A former employee of Tennessee injection molder Plastic Industries Inc. has pleaded guilty to the murder of the firm's owner.
Daniel Lankey, 31, will serve 40 years in prison after entering the plea to second-degree murder Feb. 10 in district court in Athens, Tenn. Lankey had been charged with first-degree murder for the Jan. 30, 2009, slaying of PI owner Jeff Beene.
If convicted of the first-degree charge, Lankey would have faced a life sentence, said District Attorney General Steve Bebb.
Beene, 58, was guarding a PI building that was under renovation when he apprehended a burglar, who authorities believe was Jeff Coleman, a local man with a lengthy criminal history. Beene probably was holding Coleman at gunpoint when Beene was shot by Lankey, authorities said.
In December 2008, Beene had apprehended a burglar under similar circumstances. The building was not being used for production, but metal and plastic pipe, tools and wiring were stored there.
Coleman remains in jail on a murder charge, but Bebb said that charge is likely to be reduced to felony burglary. Coleman is expected to plead guilty to the burglary charge and receive a six-year sentence, Bebb said in a Feb. 12 phone interview.
Lankey's trial had begun Feb. 10 and Bebb already had called a few witnesses before a lunch break. After the break, Lankey's lawyer asked about the 40-year plea, which had been offered to Lankey prior to the trial.
After conferring briefly with Beene's sons Jeffrey and Jones Bebb offered the lesser charge.
I don't usually offer a plea during a trial unless I consult with the victims. I think a little finality was worth a lot to the family.
The case had a personal element for Bebb, who was friends with Jeff Beene for many years and often played tennis with him.
This is a good family, and it's been a terrible loss for them and for the community, Bebb said. It's been pretty emotional for me as well.
Lankey, who had worked briefly at PI, also had a long criminal past. The murder occurred 11 days after he escaped from Meigs County Jail, where he was being held on a rape charge. Lankey was arrested after a traffic stop on Feb. 9, 2009. At the time, he was listed as one of Tennessee's top 10 fugitives.
Officials with PI could not be reached for comment. Shortly after the murder, PI Chief Financial Officer Todd Harris said the firm is going to continue to operate as [Beene] would want it, and that is as a family operation.
Jeff Beene had run PI since 1980.
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