ROCKY MOUNT — Although he dodged the possibility of the death penalty last summer by striking a plea agreement, this week a young Callaway man saw the broad outline of his fate largely set in stone.
Aaron Seth Dean, 21, received three terms of life in prison, plus an additional 48 years behind bars.
That sentence was delivered Tuesday in Franklin County Circuit Court, 16 months to the day after Dean shot and killed 18-year-old Allyn Gray Riddle.
Riddle and Dean were friends, and Dean was visiting Riddle at the home the teen shared with his father. Dean ambushed the younger man with a sawed-off shotgun, then stole guns that belonged to Riddle and his family. Riddle’s body was later discovered by his father.
Prosecutors have said Dean confessed to the shooting and revealed that the theft had been a scheme hatched with a friend, John Isaiah Hodges, to become vigilantes who would go after drug smugglers.
In July, Dean entered eight guilty pleas, to murder, robbery, armed burglary and five other felonies. A capital murder charge was reduced to first-degree murder through his agreement.
Tuesday’s sentence arrived at the end of a grueling, daylong hearing at which friends and family of both the victim and the defendant still struggled to come to terms with the incident.
Riddle’s mother, Allyson Owens, testified for nearly an hour and described her late son as a devout Christian, good-natured, with a dry sense of humor.
“He was just so happy and had such dreams,” Owens recalled. “He wanted to go to college. He wanted to have a big family.”
“I will never be the same,” she said of his passing. “I have not turned his phone off yet. I still send him text messages pretty frequently. He doesn’t answer.”
In her request for a life sentence, she said of Dean: “He liked Allyn. Considered Allyn a friend. Admits that Allyn never did anything to him. And he murdered him in cold blood.
“If he could do that to someone that he says he liked, what can he do to someone he doesn’t like?” Owens asked.
Riddle’s father, Tom Riddle, described finding his son slain in a bathroom of the house they shared, and then later learning about the stolen guns, actions he said he could not comprehend.
“Who could do something that brutal and still function?” he asked. “He had the choice to come there when somebody was there or not. And he chose to come when Allyn was there.
“He didn’t come there to rob the place. He came there to kill.”
Witnesses for the defense, friends and relatives of Dean’s, were equally at a loss. Their testimony sketched Dean as a former church camp counselor, a curious and engaged student at Virginia Western Community College who had no criminal record, who reportedly did not drink or use drugs.
“He truly was a thoughtful and faithful person,” Dean’s uncle, Mark Wilson, said as he recalled that his nephew for years had helped out with Project Warm, an initiative that provides firewood to needy families in Franklin County.
“This whole act is out of character,” Wilson said of the shooting. “That is not who he is. That’s not who he was.”
Dean’s mother, Martha Dean, testified of the shock she felt when she learned her son was charged with murder. Her confusion was compounded when she discovered the name of the victim.
“Allyn had been in our home. He was a wonderful guy,” she said. “He was the only friend of Aaron’s who actually wrote down his phone number and gave it to me.”
In his sentencing arguments, Commonwealth’s Attorney A.J. Dudley described how Dean disassembled the murder weapon, later boasting to police that the clothing and gloves he used would never be found.
“You bet your life this is worth life in prison,” Dudley said. “Why should the defendant get a chance to be free among us when Allyn Riddle will not?”
Judge Clyde Perdue concurred without comment, simply pronouncing the sentence: life terms for murder, statutory burglary and robbery; 20 years for entering a home to commit murder; 10 years each for grand larceny and possessing a sawed-off shotgun; five years for breaking and entering; and a mandatory three-year term for using a firearm to commit a felony.
Sentencing guidelines in the case called for punishments of between 33 and 56 years.
Although Dean was largely silent at hearings in the case, and did not testify in his own defense Tuesday, he read a statement before his sentencing, noting in a soft, measured voice that “what I did was unjustified,” and asking for mercy.
“I feel terrible about the pain I have caused the Riddle family. Except for one day in August 2017, I have lived a productive life. Worked. Attended church. Lived with my parents and went to college. I never hurt anyone until Aug. 18, 2017. I feel I am unable to express in words how I feel,” Dean said.
Hodges, Dean’s co-defendant, initially was charged with murder alongside Dean, but in May he was directly indicted instead as an accomplice. Hodge’s two-day trial is scheduled to start April 16.