Courts & Crime

Eight years later, who killed Melissa Motz still in dispute

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Everyone agrees Melissa Huntley Motz was shot and killed in the passenger seat of her husband's blue Thunderbird eight years ago.

But police, prosecutors and the woman's family still cannot agree on who pulled the trigger in the parking lot of the couple's Rock Hill apartment Feb. 16, 2001, barely an hour after the two had argued at a Charlotte strip club.

Then-York County Coroner Doug McKown initially ruled the case a suicide. But he later changed his mind, saying he couldn't determine why the 35-year-old woman was shot.

Larry and Patsy Huntley believe their daughter was killed by her husband of two months, James Motz, who had a history of violence, including with a former wife, court records show.

The Huntleys also say their daughter, a former teacher and debutante, hated guns and never showed signs of depression.

Rock Hill Police reports indicated it was possible Motz killed his wife. But the 16th Circuit Solicitor's Office decided not to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence.

The solicitor's office has reviewed the case every few years for the Huntley family. Each time, prosecutors determine there's not enough evidence for a murder conviction.

In 2007, a lawsuit filed by Larry Huntley ended with jurors determining James Motz did not kill his wife. But they found him negligent for leaving a gun near her while she was drunk.

Now, more than eight years after Melissa Motz's death, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast has reopened the case. She hopes new technology can help determine whether Melissa Motz put the gun under her chin and shot herself, or if James Motz shot her.

Gast said she revisited the case because the Huntley family still had questions about the killing.

“After looking at the case,” Gast said, “I thought we might be able to get more or new information by having someone else look at the evidence we had.”

Gast is waiting on results from a blood spatter expert, a pathologist in Florida who will examine blood on the couple's clothing to determine how close James Motz could have been to his wife when the gun was fired.

Gast said she doesn't know when to expect those results.

She's not willing to rush the case, which has sat open in the coroner's office nearly nine years. The Motz case is the first Gast has reopened in her year-and-a-half as coroner.

‘A perfectly good evening'

Court transcripts from the January 2007 civil trial paint James Motz's story of the last day his wife lived:

The couple drank beer and ate pizza before driving to the Paper Doll Lounge in Charlotte, a bar with topless dancers.

On the way, they stopped at a convenience store and each had another beer, maybe two. At some point in the night they smoked marijuana.

The couple had several more beers and liquor shots at the club on Wilkinson Boulevard. But they stopped drinking when James Motz accepted a table dance and his wife became upset.

She tried to call a cab.

“I just told her that I would take her home,” James Motz later testified. “We came together, and there was no need to leave separate.”

James Motz escorted his wife to the car and helped her climb in.

Melissa Motz, who was “extremely intoxicated” by the end of the night, opened the car door to get out, but instead fell on the sidewalk in front of the club.

James Motz, a second time, helped his wife into the car.

The couple didn't speak on their way home in the Thunderbird, except when Motz called his wife “a stupid b----” who had “ruined a perfectly good evening,” he said in court.

During the drive, Melissa Motz opened the unlocked glove compartment of her husband's Thunderbird and grabbed a .32-caliber pistol her husband kept inside.

“I didn't see her doing it as a threat to herself,” Motz testified about the gun. “I didn't see her doing it as a threat to me. ... I just grabbed the gun, put it back in the glove compartment.”

That's where the gun stayed, Motz said, until the couple arrived at their apartment on Dutchman Drive in Rock Hill, about a 35- to 40-minute drive from the bar.