Murder suspect Jose Huckleberry

Murder suspect Jose Huckleberry (February 5, 2013)

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- A man in a Missouri prison is charged with killing a couple from Greene County on April 25, 2011.  Jose Huckleberry is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of armed criminal action, and one count of burglary for the deaths of Helen and Don Willinghams in their home just west of Springfield.

Sheriff Jim Arnott says Huckleberry told investigators that he intended to burglarize the Willinghams' home but did not intend to kill them.  He made that statement to investigators during interviews last April 30 and May 1.  He wasn't charged until now, Arnott says, because investigators had to tie up other parts of the case, which he wouldn't specify.

Huckleberry, 25, is in prison after he violated his probation on a burglary conviction.

Arnott and Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson both said at a news conference on Tuesday afternoon that the investigation continues and it's possible others will be charged.

Family members of the Willinghams say they have been preparing and praying for this day.  Some of them were at the news conference on Tuesday afternoon.

The probable cause statement shows Huckleberry admitted to "participating" in the killings when he broke into the house to rob it.  He made that admission nearly a year ago when police interviewed him.  The sheriff didn’t give a lot of details but said there were "a lot of things they had to put together between that time and now."

The sheriff said the investigation is nowhere near closed.

“We are very proud that we were able to get to this place in the investigation but, as the prosecutor said, we are very early -- and this investigation is ongoing,” Arnott said.

“It has been bittersweet, and probably would be for them -- I know it is for us, it is for me.  It is great. I know it doesn't bring them back.  But, it's great to be able to take this step,” said David Willingham, a son of the victims.

A possible key word in the probable cause statement may be Huckleberry admitted to "participating" in the murders.  The sheriff would not confirm what that meant, such as whether someone else took part in the murders.

He wouldn't say when or if more charges could be filed against other people.  But he was careful to point out this case is still open.

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The following is a synopsis of the criminal history of Huckleberry in the months leading up to the Willingham murders and the months following the crime: 

According to online Casenet documents, Huckleberry was charged with a burglary that happened on 2/26/11.  A warrant for his arrest was issued 2/27/11 and he was arrested 2/28/11.

On 3/1/11 he appeared in court.  In language from a Casenet document, Huckleberry was "committed in lieu of bond in the amount of $5,000."

On 3/31/11, he appeared and waived a preliminary hearing.  His case was bound over to circuit court and, in language from a Casenet document, "deft. advised as to legal consequences of failure to appear."  

Huckleberry was scheduled for an appearance on 4/8/11.  He failed to appear that day.  A warrant was issued and he was re-arrested 5/18/2011, 23 days after the Willinghams were killed on 4/25/11.

Huckleberry pleaded guilty to a class C felony of second-degree burglary on 9/20/2011.  Huckleberry failed to appear at his sentencing hearing on 11/29/11 and was re-arrested on 12/27/11.  On 12/30/11, he was sentenced to five years in prison but the execution of the sentence was suspended and the judge put him on five years supervised probation. 

Huckleberry violated his probation twice in February 2012, according to reports from his probation officer.  He was arrested again after failing to appear for a hearing on 4/3/12. 

On 4/30/12 and 5/1/12, investigators interviewed Huckleberry about the murders of the Willinghams and say he admitted to "participating" in the murders.

A judge officially revoked Huckleberry's probation on 6/28/12 and he was on his way from the Greene County jail to the Missouri Department of Corrections prison system.