played to the jury Tuesday shows a suspect shooting CresCom Bank employee Donna Major in 2017 before dashing through different parts of the bank.
Brandon Council’s jury trial began this week. The North Carolina man is charged with gunning down Major and Katie Skeen during a robbery at the bank on Aug. 21, 2017. Council has been indicted on two counts in connection with the double homicide. Major and Skeen both worked at the bank on 16th Avenue in Conway.
Jurors are tasked with determining if Council is guilty. If he is convicted, the jury will decide if they want to pursue the death penalty, which prosecutors are seeking.
In his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathan Williams referenced the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, a day that was supposed to be special.
While Major, the head teller at the bank, and Skeen, the branch manager, were working, Council was planning and plotting at the nearby Conway Express Inn, Williams said.
He was coming up with a scheme to shoot who was in the bank, take money and flee using a getaway car, his bags having already been packed in preparation.
Major and Skeen were the only employees at the bank at the time of the incident, prosecutors said.
Another employee, Kristy Johnson, had left to take her lunch break around 12:45 p.m. She testified Tuesday that she left at that time to avoid potential rain, having seeing a dark cloud. She said when she returned police were on scene investigating.
Council walked in with a gun tucked in his waistband that afternoon, Williams said, and talked to Major, who was behind the counter. The lawyer said Council mentioned something about cashing a check. Soon after, he shot her multiple times. The first shot that struck her arm surprised Major, who Williams said couldn’t have been more vulnerable.
Sobs could be heard from a side of the courtroom where family members of the victims sat as Williams said the only thing Major could do to try to defend herself between shots was hold a few sheets of paper in front of her face. The jury was shown gruesome photos of Major’s and Skeen’s bodies during the proceedings in addition to surveillance footage.
Prosecutors said Major was shot three times, including in the head. After she was shot, she staggered and collapsed on the floor.
“This defendant chose to murder,” Williams said. “He chose to kill.”
Council then hurried into Skeen’s office after hearing her scream.
Skeen, who was defenseless and posed no danger, Williams said, tried to hide but was shot in the forehead and again in her side.
Council took both victims’ wallets and the keys of Skeen’s Chrysler, which he used to get away. He returned to the hotel across the street before leaving for North Carolina.
He ended up stealing more than $15,000 and more than $10,000 was later recovered, according to court testimony.
Williams said after the deadly robbery, Council went on a “joy ride” and eventually bought a Mercedes-Benz, hung out with friends and partied.
The attorney said Council looked at Major and Skeen as simply obstacles in the way of his goal of committing the robbery.
Council was apprehended later in the week in North Carolina. Authorities found the murder weapon in the trunk of his car as well as Skeen’s keys and some of the money that had been stolen.
The prosecution has overwhelming evidence proving Council is guilty and the defendant admitted to the crimes, Williams said.
Defense attorney Duane Bryant admitted Council is guilty, but said part of the reason to have the trial is to provide closure for family members of the victims, the community and the state.
He explained Council was on the run when he went to South Carolina and had committed a string of robberies in North Carolina beforehand. In the first robbery, he reached across the counter and stole money.
In the second incident, Council robbed a BB&T bank using a note that demanded cash.
Using money he stole, Council bought his girlfriend a cheap car and he was driven to Conway by two friends, who he had asked to take him to Georgia. He purchased cocaine and marijuana, and stayed at the Conway Express Inn until he ran out of money, becoming homeless as a result.
The day of the deadly robbery, he walked into the bank with no mask, hoodie or sunglasses on, and had a note in his wallet that demanded money.
For some inexplicable reason, Bryant said, he chose to use his gun over the note, knowing his face was being captured by surveillance cameras.
Bryant also referenced Council’s “erratic” behavior at the bank the day of the incident.
The jury was shown footage of the robbery, which shows the suspect hopping over the bank counter multiple times as well as into what was Skeen’s office, according to court testimony.
Bryant said after he was later jailed, Council gave investigators details immediately, talking to them for nearly two hours.
Council told authorities he had bought the gun to protect fake jewelry he’d bought.
He cursed as he insulted himself in front of the investigators and said he had hit rock bottom and tends to make poor decisions.
Bryant said Council had thought he was going to die in a shootout with the police.
Council asked authorities if Major and Skeen had died, and wept when investigators confirmed the fatalities, wanting to let the family know he was sorry.
Bryant posed a question to the jury. Why would Council head to North Carolina after the bank murders, where authorities were already searching for him, instead of somewhere like Georgia? It was almost like he was going in a circle looking to be caught, Bryant said.
Conway police officer Jawanda Aklin was one of several witnesses the prosecution called to the stand Tuesday. She said she was the first person to respond to the bank after the deadly robbery. She was called to the establishment after an alarm at the bank was activated.
The silent alarm was triggered during the robbery by bait bills, according to court testimony. The bills have specific serial numbers that can be easily identified in case of theft.
When searching the bank, Aklin saw Major facedown on the ground, unconscious. She quickly called for backup and requested emergency medical workers.
Conway and Horry County police responded and set up a crime scene.
Dennis Lewis with Horry County Police’s crime scene investigations unit testified he took photos, began taking swabs for DNA and worked to get shoe prints.
The first person who arrived to assist Aklin was Dale Long, the current Conway Police Department chief who was a detective for the agency at the time.
In body camera footage captured by Aklin that was shown to the jury, Long examined Major’s body and said, “I believe she’s been shot in the head.”
Long testified Major had no pulse and was cold to the touch.
He said that because of his experience in the banking field, he knew there was at least one other employee at the bank. When authorities located Skeen beneath her desk, she was also cold to the touch and lacked a pulse.
When Johnson returned to the bank, he told her what happened and that he needed her help. Before police found Skeen’s body, Johnson told Long Skeen’s white Chrysler was missing from the parking lot.
Long also testified that he made several calls, including to the Horry County Police Department and an FBI agent.
Police sent out a screenshot from the bank surveillance footage out to the media — clearly showing the face of the suspect who was in a blue collared shirt — which gave officers leads, Long said.
This led police to the Conway Express Inn hotel room they believed the suspect had stayed in. Officers searched the room but no one was there. Lewis said the room was “torn apart.”
Eventually, local authorities communicated with law enforcement in Wilson, North Carolina, who provided a clear photo of Council. Long said the person in the image was consistent with the suspect in the CresCom Bank screenshot and Conway police identified Council as a suspect.
Council appeared emotionless throughout the duration of Tuesday’s proceedings.