Death sentence given to killer who terrorized sex workers

A Wake County jury sentenced Seaga Gillard to death Monday, handing down the toughest but increasingly rare punishment for the hotel-room fatal shootings of a pregnant woman and her boyfriend.

The Caribbean-born Gillard, 30, now faces execution by lethal injection after his three-week trial showed he and co-defendant Brandon Hill targeted women working in prostitution, robbing and sexually assaulting them in low-budget hotel rooms across the Triangle.

The case drew attention partly because District Attorney Lorrin Freeman’s office sought the death penalty, which juries have consistently rejected in recent years. North Carolina has not executed a prisoner since 2006, and Wake County juries had opted against capital punishment in nine straight eligible murder trials prior to Gillard’s.

The last death sentence statewide came in 2016 in Pitt County.

The nonprofit Center for Death Penalty Litigation called Freeman “an outlier” for pursuing punishment the state increasingly rejects. In a statement Monday, the center said punishment given to Gillard does not reflect the views of the majority of North Carolina citizens, being costly and unevenly applied.

“Most death row prisoners in North Carolina have been awaiting execution for more than 20 years,” said Gretchen Engel, executive director for the center. “Gillard will now join them, awaiting an execution that is unlikely to ever be carried out.”

But Freeman also drew favorable attention in legal circles for seeking justice for victims many jurors might consider marginal. On the night she was shot, 22-year-old April Holland was advertising her services as a prostitute in the former America’s Best Value Inn near Raleigh’s Crabtree Valley Mall, and her boyfriend, Dwayne Garvey, was aiding the business.

Holland and Garvey had three children together, none of whom were living with them at the time of their death, and Holland was 12 weeks pregnant with a fourth child.

On Monday, Freeman noted the 13-year moratorium on the death penalty in the state. Still, she said, Gillard’s “path of destruction” merited seeking the toughest penalty after two murder victims, the death of an unborn child and seven sexual assaults.

“These people mattered,” Freeman said, “and our community felt that they did not deserve to die.”

The jurors’ unanimous decision came after prosecutors placed a long string of victims on the stand, nearly all of whom described the same scenario: advertising themselves on Backpage or PlentyOfFish, expecting a single customer but finding two at the door, being tied up with phone cords, robbed and sexually assaulted.

April Lynn Holland and Dwayne Garvey, who were shot to death on the second floor of the former America’s Best Value Inn in Raleigh in December 2016. Courtesy of the Garvey family

Details that spun out of that testimony painted a cruel picture of Gillard: ordering a woman to remove her clothes and then twirling a gun inside of her, instructing another women to show her teeth and then putting his gun to her mouth, naming his pistol “Lemon Squeeze.”

From the witness stand Monday, Garvey’s mother Jacqueline held up 8-by-10 photographs of her son Dwayne, describing him as loyal to Holland even as he tried to guide her out of prostitution, wanting to protect her above all else.

“I’m letting you know that Dwayne was a son, a brother, a father, an uncle, a cousin, a friend, a lover and a protector,” she said. “I hate with all my heart that they died that way. But not in vain. Because your raping and robbing was revealed through their deaths.”

Gillard showed no outward emotion and made no statement.

Before sheriff’s deputies led him away, he heard from Angel Holland, April’s younger sister. She tearfully described seeing her sister in a casket and wanting only to hold her hand. She said April wanted to abandon her lifestyle but couldn’t because “that’s all my sister knew.”

“You have no remorse and I know you don’t care what you did,” Holland said. “I hate you for that. ... I’m just happy no one else has to suffer.”

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Josh Shaffer covers Wake County and federal courts. He has been a reporter for The News & Observer since 2004 and previously wrote a column about unusual people and places.