Two men appeared in Effingham County Superior Court Thursday asking a judge to set a bond after they both were charged with murder.
Detectives charged Richard Allen Knaust, Jr. and Dusty Dan Hamilton in November with murder stemming from a trailer fire in which a body was discovered beaten and bloodied.
The fire occurred on Sandhill Road in Guyton in the early hours on November 6, 2022. To date, no reports of the death of Wesley Vinson Thomas resulting from anything other than the fire have been released, but court records tell a more harrowing story. The Effingham County Sheriff’s Office has been investigating the case and, more recently, Sgt. John Bradley sought warrants for the roles Knaust and Hamilton allegedly played in the death of Thomas.
According to those warrants filed in Effingham County Superior Court on November 9, the body of Wesley Vinson Thomas was found with evidence of strikes to and stabbings on the neck and head with an unidentified blunt force object. Knaust and Hamilton are charged with the death of Thomas, which detectives say was premeditated. The warrants also state that Knaust tampered with evidence and attempted to inhibit the prosecution of Hamilton when he started a fire in the home of Thomas after a physical altercation.
Subsequently, Knaust of Otter Way in Guyton is charged with Malice Murder, Felony Murder, Aggravated Assault, 1st Degree Arson, and Tampering with Evidence. Knaust was arrested on November 5 and has remained behind bars ever since. His initial charge on the Effingham County Jail website is listed as only a Probation Violation, however. Knaust is represented by Karen Brown of the Conflict Defender’s Office. She filed a motion for a bond hearing and a preliminary hearing last week and the case was assigned to Judge Michael Muldrew.
Authorities arrested Hamilton on November 8 on charges of Malice Murder, Felony Murder, Aggravated Assault, 1st Degree Arson, and Tampering with Evidence, in his attempt to inhibit the prosecution of Knaust with the fire. Court records show Hamilton is represented by Statesboro attorney Joseph Williams based on an Entry of Appearance filed on November 17, however, the Public Defender’s Office filed motions for a bond hearing for Hamilton five days later.
Thursday’s Preliminary Hearing
On Thursday, Assistant District Attorney Matt Breedon called Sgt. John Bradley to testify on the facts of the case known to law enforcement so far.
Bradley testified that on the night of the event, a fireman was driving home when he noticed a fire coming from the residence. Fire personnel arrived on the scene and discovered charred remains after tending to the fire. Captain Rick Dailey of the Effingham County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division contacted additional investigators to come to the scene, including Investigator Dan Mealor, who specializes in fire investigations, and Bradley.
Bradley said when he arrived on the scene, the body was already in an unzipped body bag but he noticed two defects on the deceased’s neck, which were bleeding. “Typically, burned bodies don’t bleed,” Bradley testified. He said investigators found no evidence of accelerators in the home and they believe the fire started in the living room.
Thomas’ mother and nephew reportedly told law enforcement that Thomas and Knaust had a dispute about Knaust’s failure to pay rent to Thomas. Thomas was in the process of evicting Knaust at the time of his death, Bradley said.
Investigators interviewed Knaust on the morning of the fire after using GPS tracking technology to find him at Dusty Dan Hamilton’s home. Hamilton also reportedly shared a bedroom with Alicia Hart, the biological sister of Knaust. All three spoke with law enforcement on various occasions and Knaust reportedly told detectives that he did visit Thomas’s home that evening, but that he returned to Hamilton’s residence without incident. Bradley said what appeared to be human blood was on Knaust’s white tennis shoes when he was interviewed, prompting investigators to collect his clothing and shoes for further testing.
Bradley testified that Knaust was taken into custody on an unrelated probation violation and his vehicle was seized after they noticed what they believed to be blood on the passenger side exterior. Though Knaust gave consent for a search, at the direction of the captain over investigations, search warrants were obtained for the vehicle due to the large amount of blood. Further investigation yielded evidence of human blood on the front and back of the vehicle exterior on the passenger side, inside the passenger compartment on the front and back side, and on an instrument found inside the vehicle.
Also recovered in the possession of Knaust were items investigators believe were considered ‘irreplaceable,’ like a diploma, family photos, and the like – suggesting that Knaust removed them from the home before setting fire to it.
Knaust Blames Hamilton
According to testimony Thursday, Knaust changed his story a few days after the fire, later telling investigators that it was Hamilton who committed the act against Thomas. Bradley told the court that Knaust told investigators that he, Hamilton, and Hart went to the home of Thomas together and he went inside alone to gather some of his belongings. He said when he returned to the living room, Hamilton and Hart were in the living room and that’s when Hamilton attacked Thomas with a bat. Hamilton reportedly pulled a gun and told Knaust to grab the hands of Thomas. When asked about the stab wounds, Bradley said Knaust told investigators something to the effect of ‘I guess he [Hamilton] stabbed him as well.’
When asked about Hamilton’s wearing of an ankle monitor for a case stemming out of Chatham County, which yielded no GPS data at Thomas’ home, Knaust reportedly told investigators that he [Hamilton] takes it off all the time. Bradley said detectives obtained search warrants for Hamilton’s home and discovered that the ankle monitor could easily slide off and on of Hamilton’s foot if he was barefoot.
Knaust’s sister, Alicia Hart, reportedly told investigators that the three went to Thomas’ home to get some of Kanust’s belongings on the night of the murder. This story, Bradley said, varied from her first account to law enforcement, in which she echoed what Hamilton said about never leaving to go anywhere that night. Bradley said her new account of events amounted to an initial argument starting between Knaust and Thomas over Thomas watching Hart in the shower some two weeks prior. She told Bradley she was ordered out of the house when the fighting began and she was outside when it ensued. Bradley said Hart told investigators that it was Knaust who exited the home with a bat and that the house was not on fire when they left. She drove the vehicle back to Hamilton’s home with Hamiilton in the front passenger seat and Knaust in the rear passenger seat – both locations where ECSO later found blood inside the vehicle.
On cross examination, Knaust’s attorney, Karen Brown, asked Bradley for more in-depth information about when Knaust was and was not in custody and when he was advised of his Miranda rights. She also asked if there were any formal court filings about an eviction, to which Bradley replied there were not. Brown pressed Bradley on why Hart had not been charged in the case, prompting an objection from the state about relevancy to the preliminary hearing. Judge Muldrew subsequently sustained the objection.
Hamilton’s attorney, Elise Miller, had only a few questions for Bradley, mostly about the wounds found on the body of Thomas and the other people at the Hamilton home on the night of the incident.
At the end of the preliminary hearing, both Brown and Miller contended that the state had met its burden of proof to bind the case over for grand jury consideration. A grand jury is slated to convene Monday morning in Effingham County.
Criminal Histories of the Charged Individuals
Knaust has a criminal history in Effingham County dating back to 2011 (misdemeanor marijuana offense), 2012 (drug offenses and contributing to the delinquency of a minor), 2013 (felony drugs and DUI), and 2015 (Aggravated Assault, Battery (FV) and Cruelty to Children). Knaust has a pending DUI case from August 2022 in Chatham County as well. He was also on probation at the time of his arrest in this case.
Court records also show that Hamilton was on probation for Child Molestation at the time of his arrest. He is a registered sex offender as a result of that conviction as well. In Effingham County, Hamilton also has two misdemeanor traffic offense cases dating back to 2005.
A grand jury is slated to convene Monday morning in Effingham County.