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Hayden Berkebile found guilty of encouraging 19-year-old to kill herself while he watched in first-of-its-kind case

The jury of nine women and five men found Hayden Berkebile guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the 2019 death of Grace Anne Sparks.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Note: This report contains graphic details of the events covered in the trial. 

Here are the contacts for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 and the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233.

The homicide trial of an Indiana man who was accused of encouraging a Knoxville 19-year-old to shoot herself in the head for his "viewing pleasure" came to an end Thursday: The jury announced Hayden Berkebile has been found guilty of criminally negligent homicide in the death of Grace Anne Sparks in September 2019. 

Berkebile was also originally charged with filing a false report, which was the more serious of the two felony charges, but in a rare move Wednesday Judge Steven Sword dismissed the charge after the state rested its case.

The jury heard closing arguments from the prosecution and defense before entering deliberations Thursday morning.

In his final argument, prosecutor Hector Sanchez said Berkebile's intentions were "very clear," playing segments of his interview with Knoxville Police investigator Chas Terry. Berkebile wasn't saying anything in the clips the state picked to show, and instead showed Terry talking to him.

"She feared no one cared [about her], we ask you to care," prosecutor Sanchez said.  

Defense Attorney Keith Lowe argued the facts in the case are not in dispute, but the interpretation of those facts are -- saying the relationship between Berkebile and Sparks wasn't "one-sided" and that the state's evidence was too narrow to hold Berkebile responsible in Sparks' death.

"Put aside your disgust for the situation ... this isn't actually about that. The question is if you are going to allow the state to criminalize his conduct," he said. "Is Ms. Sparks really just a puppet or is she a human who is making her own decisions?" 

Berkebile's conviction is a Class E felony, which would carry a possible prison sentence between one to six years. His sentencing has been set for June 30, and Judge Sword revoked his bond and will keep him in custody until then.

Jurors were instructed after the judge's decision Wednesday to drop the false reporting charge not to speculate why the charge was removed from consideration.

Wednesday, May 18 

"Do you want me to make you do it?"

Day two of testimony began in the Hayden Berkebile trial with prosecutors picking up where they left off Tuesday afternoon, reading aloud hundreds of increasingly graphic messages between Sparks and Berkebile leading up to her death on Sept. 29, 2019.

In the messages read Wednesday, the depictions of violent sex continued between the pair.

"Do you want me to make you do it? Yes or no?" Berkebile said. 

"Yes," Sparks replied. "How bad?" "I don't know."

In this text exchange, Sparks apologized profusely for not taking her own life. As the messages were read aloud, Sparks' mother Candis left the courtroom in tears. Several members of the jury looked over at her as she left.

On Sept. 21, Sparks asked they not engage in the same violent sex "for a very long time." "I love you, but I feel so bad after the other day. I haven't been right since, I'm sorry." 

"I used you harder than I have in years," he replied. 

In other messages, Sparks encouraged the violent sexual behavior.

"I wrote suicide notes last night," Sparks wrote on Sept. 25.

"Do you want me to push again?" Berkebile asked. 

"No. I do not." "Do you want me to end you?" "No, not really willing to go that route either."

The messages continued with hundreds more still left to be read aloud as the trial pushed on into the afternoon. The jury started to appear tired after reviewing several hours worth of messages between Tuesday and Wednesday.

In one exchange in the early morning of Sept. 29 -- the day Sparks died -- Sparks said "I give you permission" in reference to their violent sex plans.  

Several jurors wrote that down.

The texts continued: "Will you end for me when you get home?" "Real end?" "If that's what you want."   

"I want to kill you," Berkebile says.

The pair are planning a visit to see each other in less than two weeks.

Sparks said she reached back out to Berkebile to initiate their conversation and apologized for it.  

"Are you sorry enough to pull the trigger?" he asked. He said he hopes she isn't so they can have future violent sex.

"I want to watch you pull the f***ing trigger," Berkebile said. 

Sparks' mother put her head down on the bench in front of her as the texts were read.

In the texts, Berkebile said the conversation about Sparks taking her life had aroused him. 

"I'm afraid, but I still trust you," Sparks says.  

Sparks' parents then left the courtroom at this point. Her father could be seen mouthing "We can't do it" to a friend.

The texts continued. "If I push now, I have to kill you," Berkebile said. He said in the texts he has to kill her because if he doesn't, he said her anxiety would be so bad that she would be miserable.  

"Grace Anne, can you do it? Yes or no?" he asked. "I don't know," she replied. "Then I'm not going to push you there," he responded.

"If you could follow orders and pull the trigger quickly, then I could do it," Berkebile said in the texts.

"No, I want to f***ing kill you. That's all I want," he said. 

"We can do the roulette," she said. 

It was at this point they began the video chat where Sparks shot herself.

Berkebile replied to the text thread later that night after her death: "I can't believe you are gone. I told you no. I told you no. I can't believe you are gone."

After several hours of reviewing messages, the state then called up its next witness: the medical examiner.

The Autopsy and the Crime Scene 

Dr. Amy Hawes, the medical examiner who conducted Sparks' autopsy, took the stand to testify.

She said the autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a gunshot wound to the head. The manner of death: suicide. 

The prosecution then displayed images of Sparks' body for the court. One older member of the jury looked away, while another looked at their notepad before looking back up at the screen.

Defense attorney Keith Lowe then began his cross-examination. He asked Hawes to give the definition of suicide to the court: which she said is the death at one's own hands. He then asked her to testify that there were no signs of anti-depressants in Sparks' blood.

Hawes stepped down from the witness stand after the brief testimony before Knoxville Police Department investigator Chas Terry was called on. Terry was awarded "Officer of the Year" for his work investigating the case.

Terry described processing the scene in West Knoxville, saying he found Sparks' body with her phone propped up on the bed in front of her. 

When asked who called 911 to report her death, he pointed out Berkebile in the courtroom.

The guns found at the scene belonged to Sparks' boyfriend, who was abroad in Poland with the Tennessee Army National Guard, Terry testified.

After going through a series of photographs from the scene -- depicting multiple guns in the apartment -- prosecutor Hector Sanchez brought an evidence box to the witness stand.  He broke the seal to pull out the gun Sparks shot herself with.

Berkebile's Arrest and Interview

Terry said there was a 15-minute lapse between the last Facebook communication between the two (the end of the video call) and Berkebile's 911 call.

"While investigating this it was quite obvious he was instructing her to do it," Terry said. The defense immediately objected and the judge sustained the objection.

"The investigation led us to believe this was not an ordinary suicide," Terry said.

The courtroom was then shown body camera footage of Berkebile's arrest. Terry went to Bloomington, Indiana to arrest him at the strip club where he worked.

Berkebile gave a statement to Terry shortly after the arrest. Video of the interview was played, but parts of it were redacted by agreement of the judge, defense and prosecutors.

"You have one opportunity to convince me that you ain't a bad dude," Terry said on the video. He read Berkebile his rights, and Berkebile agrees to "give his version of events."

"We were both suicidal," he said. "We were both looking for people to talk to."  

Berkebile claimed Sparks reached out to him two years before her death, saying "things got sexual."

"A lot of the stuff we did would make her feel wanted if I made her stop," Berkebile said. 

"She liked to play Russian Roulette," he said, but said he "always made sure it was safe."

On the day of her death, he said, "She started getting extreme and saying she didn't want to do this anymore. I begged her not to," he said.  

"Basically I was trying to talk her down, she said it didn't matter anymore," he said. "Nobody was ever going to love her."  

Berkebile claimed Sparks moved the camera and he heard a gunshot. 

"Those are not the events as they occurred," Terry said back to him on the recording.

Terry began berating Berkebile in the video, and he broke down crying. Berkebile continued to sob under his breath and say "I didn't want her dead" repeatedly.

"I didn't want to," he said. "I thought she wanted it." 

"No, you wanted it," Terry replied.

"She told me she wanted it," Berkebile said.

The state rested its case after Terry's testimony.

Sparks' Boyfriend Testifies

Testimony in the trial concluded with the defense calling Jim Landreth, Sparks' boyfriend at the time of her death, to the stand.

Landreth shrugged after the judge warned him some of the questions might cause him to incriminate himself, telling him he could plead the Fifth.

In his testimony, Landreth said Sparks had misrepresented her age to him when they first met, saying she told him she was over 18 years old when she actually wasn't. The pair had moved in together shortly after her 18th birthday.

He said they met on a "seeking arrangements" website.

When questioned by the state, Landreth said Sparks never asked him to hurt her. The defense rested its case -- bringing a close to testimony in the trial. The court entered recess for the day, and the trial will resume Thursday with closing arguments.

Tuesday, May 17

Opening Statements: "She did not want to die." 

Opening statements began Tuesday morning in the trial of Hayden Berkebile.

Prosecutor Hector Sanchez began by playing the 911 call Berkebile made after the shooting. "I think there was a suicide," Berkebile can be heard saying. He sounded emotional on the call.

Sanchez said there were 1,300 pages of messages between Sparks and Berkebile. He then showed a photo of Sparks putting her gun in her mouth and read explicit and graphic texts between Berkebile and Sparks. 

Sanchez said officers responding to the 911 call knocked on the door of Sparks' apartment. Her father was inside -- and he didn't know his daughter had shot herself in the head in the bedroom next door. They found her collapsed on her bed with a cellphone pointed at herself, he said.

The case is the first of its kind in Tennessee — someone has not before been charged in the homicide of a person who shot themselves, attorneys said.

Sanchez said the state's case is hinged on control and coercion of the victim. He said conversations between the two lasted nearly three months, including multiple texts from Berkebile to Sparks where he said he wanted to watch her die.

Berkebile is described as a "BDSM sexual master" who "exerted sexual control over the victim causing her to engage in dangerous and demeaning acts," a sworn search warrant affidavit alleged.  

In court, both the prosecutor and the defense attorney warned prospective jurors on Monday of the graphic nature of the case. They asked questions about the jurors' views of law enforcement, suicide and unusual sexual practices. 

In multiple texts presented to the jury Tuesday, Berkebile said he wanted Sparks to shoot herself with a revolver. She suggested other means of taking her own life. He insisted, according to the texts, on wanting to watch her die.

"Grace Anne Sparks was looking for love, the suspect was looking to destroy a life," Sanchez said.

The state said Berkebile and Sparks had a relationship that began before she turned 18 years old. Sanchez said Berkebile told investigators he met Sparks in 2013 on an online video chat site when she was 13 and he was 21.

"Grace Anne Sparks didn't want to die" is displayed on a screen to the jury. Sanchez said "by all indications, Sparks was having a good day" on the day she died.  She went to dance class, she had lunch with a friend and filled out a job application. 

"She did not want to die," he said.

Roughly 45 minutes before she died, the texts showed Sparks said, "I trust you not to actually kill me." 38 minutes before she died, Sparks said, "I'm afraid, but I still trust you." 11 minutes before she died, Berkebile asked, "Can you do it, yes or no?" Sparks said no. Minutes later, their video chat ended and Sparks died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Sanchez concluded his opening statement by asking the jury to find Berkebile guilty of criminally negligent homicide and filing a false report by continually lying on a 911 call. 

Keith Lowe with Berkebile's defense team then stepped up to provide an opening statement, saying, "In many cases, those messages are taken completely out of context."

"They had both suffered lives of abuse and trauma," he said.  "I don't know that they're not going to be any proof of when they met. Proof is going to show they wanted to talk to strangers about suicidal ideation."

Lowe said the two spoke off and on for years, but not consistently. He said Sparks was helping everybody else but claimed she was struggling herself.

"She was struggling. She was still suffering from and dealing with depression and anxiety," he said.

Lowe said Sparks later developed a relationship on a different romantic website with a different man and began to live with him as soon as she turned 18. He said the man was in his 40s.  During that time, Lowe said, she didn't talk to Berkebile.

The defense said she encouraged her new boyfriend to engage in a BDSM lifestyle. "She encouraged him," he repeats.  Later, while the new boyfriend was on deployment, Lowe said Sparks visited Berkebile.  

"They engaged in sex that we might view as immoral, but she came back safe and sound," he said. "They engaged in a lot of really weird sex. It is control and submission role play, it is suicide role play, it is gun play." 

Lowe said neither Sparks nor Berkebile could be considered "bad people."

"They're not bad people, they're damaged," he said. "You're going to see time and time again that they engaged in suicide role play and she didn't die."

Lowe then described virtual exchanges that discussed mundane subjects, such as dogs, vet bills, laundry, and also sometimes sex play.  

"He encouraged her to get better," Lowe said. "The proof is going to show the reason he is demanding that it be done on video is because that's how they can verify its safety. They're trying to portray this that he wants to destroy her life. He wants her to die for his viewing pleasure... the proof doesn't show that."

For calling in a suicide, Lowe said, the state is prosecuting Berkebile for false reporting. Lowe said he was "honestly befuddled" by how the state would prove that claim.

Lowe then described Berkebile as someone who cared about Sparks.

"You're not going to see any proof that --outside of roleplay -- he tried to control her behavior," he said. "If his goal was to see her die, it seems more impactful in person to do that."  

Lowe then wrapped up his opening statements, and the court went into a short recess to prepare for the first witnesses' testimony.

The 911 Call: "I didn't want her to die."

State prosecutors called on Stephanie Pinkston, a Knox County 911 records specialist, once the trial resumed.

The state entered the 911 report Berkebile made after the shooting as an exhibit. The call was critical for the state to prove the "false reporting" charge, which carries a greater prison time than the negligent homicide, lawyers said.

Berkebile said in the call he "thinks there's been a suicide" and that he "heard the gunshot." 

"I don't know man, we were talking to her on the phone. We were Facetiming," he said. "I didn't want her to die." 

"I told her not to ****ing do it," he repeated several times on the call. The state had no more questions, and Lowe began his cross-examination by introducing himself. He then had a couple of brief questions  Pinkston steps down. 

Knoxville Police Officer Christopher Medina, who was first to respond to the scene, was called next to the stand.

Medina described what he saw when arriving at Sparks' West Knoxville apartment, saying he found her on her bed with the phone propped up facing toward her.

Sparks' Mother Testifies

Candis Sparks, the victim's mother, was the next to take the stand Tuesday afternoon. 

The mother was dressed in black and occasionally dabbed her eyes with a tissue. as she spoke. She said her daughter was "bright and cheerful" in the weeks before her death.

She spoke about her daughter last year after learning about the circumstances surrounding her death. 

"Grace Anne had a heart of gold," Candis Sparks said in August 2021. "As soon as I started hearing a couple of months later about the details surrounding her death, I was angry. I was furious. I was devastated... Why did this person decide my kid needed to not be here anymore? What made him so special that he gets to decide that?"

The defense began its cross-examination with Lowe asking about Grace Anne Sparks' boyfriend, Jim, the man Lowe mentioned in his opening statement who moved in with the victim shortly after her 18th birthday -- and whether Candis Sparks knew about him.

She briefly testified she knew him but was surprised when her daughter moved in with him after her 18th birthday. She stepped down and the state moved to introduce Facebook Messenger communications between Grace Anne Sparks and Hayden Berkebile.

Thousands of Messages

The prosecution asked two people from the Knox County District Attorney General's office to read aloud the thousands of pages of Facebook messages the two sent each other. The hundreds of messages contained a mix of mostly mundane conversations (What's for dinner? How's your day been?) along with messages that were more sexual in nature. In multiple messages, Sparks talked about hurting herself or taking her own life.

When Berkebile bought her flowers one day, she said she couldn't take her own life because she'd feel too guilty. In the messages, he hasn't said anything that appears controlling to her, but there are allusions that they're talking on video chat separately.

At one point, Sparks referenced a pole dancing class she was taking and said she wouldn't send Berkebile any videos "because [she] sucks." Berkebile indicated he doesn't mind and replied, "I love you."

In one exchange, Berkebile said "Careful or I'll make you play Russian roulette again." Sparks said she knows "where the bullet is," and he wrote, "I know you do haha." She replied, "I love you."

In another message, he describes himself as "bloodthirsty." She replies, "I don't know if I can deal with bloodthirsty right now." After spending hours reading thousands of messages, the jury was finished for Tuesday.

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