Nearly seven years after 18-year-old Anjelica “A.J.” Hadsell was found dead behind an abandoned Southampton County home, her stepfather Wesley Hadsell was convicted of her murder.
A jury in Southampton County Circuit Court deliberated just 40 minutes on Monday before announcing its verdict, finding Hadsell guilty of first-degree murder and concealing a dead body in the 2015 death. He faces the possibility of life in prison when he’s sentenced April 4.
Hadsell shook his head slightly after the verdicts were read. Two of A.J. Hadsell’s younger sisters started to sob, while their mother’s eyes filled with tears.
A.J. Hadsell was spending her spring break from Longwood University at her family’s home in Norfolk when she disappeared on March 2, 2015. Her body wasn’t found until five weeks later, partially buried behind an abandoned house in Southampton County, near the North Carolina border.
A medical examiner determined she died from acute heroin poisoning and “homicidal violence.” The amount of heroin in her system was three times the lethal amount, and her eyes and chin were blackened and bruised. The examiner, however, wasn’t able to determine if she’d been sexually assaulted because of damage inflicted on her body by animals and insects.
Hadsell wasn’t charged in the case until 2018. His first trial began in 2020 in Southampton County, but a mistrial was declared after just two days over a disagreement on what evidence the jury should be allowed to hear.
His latest trial began two and a half weeks ago. It was held in an old school building the county is using for a temporary courthouse while a new one is built.
Closing arguments were offered Monday and the case went to the jury shortly after 4 p.m. Circuit Judge L. Wayne Farmer told the panel that while it was late in the day, he wanted them to at least get started on their deliberations and that they could come back tomorrow to work more. But about 40 minutes later, they notified the court they had a verdict.
Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Toni Colvin and Commonwealth’s Attorney Eric Cooke laid out their theory of the case in great detail during closing statements.
They argued that Hadsell — who’d been kicked out of the house by his wife several days earlier because of his drug use and erratic behavior — abducted A.J. while she was folding laundry and listening to music in the living room. The laundry was half folded and the music was still playing on the speaker when her mother got home later.
Prosecutors believe A.J. wasn’t killed until the next day. A line of bruises found across her chest were consistent with someone holding an arm across her chest, Colvin said, and bruising on her chin likely was caused by someone holding it tightly in their hands, the prosecutor said. That’s how Colvin believes Hadsell got the heroin into her.
Defense attorney James Ellenson argued that A.J. committed suicide — a claim that prosecutors called absurd. Ellenson said A.J. was depressed over her relationship with her boyfriend and had been downloading images with captions related to suicide in the days leading up to her disappearance.
Hadsell declined to testify in his own defense.
A.J.’s mother, Jennifer Wright, testified that her daughter had been happy at the time. She described her ex-husband’s behavior in the days surrounding her daughter’s disappearance as erratic.
“It was very odd,” she said. “He was always coming and going. Just acting on edge a lot.”
Norfolk police found heroin hidden in a crevice near the ceiling of a motel room where Hadsell was staying after he got kicked out by his wife. Norfolk Police Department officer Matt Burnham testified he searched Hadsell’s motel room a couple weeks after A.J. disappeared. Inside, he found a small baggie of a white substance that later proved to be heroin and two boxes of 9mm bullets.
Hadsell’s drug dealer testified that he sold heroin to Hadsell the day after A.J. was reported missing.
A cadaver dog trained to detect the smell of decomposing bodies alerted on an area of Hadsell’s motel room, but didn’t react to anything in his work van.
In Hadsell’s work van, Burnham found a shovel and duct tape in the back, and a hair band between the seats. There also was a photo of A.J. in the van, but none of her sisters.
A GPS unit in the van led police to an abandoned house on Smith Ferry Road in the Franklin area where A.J. Hadsell’s body was found. The unit showed the van had traveled there from Norfolk on March 4, two days after she went missing. Bank records and convenience store surveillance videos also put Wesley Hadsell in the area, prosecutors said.
Cell phone data for Wesley and A.J. Hadsell also showed the two phones were pinging in the same places the day after A.J. went missing.
Jane Harper, 757-222-5097, firstname.lastname@example.org