For many, Aug. 21, 2017, was a day to remember as it was a full eclipse. People gathered with friends and family to watch the sight. For employees and their families at the Conway CresCom Bank it was memorable for the wrong reasons.
“For Donna Major and Katie Skeen it was horrific,” said Nathaniel Williams, a federal prosecutor.
The two employees were inside the bank around 1 p.m. when a man entered. He stood around for a few moments, then shot Major, who tried to protect herself with paper. The suspect ran into Skeen’s office and murdered her as she hid under a desk.
“This defendant chose murder. He chose to kill. He decided when their lives would end,” Williams said.
“He!” the lawyer exclaimed and pointed to Brandon Council in a federal courtroom, “this defendant made the choice [to kill].”
Council is on trial for killing the two women. His case is being heard by a jury in a federal courtroom in Florence and if convicted Council faces the death penalty. Tuesday marked the start of the trial with opening statements, surveillance video from inside the bank and witness testimony.
Council’s attorney Duane Bryant admitted his client committed the killings, but he said they were having a trial for guilt because the government announced its intention to seek the death penalty and because there needs to be closure. He also expressed regret on Council’s behalf.
“Closure for the family,” Bryant said. “Closure for the community and closure for the state of South Carolina.”
Members of the Skeen and Major families packed a few rows of the courtroom as some cried or hid their eyes from the evidence shown on nearby television screens. Others stoically stared at the video of their loved one’s murders.
Council showed no emotion as he sat at his table and spoke to his lawyers.
The evidence allowed the public its first, detailed version of what happened inside the bank on Aug. 21.
Before the killings
Days before the Conway murders, Council robbed a grocery store and a BB&T bank branch in North Carolina, Bryant said. Council used the ill-gotten money to buy his girlfriend a $600 car and himself marijuana and cocaine.
Council knew police were looking for him and convinced friends to drive him to Georgia. Instead, he stopped at the Conway Express motel off U.S. Highway 501 and 16th Avenue. Just a few hundred yards away was the CresCom bank.
Council spent his money on the room, drugs and things to eat, which Bryant said made him basically homeless. Federal prosecutors said at the hotel Council plotted his robbery. He also intended to kill those inside, they say.
On Aug. 21, head teller Donna Major arrived first at the branch. Coworker Kristy Johnson came in a bit later and Branch Manager Katie Skeen was the last to arrive for work. Skeen arrived home early in the morning from a church retreat before going to work.
The employees chatted about the previous weekend as they opened the branch. Everything was normal, though a bit slow.
Around 12:45 p.m., Johnson left for her hour-lunch break and asked Skeen if she needed anything as she headed out the branch’s lone door.
“There was a dark cloud over the office,” Johnson said, “and if I left, I would be caught in the rain.”
Minutes after Johnson left, Council walked in. His face was uncovered, he wore a blue and white striped polo shirt and freshly pressed jeans. His large, dreadlock hair framed his face. In his wallet was a pre-written note demanding money and making threats Bryant said.
Council did not try to disguise himself.
“When the defendant walked in, he looked as normal as anyone walking in the bank,” Williams said.
Council went up to Major at the teller station and said he wanted to cash a check. He stood just to Major’s left for about 45 seconds as she looked down at the papers in front of her. Council swayed briefly and looked at the front door as he reached into his waist band and pulled out a .22-caliber gun.
“For some inexplicable reason he chose the gun over the note,” Bryant said.
Council fired a shot and hit Major in the arm. She reached for the papers and held them up to her face.
“Hiding behind three sheets of paper, he keeps firing,” Williams said.
Major, now also shot in the chest, stumbled back to a cornered-off storage area. The blood from her chest wound was visible on her shirt as she fell to the ground.
Skeen heard the shooting, and yelled as she hid under her desk. Council ran to her nearby office and shot her in the forehead from close range.
“He shoots her again in the side just be to sure,” Williams said.
Council ran back to Major, who is lying on the floor and shoots her in the head.
For the next few minutes, Council took money out of the cash register, jumped the counter to go to the back of the branch and returned to collect more money. He gets about $15,000 and puts it in a bag.
Some of the money he stole was “bait bills,” basically money that sets off a silent alarm when it is removed from the teller’s drawer.
Conway police are on the way, but it’s not uncommon to have an alarm go off at a bank.
Council, meanwhile, went back into Skeen’s office and stole the keys to her white Chrysler and fled the area in her car.
Conway police officer J. Aklin arrived first. She pulled into the parking lot and looked in the drive-thru window. She then goes into the branch and initially doesn’t see either victim. She heads to the back of the business and emerges, holding her gun.
“Something just didn’t feel right when I was in there,” she said.
It’s then, Atklin saw Major lying behind the teller counter. She approaches and quickly realized that Major was injured. The officer left the branch to call for backup and EMS.
Aklin checked the exterior of the branch and then went back inside where she yelled, “Conway Police!” with her gun drawn. Then-detective Dale Long arrived and the two work to clear the branch of potential danger as a third officer comes in.
The three go to Major – at this time police are aware of Skeen dead in her office – and Long checks her pulse.
“I believe she’s been shot in the head,” Long says. “Lock it down.”
Officers set up a crime scene and started their investigation as Council fled back to North Carolina. Bryant described Council as “going in a circle,” and he returned to the area he was wanted for the previous robberies.
“He went on a joy ride,” is how Williams described Council’s next movements.
Council picked up a prostitute and bought drugs in eastern North Carolina. He bought a Mercedes, which Bryant said was a 21-year-old model, using the stolen bank money.
Police tracked down Council and arrested him days after the killings.
Council was locked to the wall in a small room where investigators started to question him, Bryant said. Within seconds, before he can be read his rights, Council starts detailing the incident.
Council asked if the women were dead and police withhold the truth at first. They then inform him Skeen and Major are dead.
“When he’s told, he cries,” Bryant said. “He tells them over and over Mrs. Major and Mrs. Skeen did not deserve what happened to them.”
Federal prosecutors told the nine-woman, seven-man jury that the evidence will leave no reasonable doubt that Council committed the crimes. Williams said the jury will hear from police, video experts, medical professional and others.
The defense referenced the penalty phase of the proceedings a handful of times during opening statements. If the jury finds Council guilty, the same jury will then decide whether Council should be executed or spend his life in prison. During that phase, it’s expected members of the Skeen and Major family will testify.
As he concluded his opening statements, Williams told the jury that Council intended to rob the bank, kill those inside and believed he would get away or be killed by police.
“He chose to kill, he chose to murder these two wonderful people for nothing more than easy money,” Williams said. “They were nothing more than collateral damage.”