ASHEVILLE – A Leicester father accused of killing his 6-year-old daughter along the Blue Ridge Parkway appeared before a Buncombe County judge Monday, though his case is expected to move to federal court.
Seth Willis Pickering, 36, is charged with first-degree murder in the Friday evening death of Lila Pickering, a first-grader who attended Johnston Elementary.
A medical examiner said Monday she died from a stab wound to the heart and left lung.
In the court hearing, which lasted less than a minute, the judge asked Pickering if he understood why he was at the hearing.
He responded, “Yes, your honor,” and other than indicating he understood other procedural matters, said nothing else.
“If you’re convicted, you could get the death penalty or life in prison without parole,” District Court Judge Edwin Clontz told Pickering.
He had earlier filled out an affidavit of indigency, indicating an income of about $700 a month from a disability payment and food stamps.
Based on that information, Clontz said an attorney would be assigned to him.
“Based on your affidavit, I will appoint a public defender in this matter,” Clontz said. “They usually will assign somebody who is a specialist in capital cases.”
The judge set the next court date for Oct. 3.
Buncombe County court documents show a bitter split has played out between Pickering and his estranged wife, who had shared a home in northwest Asheville, near New Leicester Highway.
In May 2015, Seth Pickering was granted a domestic violence protective order against Ashley Pickering, who now lives in Florida. She told the Citizen-Times his allegations were untruthful and she had been attempting to get custody of Lila.
Pickering wrote that his wife threatened to kill him and herself before binging on pills, destroying items in the home and leaving.
She returned the next evening, according to the husband.
“Defendant returned at 11 p.m. to kidnap our child with a stranger by force. She stated she would kill our daughter if I didn’t let her leave,” he wrote, adding, “The minor is scared her mom will come back to break glass on everything and spill pills on everything again, before taking from home [sic].”
He alleged his wife pointed a rifle at him and said she would be leaving for Florida.
With the initial protective order, Ashley Pickering was ordered to stay at least 1,000 feet away from her husband and could visit the child through arranged visits with a neighbor who was friends with the couple.
The court referred the case to Buncombe County social services for investigation and a plan regarding the child.
The state murder charge against Pickering will likely be dropped as federal authorities take control of the case and prosecution.
The child was killed on federal property, the Blue Ridge Parkway, according to law officers. She had been stabbed in the heart and left lung, said Dr. John Stewart, of the Buncombe County Medical Examiner's Office.
The investigation is being led by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, though officers with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department have assisted with the case since the child was reported missing, and ultimately brought the state murder charge against her father.
Lila was staying in a home in west Buncombe County amid a custody dispute between the Pickerings.
A Buncombe County deputy responded to that home at about 5:45 p.m. Friday after learning the girl had been taken by her father.
Deputies were preparing to issue an Amber Alert when a pair of U.S. Park Service rangers stopped near Mile Marker 393 of the Blue Ridge Parkway to examine an out-of-place vehicle parked in a grassy area, authorities said.
There, they discovered Pickering and his daughter, who was dead.
The Citizen Times