HARRISONBURG — In a move that will spare him from the death penalty, one of two men accused of beating a Rockingham County woman to death with a hammer during a home-invasion robbery pleaded guilty Tuesday and plans to testify against his co-defendant.
Adrian Custer, 22, of Verona, was charged with capital murder in the death of Margene Caplinger, who died four days after a September 2017 attack at her home north of Harrisonburg.
Custer pleaded guilty in Rockingham County Circuit Court to first-degree murder.
As part of the plea deal, Custer is required to testify against Brent Smallwood, 28, of Elkton, who was also charged with capital murder. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Custer’s defense team said in court that their client participated in the robbery but not the murder. However, they conceded that he only needed to participate in the robbery to be convicted of murder.
Custer’s decision to take a plea deal came just days after Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst received DNA evidence in the case. She told Judge Bruce Albertson that DNA found on the hammer matched Smallwood’s.
She said Smallwood struck Caplinger at least 15 times in the head and face.
Sentencing for Custer will take place after the conclusion of Smallwood’s trial. He faces up to life in prison.
Albertson scheduled Smallwood’s trial for Nov. 20, 2020.
The trial is expected to last at least a month, but Smallwood’s attorneys say two months might be needed.
The investigation began at about 8 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2017, when sheriff’s deputies responded to Caplinger’s home on Trinity Church Road about 5 miles north of Harrisonburg. Caplinger was Smallwood’s estranged wife’s mother, according to prosecutors.
Deputies found Caplinger suffering from severe blunt trauma. A medical helicopter flew her to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, where she died four days later.
Custer originally was charged with being a principal in the second degree to capital murder, but the charge was upgraded in December 2017 when prosecutors learned “new information.” Prosecutors have not disclosed the nature of that new information.
Prosecutors say the pair broke into the home in an attempt to steal prescription drugs.
Investigators also linked the pair to an abduction in the early morning before the assault.
According to an affidavit for a search warrant that was unsealed in Augusta County Circuit Court in March 2018, Custer asked a cousin’s fiancée to pick him up at the Bluestone Inn on North Valley Pike, north of Harrisonburg, at about 7:45 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2017. When she arrived, Smallwood was there.
The driver, with Custer and Smallwood as passengers, began heading north, but the affidavit doesn’t say where the men initially asked to go.
In the area of Martz Road, near the Lacey Spring post office, the affidavit says, Smallwood placed something against the back of the driver’s head.
He told her it was a gun and ordered her to drive to Caplinger’s home on Trinity Church Road.
After the attack, they ordered the woman to drive them to a “safe house,” which was an apartment in Verona, the affidavit says.
After reaching the residence, the driver called the police around 3:40 p.m.
While at the apartment, Smallwood washed what appeared to be blood off a hammer, the affidavit says, citing Custer’s girlfriend.
Smallwood and Custer initially faced charges of aggravated malicious wounding, carjacking and abduction.
The prosecution dismissed those counts after the men were indicted on the capital murder charges.
Both men are being held without bond at Rockingham County Jail.