A U.S. military veteran orchestrated a plan that ended with two men murdered and their car burned, state prosecutors said.
But, his lawyer said the veteran was the victim—a man who was targeted by one of his co-defendants looking to deflect police attention.
That is how attorneys described the case against Zachary Stell to a jury during opening statements. Tuesday marked the start of Stell’s trial in Horry County on two counts of murder. He faces life in prison. The state also called its first witnesses during the afternoon.
Assistant Solicitor Car Walker said Zachary Stell created a plan to get revenge on Matthew Autry and Shawn Anderson in July 2018. Stell was friends with the two victims, but believed the victims stole from another friend, Michael Faile.
Stell messaged the two men to meet up and hoped to get drugs back the victims stole from Faile. Stell and David Cook armed themselves and met with Autry and Anderson in a car, Walker said.
“He coordinated this meet up he then armed himself with a loaded gun.” Walker said of Stell, a U.S. Marine. “Very shortly after the victims got into this vehicle Mr. Stell took that loaded gun and shot both of the individuals.”
The defendants tried to cover-up their crime by lighting the car on fire in the Socastee area, Walker said. Horry County police found the car the next morning. Stell, Cook, Faile, and William Tatum were all charged in connection to the double murder. Faile previously pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The case against Cook remains active and he is not a defendant in Stell’s trial.
“They will answer for those charges at a future date,” Walker
Defense attorney Brad Richardson described the police investigation as hurried and it’s possible that mistakes were made. He said the first person officers spoke to was Cook, who tried to deflect attention away from himself.
“They were eager to listen and they did,” Richardson said of the police. “They were eager to listen they wanted to solve this crime but they let David Cook shape this investigation.”
Every piece of evidence police collected, and every witness they heard from was shaped by the Cook’s statements early in the investigation, Richardson said.
One day, Cook will face justice for what happened in July 2018, Richardson said, and what “he forced others to do.”
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