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Crimes of the Cape Fear: Woman murdered inside her Landfall home by estranged husband

Published: Sep. 20, 2021 at 10:37 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - It was a story that shocked the whole community. A prominent real estate agent and philanthropist murdered inside her own home in Wilmington’s exclusive Landfall community.

It happened the morning of September 29, 2004. 67-year-old Gail Tice was shot three times by her estranged husband, Robert Hewson. He had scaled the fence of her gated community, and was lying in wait when she came downstairs that morning. Just days earlier, Tice had informed Hewson she wanted to end their marriage, and had a restraining order in place against him.

“I received a call from the [Wilmington Police Department] that a murder just happened in Landfall. I thought someone was joking with me,” District Attorney Ben David recalled of his surprise hearing that someone had been killed in what is arguably the safest neighborhood in town. Landfall, just over the bridge from Wrightsville Beach, sees very little crime and has 24-hour security.

Nearly 20 years later, WECT has uncovered new details about the circumstances that led to Tice’s murder, and the laws that have changed at least in part because of this unusual case.

A second chance at love

Hewson was Tice’s second husband. Her first husband, Wilbur, died of cancer in 1999. Friends recalled him being the love of her life, and when Wilbur passed away, she missed having a companion. Tice met Hewson at a restaurant near Wrightsville Beach about a year after becoming a widow, and quickly fell in love. Within six months, the new couple was engaged, and Tice hosted a dinner to introduce him to her closest friends. None of them were impressed.

“I don’t think any of us thought it was a wonderful thing. Gail liked having a man in her life, and we loved Gail,” friend Melisa Gallison recalled of her underwhelmed experience after meeting Hewson for the first time.

“She was incredibly compassionate and always thought the best of people. Even though she was very sharp and very shrewd, [she was] maybe a little bit too forgiving of his faults and overlooked too much in his background,” Cynthia Klontz said of what she perceived as an odd pair.

Tice, a Stanford graduate, had spent time living in New York City before moving to Wilmington where she owned her own real estate business. By contrast, Hewson was a former greeter at Wal-Mart who had also worked as a Burger King manager. Their differences became even more apparent once Hewson moved into Tice’s Landfall home and started taking part in her country club lifestyle.

“We were all aware that he was at the Landfall club and actually they asked for him not to return due to his behavior,” friend Shannon Winslow remembered of Hewson being banned from the club after he threatened another member during a dispute on the tennis courts. It was the latest in a series of disturbing events that prompted club managers to kick him out. “This was just not Gail. In terms of well-liked, well-respected and this individual that was married to her was asked not to return.”

Friends also noticed other things that caused them concern. While Tice had always had refined taste in clothes, they said Hewson didn’t like her spending money, so she started buying clothes at Wal-Mart instead. Other activities that didn’t cost any money also began to be curtailed. Tice used to routinely walk the Wrightsville Beach Loop with her friends, who dubbed themselves “The Loop Troop,” but after Hewson came into the picture, friends said the walks happened less frequently because Hewson so carefully controlled her activities.

“I’m afraid for my life”

At some point, Hewson’s controlling behavior turned violent. She didn’t tell everyone, but about two years into her marriage, Tice confided in a few close friends how scary her home life had become.

“The phone rang. It was Gail. And I was headed to a rotary luncheon and she said, ‘Can you meet for me for lunch?...’ friend Tracy Pope said of a call she received from Tice about a week before she died. “So we went to Port City Chop House. She was waiting for me before I arrived... and I got into the booth and she said, ‘I’m afraid for my life.’”

By that point, Tice had already taken Hewson’s gun collection and turned it in to a sheriff’s office several counties away, afraid the weapons might be used against her. And she’d taken out a restraining order. Pope said before they left the restaurant that afternoon, they called an attorney, and started mapping out steps for Tice to safely end the relationship for good, starting with asking Hewson for a divorce in a public place. Following that uncomfortable discussion with him a few days later, Tice had arranged for a sheriff’s deputy to meet them at their home, and stand guard as Hewson gathered his belongings to move out. She also paid him money, hoping to ease the transition. He did not take it well.

“He lost his status. He couldn’t come in to Landfall. Her friends now knew which meant he lost his upper class lifestyle that he didn’t have without her,” Gallison said of the difficulty Hewson had coming to grips with his new reality. “The guards knew not to let him in no matter what he said, and so as we all know he went over the fence.”

The 911 call

Since Tice had turned all of his guns over to authorities, Hewson went in search of a new weapon. He tried to purchase a gun from Shooter’s Choice on Gordon Road, but was turned away when workers there saw he had a restraining order filed against him. So, Hewson purchased a gun at a yard sale instead. In the early morning hours of September 29, 2004, he parked his car near the gate in an area that wasn’t manned by guards around the clock, and he slipped inside.

When Gail came down the stairs of her home on Fontenay Place, he was watching from outside her front window, and fired the first of 12 shots he would unload that morning. After being shot the first time, Gail managed to get to the phone, and call for help.

“This was all captured on a 911 call. And so we don’t have to guess about the sequence of events. After she was initially shot is when she was able to call 911. So we can’t say for certain when it was the shooting began but she literally gets on the phone with a 911 operator, identifies herself, identifies the shooter, and says she’s bleeding to death,” David said of the horrifying phone call. “And as she is talking you are hearing him shoot her from outside through those windows in. And if you think about her house, because it overlooked this beautiful lake, there were many windows. And as she ran around the inside of the house, he ran around the outside of the house shooting through certain windows. She was like a bird caught in a cage.”

That morning, just over the bridge in Wrightsville Beach, Gail’s walking buddies were wondering why their ever-punctual friend was keeping them waiting.

“We never waited for her. Ever. She was the first one there. Prompt. 10 minutes early,” Pope recalled of that fateful morning. “And Bonnie said, ‘Something is wrong.’ And I said, ‘Well, let’s call her.’ So Bonnie started calling. No answer, no answer, no answer. And she said, ‘Something is wrong.’ And then a few minutes later we heard all the law-enforcement [sirens] from over the bridge, it was so much. And Bonnie turned to me and said, ‘He’s done it.’”

When police arrived at Tice’s home, Hewson was still there holding the gun.

A precedent-setting case

The case gained national attention, with Court TV reporters showing up for Hewson’s murder trial. Hewson’s attorney tried to keep the 911 call from being admitted as evidence, claiming it was hearsay since Tice was not available to be cross examined.

But prosecutors Ben and Jon David argued that the words on that 911 call amounted to a dying declaration, an exception to the hearsay rule since people are unlikely to lie when they are on the verge of death. The David brothers also argued that ruling the 911 tape inadmissible would be fundamentally unfair to the victim.

“The only reason that she wasn’t able to say first hand that he did it is because he killed her. But we had this recording. And so this precedent stands for the proposition that someone forfeits by wrongdoing that right to claim hearsay and so from a legal standpoint this was a precedent-setting case that many prosecutors to this day still rely on,” Ben David explained.

The judge allowed the jury to hear Tice’s last words, recorded on that haunting call.

“That 911 call was chilling. And why we really wanted it was not so much to identify the defendant because again he was caught at the scene, even though she says my husband keeps shooting at me, we wanted the jury to be taken to the horror of the moment and to hear all the gunshots and how long the gap was for him to reload because that to us with the essence of premeditation and deliberation,” David added.

Throughout the trial, Hewson could be seen smiling, and even throwing peace signs at the news cameras there to cover the trial. Gail’s walking friends from “The Loop Troop,” who sat on the front row at the trial, were disgusted by his behavior. They determined he had no conscience and no remorse about killing their friend. After a short deliberation, the jury convicted Hewson of first-degree murder. Hewson declined to apologize when addressing the court before the sentencing phase, simply saying he was prepared to accept whatever punishment the court gave him. The 72-year-old was sentenced to spend life in prison without parole, where he died ten years later.

A wake up call about domestic violence

“This case more than any others points out that there’s no such thing as a safe place when violence comes from the inside out. There is no lock you can put on your door, there’s no wall that you can build around your community that’s going to keep out violence when you’re married to it,” Ben David said of the lasting impact of Tice’s murder.

Tice was one of six women in the New Hanover-Pender County prosecutorial district to die in 2004 as a result of domestic violence. Her murder changed many people’s preconceived notions about what domestic violence looked like and who it impacted. It was a wake up call.

That year, the District Attorney’s office established a Family Violence Unit with a full-time prosecutor and two detectives assigned to help victims of domestic violence. Victims injuries are photographed and documented, they are counseled on how to obtain protective orders, and where they can go to seek shelter if their home is not safe. David said in recent years, there have been far fewer deaths as a result of domestic violence.

Tice’s friends got permission from her family to hold an estate sale at her home, using the proceeds to benefit the Domestic Violence Shelter and raise awareness about the terrible predicament some find themselves in at the hands of those who are supposed to love them the most.

“There is no shame in asking for help, or talking to a friend about a situation or reaching out for help. There’s no shame in it, no matter what your status is,” Tice’s friend, Michelle Carpenter said of one of her biggest takeaway points from the case.

“To be as sharp and professional... to be in control of her finances, her life, her friends, her career, but not to be able to get out of this relationship, I think it was a big wake up call,” Clontz added. “It can happen to the smartest, the brightest, the kindest.”

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