Ex-American Airlines pilot convicted in gruesome 2015 triple murder in Kentucky

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Two years after commercial airline pilot Christian “Kit” Martin was pulled off a jet at the Louisville airport and charged with a gruesome triple murder in western Kentucky, a jury Wednesday found him guilty and recommended he serve life in prison.

Martin, 53, was found guilty of three murders, as well as one count of first-degree arson, one count of attempted arson, two counts of first-degree burglary and three counts of tampering with physical evidence.

Martin, on Nov. 18, 2015, fatally shot three of his neighbors: Edward Dansereau and Calvin and Pamela Phillips, a married couple, according to the attorney general’s office of special prosecutions. 

Calvin Phillips, 59, was found dead in his Pembroke, Kentucky, home on Nov. 19, and the remains of Dansereau and Pamela Phillips, 58, were discovered in a burned vehicle in a field.

The case attracted national attention when Martin, a former Army major who flew for American Airlines, was handcuffed at the airline gate as he was about to take off May 11, 2019. He was still wearing his pilot’s uniform when he was booked. 

During Thursday's sentencing, Christian Circuit Judge John L. Atkins read off the jury's unanimous verdict and its recommended maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. 

The attorney general's office took the death penalty off the table in the case. A formal sentencing hearing is scheduled Sept. 2 in Hopkinsville, with Martin to remain in the custody until then.

Tom Griffiths, one of Martin's attorneys, told The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, that they "are definitely appealing" the conviction.

 Background: Ex-airline pilot finally goes on trial in gruesome Kentucky triple murder

Christian Richard Martin
Christian Richard Martin

Special prosecutors Barbara Whaley and Alex Garcia told the jury that Martin killed Calvin Phillips because he was about to testify in Martin’s military court-martial trial on multiple charges.

The military court eventually convicted Martin on one count of mishandling classified information and one count of assault on a child. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and was discharged after 30 years of military service. 

The prosecution claimed that Dansereau and Phillips’ wife were collateral damage. 

“The families and the Pembroke community have endured a profound loss,” Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron said in a statement Wednesday night. “While this verdict in no way eases that pain, I hope that they find some peace and comfort today.” 

Members of the Phillips, Dansereau and Martin families were in attendance Wednesday and emotional as the jury announced the guilty verdict following several hours of deliberation.

Martin, who had taken the stand to defend himself earlier this week during the eighth day of the trial, was seen shaking his head following the verdict.

The sentencing phase of the trial began Thursday morning, featuring several members of the Phillips and Dansereau families reading victim impact statements. The jury also began deliberating over Martin's sentence, with it not immediately known when a final punishment could be handed down.

Martin's public advocates — Griffiths, Doug Martin and Olivia Adams — expressed displeasure with the jury's verdict during Thursday's hearing, calling Martin a "military hero" who was unfairly depicted as a "monster."

At one point, Martin used a handkerchief to wipe away tears as the defense described how he tried to help other inmates with their cases while locked up.

After he heard the recommended prison sentence Thursday afternoon, Martin was led out of the Hardin County courtroom before deputies allowed him back in to give hugs and kisses to his family.

Atkins, the judge, thanked the jurors for "doing your duty without complaint."

"We’ve been on a national display since early June, and I believe you all have lived up to your oath as jurors," Atkins said.

Griffiths argued in an opening statement that the prosecution’s theory that his client wanted to silence a witness in his court martial made no sense because Phillips also was set to testify for the defense in the military trial. 

The jury heard conflicting accounts of the crime, which went unsolved for years. 

In an opening statement this month, Whaley said Martin had the motive to kill Calvin Phillips because a conviction in the court martial could have ended his 30-year military career. 

Calvin and Pamela Phillips, found dead in 2015
Calvin and Pamela Phillips, found dead in 2015

She also said prosecutors would show that a shell casing found five months after the crime was conclusively shown to have been fired from a .45-caliber handgun found in a safe in Martin’s home across the street. 

Whaley, an assistant attorney general, also told the jury that the victim's family later found Martin’s dog tags on a shelf in their historic home. 

But Griffiths noted there were no eyewitnesses to the crime, no DNA and no fingerprints. And he said he would present forensic proof that the bullets that killed the victims did not come from his client’s gun.

During closing arguments, Griffiths showed the dog tags to the jury and called it "the most ridiculous piece of evidence I've ever seen in my life."

Griffiths suggested the dog tags and the other damning evidence — the shell casing and military ID which mysteriously were missed by police who scoured the home — must have been planted there, possibly by Martin’s angry ex-wife, who had vowed to ruin him.

Martin's ex-wife, Joan Harmon, and her son invoked the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying in the case.

Griffiths told The Courier Journal in a statement that "we disagree with the verdict, but we understand the jury did their best with the information they had."

"We believe if the jury knew that Joan Harmon and her son were subpoenaed, but refused to testify, they would have reached a different verdict," Griffiths said. "If the jury had known that the person who claimed to find the shell casing did not pass the police polygraph, they would have reached a different verdict.

"Instead … the jury acted with misplaced blame disguised as justice."

In the end, the jury did not believe the defense nor Martin's denial of killing the three neighbors.

As the sentencing phase began Thursday morning in the Hardin County courtroom, John Phillips took the stand to talk about his first-born son "Cal" and how his death was "the most devastating thing" to ever happen to the family.

"You never dream or ever think something like this would happen to your family," John Phillips said, calling it a "nightmare."

Matt Phillips, the son of Calvin and Pamela Phillips, said his parents were "direct opposites," wiping away tears as he described their lives and looked over childhood photos featuring him and his parents that prosecutors presented Thursday.

"My mom was incredibly kind. She had a warmth about her that I think, biased as I may be, was incredibly rare," Matt Phillips said. "...My father was energetic and outgoing and wanted to see the world, and my mother was quiet and reserved."

"They're just gone," he added. "And the concept of home, where you go for Thanksgiving or for Christmas or just to go home, this concept of home has been taken. ...It's gone."

Dansereau's daughter and only child, Erin Hilton, remembered her father as a professional jazz pianist and "passionate lover of life."

Hilton said she and her husband have a 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter who referred to their grandfather as "Poppy," and she said the family has continued to meet with therapists to process the grief over Dansereau's death.

"His spirit was infectious, and his spirit made everyone feel like they were loved," Hilton said of Dansereau. "If you were lucky enough to form any kind of relationship with him, it meant he loved you. There were no gray areas. You had a loyal friend for the rest of your life."

Reach Louisville Courier Journal reporter on Twitter: @adwolfson.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: American Airlines ex-pilot convicted in Kentucky 2015 triple murder