A 42-year-old North Carolina man will spend his life in prison after being sentenced for robbing a local restaurant manager at gunpoint outside his home in 2002, according to Douglas County District Attorney David McDade.
Christopher Britt Heirling was sentenced to life in prison, plus five consecutive years, after Chief Superior Court Judge Robert J. James agreed with the State’s sentencing recommendation for the defendant’s armed robbery of Scott Hudson, who runs local BBQ landmark Hudson’s Hickory House with his father, Buford. Heirling received the punishment after entering a guilty plea to charges of armed robbery and possession of a firearm during a commission of a felony.
Before relaying his recommendation to the court, Assistant District Attorney Ryan Leonard laid out the facts surrounding the armed robbery case, which occurred on April 16, 2002. The robbery, Leonard said, occurred immediately after Hudson arrived home from closing up Hudson’s BBQ for the night.
“As he got out of his vehicle in the driveway at his residence, a white male came up behind him and hit him on the back of the head,” said Leonard. “[Scott] then turned around and was confronted with a silver semi-automatic handgun, which was pointed at his face.”
Heirling continued to focus the barrel of the gun on Scott Hudson’s face, demanding to know the location of a red toolbox the Hudson’s had regularly used to carry money back-and-forth from their restaurant overnight. Once Hudson’s answers led Heirling to the location of the toolbox inside his truck, the defendant ordered Hudson to the ground until he escaped into the night with over $1800 in hand.
Hudson immediately got up and went inside his house to call 911. While combing through the crime scene, authorities found saliva and a used cigar and cigarette. The three pieces of evidence were sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) Crime Lab for DNA testing, but the DNA did not match anyone in the criminal system database at the time.
The journey for justice continued eight years without a suspect. All of that changed in December 2010, when the DNA evidence from the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) matched Heirling, a federal prisoner who was serving 12 ½ years in custody for bank robberies in Arizona and Alabama.
Heirling reiterated his family member’s pleas for leniency and forgiveness when it was his turn to address the court.
Scott Hudson, standing beside his father and District Attorney McDade in court, spoke on how the armed robbery still affects his daily life.
“I’m glad he got caught and I’m glad he’s doing better,” said Hudson, who picked the defendant out of a photo lineup that authorities generated after the December 2010 DNA match. “At that particular time, he wasn’t near as scared as I was. My wife and my daughter were in the house. I didn’t know what was going on. Before I know it, I had a gun to my head. Again, he wasn’t as scared as I was. When I come home at night, my daughter still waits up for me, she remembers…she knows what happened. It’s not just a statement, I do think about it and so does my daughter. I’m glad he is doing better, but I’m also glad he did not kill anybody.”
District Attorney McDade also addressed the court, saying the defendant’s actions have caused Hudson to continually look over his shoulder and worry about his family.
“Scott can never pull up into a driveway for as long as he lives without worrying not about Scott, but worry about his daughter, worrying about his family that was at the house,” said McDade. “Scott cannot pull in a driveway without waiting to see if someone else is going to be waiting on him in the dark and put a gun to the back of his head. Scott’s life changed because of what this man did…I hope Mr. Heirling has learned from his stay in prison. I believe he is sincere in what he reports to this court. But I don’t buy his story that he doesn’t know how he got to Scott Hudson’s house that night. I don’t buy that he doesn’t know who gave him the inside information…It was an inside job. Somebody had to tell this man where Scott Hudson lived, the time he would be coming home and that he had a toolbox which had cash proceeds in it. So when you sentence [the defendant], you still don’t relieve Scott of the worry he has for his daughter and his family…Scott Hudson is before this court to get justice. That’s what we are asking for.”
After letting both sides speak, Judge James ended the 40-minute hearing with his final ruling.
“Taking into consideration the nature of the crime and the dangers of the crime– going to a man’s house, wait in the dark, hit him and put a gun to his head—I think that’s the reason the legislature made life the maximum punishment for armed robbery,” said James from the bench. “That’s what I impose, followed by five years.”
The bank robberies, according to Leonard, occurred before and after the Douglas County armed robbery transpired. The first robbery happened at an Alabama bank four days before the Hudson robbery, while the final three bank robberies occurred in Arizona on April 29, May 8 and May 20. Shortly after being apprehended in Arizona, the defendant cited the armed robberies as a way of supporting his drug problem.
Since the DNA match in December 2010, investigators learned Heirling lived in the Bremen area with his longtime girlfriend around the time he committed the armed robbery here. Documents show he was arrested in Bremen in August 2001, eight months before the armed robbery. In an interview, the defendant admitted to using the silver semi-automatic in every robbery.