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David Lee FISHER





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Murder for hire - Attempt to collect insurance money
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 21, 1983
Date of arrest: November 1986
Date of birth: 1941
Victim profile: David Wilkey (male, 18)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Bedford County, Virginia, USA
Status: Executed by lethal injection in Virginia on March 25, 1999

United States Court of Appeals
For the Fourth Circuit

opinion 98-4
clemency petition

On 11/21/83, in Bedford Co. Virginia, eighteen-year-old David Wilkey was shot and killed while on a hunting trip. 

David's death was initially believed to be an accident but the killer, Bobby Mulligan, broke down and confessed to his father 3 years after the murder. 

David Fisher hired Bobby Mulligan for $7,000, in order to collect on a $25,000 policy. 

Fisher had 25 previous convictions and was born Leeman Curtis Fortner but had undergone a name change when he enrolled in the federal witness protection program after being involved in organized crime.


The facts

As recited by the Virginia Supreme Court, the underlying facts are as follows:

In 1983, Fisher and his victim, David Wilkey, were both residents of Charlotte, North Carolina. Wilkey's parents had separated in Norfolk, Virginia, when Wilkey was three months old and his mother had moved to Florida with him.

When Wilkey was 17 years old, he left his mother's home and went to Norfolk on a fruitless search for his father. He finally went to live in Charlotte with a cousin of his father. Wilkey had a ninth-grade education and was 18 years old at the time of his death.

Fisher met Wilkey at a motel in Charlotte in late 1982 and appeared to befriend him. Wilkey moved into Fisher's apartment and occasionally worked for him. Fisher was in the business of transporting bodies for a funeral home and for the coroner.

Fisher devised a plan whereby Wilkey would become close to a young woman named Bonnie Jones, Fisher would obtain an insurance policy on her life, and Wilkey would kill Bonnie for a share of the insurance proceeds. Fisher went so far as to buy Wilkey a car and provide him with money to date Bonnie, but Wilkey fell in love with Bonnie and backed out of Fisher's scheme. Wilkey and Bonnie had plans to return to Florida to be married the first week in December 1983.

In the summer of 1983, Fisher, having learned of Wilkey's defection, told Bobby Mulligan, who was, like himself, a frequenter of coffee houses in Charlotte, that he wanted to get his money back from Wilkey. Fisher proposed that if Mulligan would agree to shoot Wilkey while the three were on a hunting trip, and make the killing appear accidental, Fisher would arrange to insure Wilkey's life and would divide the proceeds with Mulligan.

Fisher also approached Gerald Steadham, yet another frequenter of Charlotte coffee houses, with a proposal to push Wilkey off a ledge while on a fishing trip. Steadham accompanied Fisher to an insurance office where Fisher obtained a policy on Wilkey's life.

Fisher had no legitimate insurable interest in Wilkey, but nevertheless obtained a policy on Wilkey's life with Kentucky Central Life Insurance Company for $50,000 with a double indemnity clause in case of death by accident. Fisher paid the $89.50 initial premium.

The original application for insurance, submitted in September 1983, was taken by an insurance agent in Charlotte named Kenneth Daren Tietsort. It showed Fisher as owner and beneficiary of the policy. Fisher identified himself as Wilkey's "guardian."

Upon receipt of the application at the company's office in Lexington, Kentucky, the company wrote to Tietsort to ascertain whether Fisher was in fact a court-appointed guardian. Tietsort telephoned the company and suggested that the beneficiary be shown as Wilkey's estate until Fisher's status could be verified. The policy was issued in that form on September 27, 1983.

In October, 1983, the company received three additional documents from Tietsort: an "amendment to application" signed by Tietsort and two "requests for change of primary beneficiary," purportedly signed by David Fisher and David Wilkey, respectively. These papers requested that the beneficiary be changed from Wilkey's estate to "David Fisher, personal friend."

On October 11, the company refused to approve the change, questioning the genuineness of Wilkey's change-of-beneficiary form. On October 24, however, the company reversed its position and approved the change of beneficiary. The evidence does not reveal what motivated this change of position.

About this time, Fisher told Mulligan that he had experienced some problem getting an insurance policy on Wilkey's life, but that he had persuaded an insurance man to "take care of it" for a promise of one- third of the proceeds. Fisher promised Mulligan $38,000, more than one-third, because Mulligan was to do the actual killing.

Fisher's plan was to go to Bedford County, Virginia, near the residence of his ex-wife, on the opening day of deer season in Virginia. Included in the party were to be Wilkey, Fisher, Mulligan, and Jody Ayers, a 16- year old son of Fisher's ex-wife, who was to be brought along to make their visit to Bedford County "look natural." The plan was for Fisher to provide guns for the party and later dispose of the murder weapon and try to have Wilkey's body cremated.

The hunting trip took place in Bedford County on November 21, 1983, as planned. While walking through the woods, Mulligan became reluctant, but Fisher encouraged him to persevere. About 3:30 p.m., while Jody was resting some distance away, Wilkey ran down a hill after a deer. Mulligan followed him, with Fisher close by. Mulligan shot Wilkey in the back with a 12 gauge slug, mortally wounding him.

Fisher yelled to Jody to run for help, then, according to a statement Fisher later made to Steadham, Fisher ran up to Wilkey, who was lying face down on the ground, and told him "if I had my .38 I'd blow your . . . head off." According to Mulligan's later testimony, Fisher attempted to insert his hand into the wound in order to stop Wilkey's heart. Steadham also testified that Fisher later admitted this to him.

When Jody returned with Bedford County officers and the rescue squad, Wilkey was dead. Fisher and Mulligan both gave statements to the effect that Mulligan had slipped while running downhill after Wilkey and that his shotgun had discharged accidentally. The Bedford County authorities at the time treated the shooting as a hunting accident. They charged Fisher and Mulligan with misdemeanors, but when these cases were tried in general district court on December 19, both men were fined and permitted to return to North Carolina. The murder weapon was returned to Fisher.

Two days later, Fisher filed a claim for the $100,000 accidental death benefit on the insurance policy he held on Wilkey's life. Reluctant to make payment, the company initiated an investigation of the circumstances surrounding Wilkey's death and referred the matter to John Manning, an attorney in Greensboro, North Carolina.

In May 1984, Fisher went to the attorney's office and belligerently demanded payment, threatening to sue the company and claim punitive damages. The attorney, who was himself a hunter, noted from the autopsy report that wadding from the fatal shotgun shell had entered the wound and penetrated the heart cavity. This, he thought, was inconsistent with the statements of Fisher and Mulligan, and also inconsistent with a drawing Fisher made in the attorney's office, purporting to show that the shotgun had discharged 10 or more feet away from Wilkey's back.

Confronted with this inconsistency, Fisher became less demanding and showed himself amenable to settlement. He eagerly accepted a check from the attorney for $25,000 in exchange for a release of his claim against the company. Later, he paid $7,000 of this to Mulligan.

Wilkey's mother called Fisher from Florida when she heard of her son's death. Fisher told her that at some time before his death, Wilkey had expressed a desire to be cremated "if anything happened to him." She promised to have her son's remains cremated. Fisher told her that Wilkey had no money to help with funeral expenses and that there was no insurance on him. Wilkey's mother had the body brought to Florida and cremated there. Fisher did not attend the funeral, but on that day or the next, called Wilkey's mother, expressed sorrow, and inquired whether the body had in fact been cremated.

Mulligan remained in Charlotte for a few months after the killing, and then moved to South Carolina. In early 1985, he suffered a "nervous breakdown" and confessed the murder to his parents. He was arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in November 1986 and made a full confession of all the details of the crime.

During the same month, the Bedford County Grand Jury indicted both Mulligan and Fisher for capital murder. Mulligan entered a guilty plea and was awaiting sentencing at the time of Fisher's trial, in which Mulligan testified for the Commonwealth. Both Mulligan and his attorney testified that Mulligan had received no promises in exchange for his testimony.

Gerald Steadham also testified against Fisher. After Fisher described the killing to him, Fisher offered him $5,000 to kill Mulligan. Fisher said that Mulligan was beginning to talk about the killing and was claiming that Fisher owed him more money. After a time, Steadham decided to tell the Charlotte police of Fisher's statements. Fisher apparently had sources of information within the police force and discovered that Steadham had informed against him. He threatened Steadham's life, which caused Steadham to take his story to the F.B.I., but Fisher and Steadham continued to meet and talk.

The F.B.I. began an independent investigation of the crime in late 1985 and used Steadham to gather incriminating admissions from Fisher. On five occasions during the ensuing year, Steadham, "wired" by the F.B.I., met with Fisher in various Charlotte coffee houses and engaged him in lengthy conversations during which Fisher occasionally discussed the killing of Wilkey. These conversations were recorded on tape and transcribed. The tapes were played in full as evidence at Fisher's trial.


David Lee Fisher

When the case reached the Supreme Court, Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall dissented and threw out the sentence stating, "Adhering to our views that the death penalty is in all circumstances cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153, 227, 231, 96 S.Ct. 2909, 2950, 2973 49 L.Ed.2d 859 (1976), we would grant certiorari and vacate the death sentence in this case." However, the court's final decision upheld the death sentence. 

In November 1987, David Lee Fisher was sentenced to death for the 1983 murder of David Wilkey.

Fisher and Wilkey had met in 1982 in a motel in Charlotte, North Carolina, becoming fast friends and soon after, roommates. Fisher was convicted of conspiracy to kill Wilkey after Bobby Mulligan, the man who actually committed the crime, testified to police that Fisher had agreed to pay him money from the insurance settlement. 

In an attempt to gather evidence against Fisher, police wired a friend of his, Gerald Steadham, and tape-recorded their conversations. These recordings were then used against Fisher during the trial. While they were played in their entirety during the trial, the jury only received typed transcripts of the sections of the tapes that the Commonwealth wished to highlight.

Fisher later appealed the judge's decision to let the jury view transcripts of only certain, incriminating portions of the tapes but his appeal was denied. 

In his closing arguments, Fisher's attorney made the following remarks, "And I would remind you that it has been brought out to you four score and underlined in red that there are probably still a dozen or so charges pending in North Carolina. Clearly, if you sentence this man to life imprisonment he will never see the sun shine again except through bars, and I think the ends of society will be met. I plead with you, I ask you to let that be your punishment."

This statement was quickly objected to by the prosecution, however, because the statement was already made in front of the jury the judge permitted the Commonwealth to present a contrasting statement to the jury. The prosecutor stated, " I personally state to you as the Commonwealth's Attorney for this county and as an elected official, that is not true, that is not accurate."

Despite the fact that Fisher stood very little chance of ever being set free again, the prosecution was still allowed to imply that there was a distinct possibility that Fisher could potentially be released into the community. The Appeal's court allowed this remark and the judge's decision to allow the prosecution to refute the defense's statement because it did not want to encourage the defense to intentionally make errors which would result in a mistrial. 

David Lee Fisher was executed on March 25, 1999.


Statement by Governor Jim Gilmore Regarding the Execution of David Lee Fisher

March 25, 1999

RICHMOND - "David Lee Fisher secured a life insurance policy on the life of 18 year-old David Wilkey and then arranged for Bobby Mulligan to kill David Wilkey in return for a portion of the insurance proceeds. Mulligan shot and killed David Wilkey. A jury convicted Fisher of murder for hire and sentenced him to death. After reviewing all of the evidence, the judge imposed the death sentence. The conviction and death sentence were upheld on multiple appeals.

"Upon a thorough review of the Petition for Clemency, the numerous court decisions regarding this case, and the circumstances of this matter, I decline to intervene."


David Lee Fisher, 57 - 99-3-25, Virginia

In Jarratt, David Lee Fisher, 57, was executed by lethal injection for arranging a murder to collect on a $100,000 life insurance policy.

Fisher was executed for hiring another man to kill 18-year-old David William Wilkey while all 3 were on a hunting trip on Nov. 21, 1983. Wilkey and Fisher were residents of Charlotte, N.C.

Wilkey was shot in the back with a 12-gauge shotgun. Fisher - who had taken out an insurance policy on Wilkey a few months earlier - contended Bobby Brice Mulligan acted on his own when he shot Wilkey.

The scheme unraveled in 1985 when a 3rd man familiar with the plot, Gerald Steadham, went to the FBI. The FBI arrested Mulligan, who confessed to shooting Wilkey to death and pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Fisher was sentenced to death after his capital murder trial in Bedford County. He earlier appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court alleging juror misconduct. One juror, who had been a lone holdout to give Fisher life, relented on the advice of her husband.

Fisher becomes the 4th condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Virginia, and the 63rd overall since the state resumed executions on Aug. 10, 1982.

Only Texas exceeds Virginia in the number of condemned inmates it puts to death. Fisher is the 1st of 7 executions set for the next 7 weeks, putting the state on a pace to break its record of 17 executions in a single year, established early in the century.

Fisher also becomes the 28th condemned inmate to be put to death in the USA this year, and the 528th overall since America resumed executions on Jan. 17, 1977.

(sources: Richmond Times-Dispatch, Associated Press & Rick Halperin)



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