State News

Man pleads guilty to killing tree farmer, two others

Posted May 22, 2009 2:17 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2009 2:58 p.m. EDT

— A North Carolina man was sentenced Friday to life in prison for the slayings of three people, including the owner of one of North Carolina's largest Christmas tree farms.

Frederick Phillip Hammer, 49, of Crumpler, N.C., pleaded guilty to five counts of capital murder and one count each of robbery, breaking and entering a building attached to real estate with the intent to commit larceny while armed with a deadly weapon, grand larceny and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony.

Hammer received seven life sentences – five will run consecutively – plus another 23 years in prison on the charges. He also was ordered to pay $600,000 in fines.

Ronald F. Hudler, 74; his son, Frederick D. Hudler, 45; and employee John S. Miller, 25, of West Jefferson, were shot to death in January 2008 during an attempted robbery on Ronald Hudler's property in Mouth of Wilson, Va., near the state border.

Investigators said Frederick Hudler and Miller had apparently been working on the family's tree farm in North Carolina and returned to Ronald Hudler's home, where they confronted people in the garage trying to steal a gun safe. Both were fatally shot.

Ronald Hudler, who often kept sizable amounts of money in the safe, was shot and killed, apparently when he came outside to investigate the shots, authorities said.

Authorities recently found the murder weapon hidden in the barn of an acquaintance of Hammer, authorities said. The .22 magnum rifle had a serial number that matched a rifle sold to Hammer in the mid-1990s, and damage to the rifle's broken scope matched debris found at the door of Ronald Hudler’s house on the day of the killings, authorities said.

An inmate who knows Hammer tipped investigators to the locations where money stolen in the case had been buried, authorities said.

Grayson County, Va., Commonwealth's Attorney Douglas Vaught said in a statement that he agreed to the plea deal to spare the Hudler and Miller families from having to endure a lengthy death-penalty trial next year. The families agreed with the pleas, he said.

Hudler operated Hudler Carolina Tree Farms with his three sons. The farm supplied an 18-foot Fraser fir to be the White House Christmas tree in 1995 and was featured in a WRAL documentary, "The Perfect Tree," shown in December 2007.