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Steven James ROLLINS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery - Drugs
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: August 22, 2001
Date of arrest: October 9, 2001
Date of birth: August 14, 1964
Victim profile: John T. Bussell, 81 (bait shop owner)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Sullivan County, Tennessee, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in June 2003. Overturned, 2010

The Supreme Court of Tennessee

opinion S45685

The proof offered by the prosecution at trial established that thirty-seven-year- old Steven James Rollins, killed the eighty-one-year-old victim, John Bussell, during a robbery.

For thirty years prior to his murder, John Bussell owned and operated the Fisherman’s Paradise bait shop and barbeque restaurant in the Colonial Heights area of Sullivan County near Kingsport, Tennessee.

John Bussell, a widower, lived alone in a camper next door to the bait shop. Although John suffered from arthritis, bad eyesight, and breathing difficulties, he had remained active and independent for a person of his age.

Local residents were aware that Bussell frequently accommodated customers by opening his business late at night to sell bait or fishing and camping supplies. Furthermore, local residents were aware that Bussell carried large amounts of cash on his person, at least $1,000 to $1,500 at any given time, according to Walter Hoskins, Bussell’s friend of five years and maintenance man.

Hoskins recalled that Bussell often displayed this “wad” of cash as he provided change to customers. Hoskins and other of Bussell’s friends and relatives cautioned Bussell against opening the bait shop late at night while he was alone and against making change from his “wad” of cash, but to Hoskins’ knowledge, Bussell continued to operate his business as he had for the preceding thirty years.

Bussell owned and carried a handgun for his protection, and in July 2001, approximately one-month before his murder, Bussell purchased a two-shot Derringer handgun and carried it with him at all times in his right front pants pocket.

Hoskins was the last person to speak with Bussell before his murder. Bussell telephoned Hoskins at 10:30 p.m. on August 21, 2001, to discuss Hoskins’ plans for the next day.

Ottie McGuire, who had been Bussell’s friend for ten years, arrived at the bait shop around 8:30 a.m. on the morning of August 22, 2001, intending to have breakfast with Bussell, as was their custom.

McGuire became worried when he noticed that the restaurant lights were off and the door still locked. McGuire walked next door and found the door to Bussell’s camper partly open and the morning newspaper still in the box.

McGuire knocked on the camper’s window and called for Bussell, and when Bussell failed to respond, McGuire went to a nearby fire hall for help, fearing that Bussell had suffered a heart attack.

Eventually Sullivan County Deputy Sheriff Jamie Free arrived at the bait shop. After looking through a window and seeing the victim’s head lying on the floor of the bait shop between two display racks, Officer Free removed the chained “closed”sign and kicked open the locked door.

Officer Free then found Bussell’s body lying in a pool of blood on the floor behind the counter of the bait shop. Bussell was clothed in pajamas and house slippers; his clothing was blood-soaked; and he was not breathing.

The cash register was open and empty; the change drawer, also empty, was lying on the floor beside the body. Several minnows and cups used to dip out the minnows were on floor near the minnow tank. Bussell’s Derringer was missing.

A trail of bloody footprints led from inside the bait shop to the victim’s camper, which had been ransacked. Blood smears were found inside the camper on a variety of the victim’s personal belongings. A wad of $1,150 in cash was found lying on the floor of the camper covered by other items.

Forensic experts from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Crime Laboratory ultimately spent 112.5 man hours processing the bait shop, the camper, and the area outside but found no physical evidence tying anyone to the crime. The blood found at the scene belonged to the victim.

Investigators neither discovered identifiable latent fingerprints nor shoes belonging to a suspect which could be compared to the bloody footprints found at the scene.

An autopsy disclosed that the victim had sustained twenty-seven and possibly twenty-eight knife wounds and had bled to death from these wounds.

While most of these injuries would not have been immediately fatal, a deep six-inch cutting wound that began near the victim’s left ear and extended across his neck had sliced through his left common carotid artery and jugular vein and would have rendered the victim immediately unconscious and led to his death within four minutes.

Another incised wound to the victim’s neck had cut into his right jugular vein and would have been fatal without prompt medical care. A third stab wound to the victim’s shoulder had penetrated the victim’s lung and heart and would also have been fatal without immediate medical care.

In addition, Dr. Gretel Harlan Stevens, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, noticed multiple painful but non-life threatening stab wounds to the victim’s collarbone, chest, abdomen, back, and hands.

Dr. Stevens testified that the all of these wounds would have been painful, some more than others, but none of these wounds was itself life threatening. Dr. Stevens further explained that the presence of blood on the victim’s feet and clothing as well as defensive wounds to his hands indicated that he had been injured but had remained alive and had struggled with and fled from his attacker.

Dr. Stevens opined that the nature of the wounds suggested that the victim initially did a “fairly good job” fending off his attacker, considering his age and health.

Shortly after the victim’s murder, Richard Russell, chief investigative officer for the Scott County, Virginia Sheriff’s Department, reported to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department a conversation that he had with Rollins about one month before the murder. In particular, Rollins told Officer Russell that two of Rollins’s acquaintances had mentioned robbing “an old guy . . . that owned some kind of a bait shop . . . and taking his money.”

At that time, Officer Russell believed that Rollins was referring to a crime that had already been committed. After determining that no such crime had occurred, Officer Russell forgot about Rollins’s statement. After learning of the victim’s murder, Officer Russell relayed the information to the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department.

On August 25, 2001, Rollins and his girlfriend, Angela Salyers, were interviewed by Sullivan County officers. Rollins agreed to accompany the officers to the Sheriff’s Department for questioning.

Sullivan County Detective Bobby Russell interviewed Rollins, whom he described as cooperative and responsive. Rollins expounded upon the information he previously had given to the Virginia police, telling Detective Russell that about one month earlier Ricky Frasier, for whom Rollins worked as a roofer, and Larry Cowden, Rollins’s co- worker, mentioned going to the trailer of an old man who had a large sum of money and “knocking on the trailer and knocking him in the head. He said he had maybe $40,000.00 or something.”

Rollins further admitted that, about three weeks earlier, he had accompanied Frasier and Cowden to a drive-in restaurant across the road from the victim’s trailer while they watched the victim’s trailer, but Rollins denied ever meeting the victim or participating in or knowing anything about the victim’s murder.

The police continued to investigate the victim’s murder and received information which, on September 26, 2001, resulted in the underwater investigation team of the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department retrieving Bussell’s Derringer from the Holston River. In the meantime, Rollins and Angela Salyers left Tennessee and traveled to a rural area in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a two-day drive from Sullivan County.

On October 9, 2001, Sullivan County officers arrested Rollins and Salyers in Michigan. After receiving Miranda warnings and signing a waiver of those rights, Rollins gave a statement in Michigan admitting that he had killed Bussell. Rollins then waived extradition, and he and Saylers returned to Tennessee with the Sullivan County officers.

The group arrived late on October 11, and Rollins then asked to speak with officers “to clear up” some things. Due to the lateness of the hour, the officers delayed meeting with Rollins until October 12.

At that time, Rollins gave a second statement recounting his involvement in the robbery and murder of the victim. This second statement was consistent with the first, but provided additional detail. The substance of Rollins’s two statements was that he and Gregory “Kojack” Fleenor were discussing ways to get money to buy cocaine when Rollins suggested robbing the victim. Rollins purchased four pairs of gloves at a convenience store.

Rollins, Fleenor, Salyers, and Fleenor’s girlfriend, Ashley Cooper, then drove to the victim’s bait shop around midnight. Rollins rang the doorbell at the shop. When no one answered, Rollins knocked on the door of the camper. The victim answered, and Rollins told the victim that he needed to buy some bait.

Rollins followed the victim into the bait shop, and, while the victim was bent over dipping minnows from the tank, Rollins grabbed the victim’s shoulder. When the victim reached for his gun, Rollins pulled a lock-blade knife from his pocket and began stabbing the victim. Rollins could not remember how many times he had stabbed the victim.

After the stabbing, Rollins made sure the victim was dead by shaking him, and then Rollins washed his hands and his knife in the minnow tank before joining Fleenor in searching through the victim’s camper for money, drugs, and anything else of value. Fleenor found $1,000 to $1,200 in the victim’s wallet.

The group then drove to Knoxville, where Fleenor purchased cocaine, which the group consumed. Rollins threw away the victim’s wallet and the clothing that Rollins had been wearing when he killed the victim. Rollins also threw the victim’s gun into the Holston River.

According to Rollins, Fleenor suggested that he kill the victim and that they “leave no witnesses.” Rollins insisted that he never intended to kill the victim and that he had been “strung out” on cocaine the entire evening. He concluded his last statement with the admission: “I know I should be punished.”

Contradicting both of these statements, Rollins testified at trial that Fleenor had killed the victim. Rollins maintained that he had been afraid of Fleenor and was unaware that Fleenor had planned to rob or to kill the victim.

At Fleenor’s instruction, Rollins went into the bait shop to buy some bait while Fleenor “checked things out.” Rollins left the bait shop after telling Fleenor to pay the victim for the minnows.

Fleenor agreed but instructed Rollins to sneak into the camper and steal anything of value he could find. Rollins ransacked the camper for five or ten minutes until Fleenor joined him. When Rollins asked where the victim was, Fleenor responded, “I took care of it.”

Rollins testified that he thought this meant that Fleenor had hit the victim in the head. Fleenor, however, eventually told Rollins that he had killed the victim by “cutting” him, warned Rollins to keep his mouth shut, and threatened to kill Salyers, Cooper, and members of Rollins’s family if Rollins did not keep quiet.

Rollins testified that he only had “a little, bitty Old Timer” knife in his pocket while Fleenor had a lock-blade knife. Rollins said that he could not read or write, that he provided the October 9th statement because officers promised that he could ride from Michigan to Tennessee in the same car with his girlfriend, Salyers, and that he had accepted blame for the killing because he was afraid of Fleenor and of Fleenor’s father, both of whom were incarcerated with Rollins in the Kingsport jail.

Rollins admitted on direct examination that he had fifteen prior felony convictions but pointed out that he had pleaded guilty in each case because he had been guilty. On cross-examination, Rollins intimated that the Sullivan County investigators had supplied the details of the statements he had given.

Rollins explained that he had initialed the erroneous and false written statements because he could neither read nor write with any proficiency. For purposes of impeachment Rollins acknowledged that he had thirteen prior convictions for aggravated burglary from August 1995 to November 1996 and one conviction of felony theft.

Testifying in rebuttal for the State, Detective Bobby Russell, the officer who had taken Rollins’s statements, denied supplying Rollins with details concerning the victim’s murder. Another officer, Karen Watkins, testified to rebut Rollins’s testimony concerning events occurring during the ride from Michigan to Sullivan County. Rana Jandron of the Marquette County Sheriff’s Department in Michigan testified that Rollins told her that he could read and write a little bit, “enough to write a letter.”

A videotape of Rollins’s booking in Michigan showing Rollins making this statement was played for the jury. Finally, Angela Salyers, Rollins’s girlfriend, testified that Rollins could read and write, that Rollins had owned a lock-blade knife with a four-inch blade at the time of the victim’s murder, and that Rollins had attacked and killed the victim. Salyers admitted that she had been tried for first degree murder in connection with the victim’s murder and had been convicted of facilitation of robbery.

The jury found Rollins guilty of premeditated first degree murder, felony first degree murder, and especially aggravated robbery.

At the sentencing hearing, the State introduced certified copies of Rollins’s two 1996 aggravated assault convictions in Hawkins County, Tennessee. The State also presented photographs of some of the wounds inflicted on the victim. Dr. Gretel Stevens testified at the sentencing phase that none of these injuries had been fatal, that some of these injuries were inflicted while the victim was alive and standing or walking about, and that these injuries would have been painful.

The last witness for the State was Marie Carpenter, the victim’s niece, through whom the State presented victim impact testimony. Carpenter testified that the eighty-one-year-old victim had no children and had been a father-figure to her. Carpenter explained that she talked with the victim by telephone every night, saw him weekly, and sometimes drove him to the doctor. The victim had operated his bait shop and barbecue restaurant for thirty years. Although the victim was not in the best of health, he was still able to come and go as he wished.

In closing, the State specifically announced that it relied on the proof presented at the guilt phase. The only mitigation proof offered by the defense was a report by a school psychologist dating from 1978, when Rollins was in his early teens.

The report reflected that Rollins’s parents were divorced and that Rollins lived with his grandmother. His mother, who had a third-grade education, was not well physically or mentally. No information was available regarding Rollins’s father. Rollins’s older brother was in the Army.

According to the report, Rollins had received speech therapy, was enrolled in vocational training in auto body work, and was repeating the seventh grade. His school grades were mostly Ds and Fs. Teacher comments indicated that he was “basically a non-reader” and could not spell or write.

When tested in March 1978, Rollins’s I.Q. fell within the borderline defective range, slightly above mentally retarded. The report also noted that Rollins had the academic skills of a second grader. A re-evaluation, performed about six months later, confirmed that Rollins’s I.Q. was borderline defective.

Following deliberations, the jury found that the prosecution had proved the following five aggravating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt: (1) Rollins was previously convicted of one or more felonies, other than the present charge, whose statutory elements involve the use of violence to the person; (2) the murder was especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death; (3) the murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with, or preventing a lawful arrest or prosecution of Rollins or another; (4) the murder was knowingly committed, solicited, directed, or aided by Rollins, while Rollins had a substantial role in committing or attempting to commit, or was fleeing after having a substantial role in committing or attempting to commit, any robbery and (5) the victim of the murder was seventy (70) years of age or older.

Upon finding that these aggravating circumstances outweighed mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt, the jury imposed a sentence of death.


Supreme Court Upholds Death Sentence for Murder of 81-Year-Old Bait Shop Owner

Feb. 28, 2006

The Tennessee Supreme Court has affirmed the death sentence jurors imposed on a murderer who stabbed his frail 81-year-old victim 27 times and then shook the body to make sure he was dead before fleeing with stolen cash and other items.

Steven James Rollins was convicted of killing bait shop owner John Bussell during a 2001 late-night robbery in the Colonial Heights area of Sullivan County.  During questioning by police, Rollins said he and three others had driven to Bussell’s camper-home, located next to his bait shop, with the intent of robbing him.

“The defendant lured the victim from his camper under the pretense of purchasing bait and then attacked the victim while the victim was in a vulnerable position,” Chief Justice William M. Barker wrote in the ruling upholding a Court of Criminal Appeals decision in the case.

Justices E. Riley Anderson, Janice M. Holder and Cornelia A. Clark concurred in the opinion affirming Rollins’ convictions and sentences for the murder and robbery.

In a separate concurring and dissenting opinion, Justice Adolpho A. Birch, Jr., agreed with the majority that Rollins’ convictions should stand, but “as to the sentence of death … I respectfully dissent.”

As in previous dissents, Birch wrote that the method used by the court to review and compare Tennessee capital cases is “flawed” in his view. State law requires the court to conduct comparative proportionality review in each death penalty case to determine whether the sentence is disproportionate to the penalties in similar cases.

Writing for the majority, Barker said the court compared a “pool of similar cases” and concluded that Rollins’ sentence of death was not disproportionate considering the nature of the crime and the defendant.

“The 37-year-old defendant needed money for drugs and decided to commit a robbery …,” Barker wrote. “The defendant planned the robbery and premeditated the murder to conceal the robbery. The defendant chose as his victim an elderly widower who lived alone and whose health was failing. He knew the victim had a reputation of carrying large sums of cash on his person.”

Bussell, who often returned to his bait shop at night to accommodate customers, was scooping out minnows for Rollins when he was stabbed 27 times. Some of the wounds were defensive, indicating Bussell tried to defend himself, experts testified at Rollins’ trial.

“Making absolutely certain that he had left no witnesses, the defendant shook the victim before leaving the bait shop and then washed his hands and knife in the minnow tank before joining his accomplices in searching for and stealing money and personal items from the victim’s bait shop and camper,” Barker wrote.

In his automatic direct appeal, issues raised by Rollins included the failure of authorities in Sullivan County to record his interrogations.

“The Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department has a policy against electronically recording interrogations,” Barker wrote. “The defendant maintains that such a policy contravenes the heightened due process concerns that apply in capital cases. We disagree.”

Barker said the court rejected a similar claim in another death penalty case, State v. Godsey, saying “the issue of electronically recording custodial interrogations is ‘one more properly directed to the General Assembly.’” Following the Godsey decision, the legislature passed a joint resolution calling for a study of issues relating to electronic recording of custodial interrogations.

“The defendant has failed to present any argument that casts doubt upon the soundness of our holding in Godsey,” Barker wrote.

In the appeal, Rollins also contended that his constitutionally-guaranteed right to an attorney was violated, in part because he was questioned without his lawyer being present.

The court rejected the claim saying authorities repeatedly advised him of his Miranda rights and he had signed a waiver of rights form.  His statement to police was read to Rollins, who initialed each page and signed the beginning and end, Barker wrote.

“… The defendant was meticulously informed by the authorities of his right to counsel and of the consequences of failing to exercise that right before he confessed to the murder of John Bussell,” Barker wrote. “On two separate occasions the defendant elected to forgo the assistance of counsel and instead chose to speak directly to law enforcement officials concerning his role in the murder.”

Besides finding issues raised in Rollins’ appeal to be without merit, the court also said the legally-defined aggravating circumstances found by jurors outweighed “relatively weak” mitigating evidence presented by the defense.

“We have considered the entire record in this case and conclude that the sentence of death was not imposed in an arbitrary fashion, that the sentence of death is not excessive or disproportionate, that the evidence supports the jury’s finding of the aggravating circumstances and the jury’s finding that these aggravating circumstances outweigh mitigating circumstances beyond a reasonable doubt,” Barker wrote.

The court set a July 26, 2006, execution date for Rollins, who has state and federal appeals remaining.


Steven James Rollins



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