Della Buckingham kissed her mother, Amy Lou Buckingham, goodnight a little before 10 p.m. on April 16, 2015.
The teenage girl made her way up the stairs, oblivious to what would transpire as she tucked herself into bed. Little did she know that the Boogey man did not hide in the shadows, but something else worse — and very real — was about to take her mother away from her.
Amy’s sister, Elsie Buckingham, her father, mother and all three of her children were at the home as Della headed to bed.
“There was a loud boom,” Elsie said.
A bullet fired by Amy’s ex-boyfriend, John Wayne Strawser Jr., struck Amy in the chest, piercing her heart. Amy dropped to the ground outside the Tunnelton, West Virginia, home.
Strawser, a 39-year-old man from Terra Alta, West Virginia, had been drinking and showed up at the home shortly after 10 p.m., a few minutes before the murder. Amy and Strawser went outside in the rain and were arguing when he fired the shot and drove off, police said.
Amy had broken up with Strawser and was seeing another man, according to police.
“He didn’t have to kill her,” Elsie said. “We all knew within two weeks she would have taken him back. That’s how she was, always seeing the good.”
Elsie described her sister as having an immensely caring heart. As her father, who had rushed outside when he heard the gunshot, held her in his arms, Amy’s heart stopped beating.
“Amy was filled with laughter,” Elsie said. “No matter what, she seen the good in people, always wanting to help.”
The Buckingham’s home would no longer be filled with Amy’s cheerful laughter.
Family members called police and told them that Strawser had shot Amy, police said.
Rain continued to fall as members of the Preston County Sheriff’s Department caught up to the Subaru station wagon Strawser was driving shortly after he murdered Amy. They attempted to conduct a traffic stop.
As the two deputies approached the vehicle, Cpt. James Root drew his shotgun and aimed it at Strawser through the passenger-side window.
“It’s him,” Root was heard saying on his body camera, footage obtained from the Preston County Sheriff’s Department. “I’ve got a shotgun pointed right at you, so don’t do anything stupid.”
“If you move a muscle, I will mess you up,” he added.
Strawser stepped on the gas and took off.
“Bang, click, bang.” Body camera footage shows Root unloading two rounds of buckshot at the fleeing vehicle.
“If I wouldn’t have hesitated, I had a head shot,” Root said later on his body camera as he spoke to another deputy as they searched for Strawser. “I hesitated for a second because I thought ‘He’s not really going to drive off.’”
An investigation report created by West Virginia State Police said Root fired at Strawser because he feared he had a gun and was going to fire on the officers. Root had intimate knowledge of Strawser’s ownership of weapons.
His lack of action two weeks earlier allowed Strawser to remain in possession of the Rossi Ranch Hand gun authorities believe Strawser used to kill Buckingham.
Roughly two weeks prior to Amy’s murder, following up a family member’s request, Root went to Strawser’s home to conduct a welfare check. Strawser’s family had not heard from him in a while and they began to worry, according to Preston County Prosecuting Attorney Melvin Snyder.
“(Root) went to the house and (Strawser’s) father, who actually owned it and had the keys but let him live there, opened the house for him and went through the house,” Snyder said. “(Root) found the Rossi in one room and sort of picked it up.”
Snyder said Root was unable to get the mechanism to work on the gun and left without taking it or alerting any other department of what he had found.
Police later found the gun in a box in a swampy area near Strawser’s home.
“(Strawser) is knowledgeable about guns,” Snyder said. “He’s cleaned it, fixed it, got it working well, because it’s working just fine when we find it out in the place out in the woods not far from (Strawser’s home).”
Strawser was on probation at the time of Root’s visit, having pleaded guilty in 2013 to stalking in Preston County. Snyder said Root, who declined comment on the incident, never reported finding a gun in Strawser’s home at that time. The information only came forward after the investigation began into Buckingham’s murder.
Snyder sighed when asked why Strawser’s probation was not revoked upon discovery of a firearm in his home, which is a direct violation of his probation, the protection from abuse order obtained by an earlier victim and a misdemeanor offense given Strawser’s status as a convicted felon since 2002, when he was convicted of motor vehicle theft in Garrett County, Maryland.
“It should have,” Snyder said. “I think what the problem was, I just don’t think the Sheriff’s Office ever thought to communicate back to probation to say ‘Oh, wait a minute, we checked this guy’s house and he’s got weapons there.’ I just don’t think they ever thought to pass the word.
“I wish they had, because if they had and I had found out, I would have revoked him,” Snyder added. “It just is what it is.”
Root declined comment on the incident, saying it would be inappropriate for him to comment in light of Strawser’s pending case for the 2014 shooting death of Timothy Davison on Interstate 81 in Franklin County.
The Rossi Ranch Hand gun that Root found is also the same weapon authorities believe Strawser used to kill Davison.
Root was promoted from lieutenant to the rank of captain less than nine months after Buckingham’s murder.
He, and other officers, pursued Strawser on that April night in 2015 in the area near Tunnelton until they wrecked, and Root got his truck stuck on uneven ground. This gave Strawser time to get away and ditch the car.
As officers approached the field where Strawser was last seen, they spotted a fire in the distance.
“It’s a brush fire or something,” Root was heard saying on his body camera. “I don’t see where his car went.”
That fire, however, was Strawser’s car. The car’s horn wailed as fire ravaged the interior before the sound slowly tapered off.
“If he’s in it, great, he’ll be in it later,” he said.
Officers and a canine approached the vehicle, still engulfed in flames.
The tires had been destroyed, the upholstery and cushioning on the driver’s side seat were gone — leaving only a metal frame — but Strawser’s body was nowhere to be found.
He had fled the scene.
The vehicle was owned by a woman he was living with at the time of Buckingham’s murder, according to police. Strawser had also been texting the same woman the night he allegedly killed Davison.
Strawser returned home the next morning and was taken into custody for questioning by West Virginia State Police.
“He just didn’t seem to care what was going on at the time,” Sgt. C.W. DeBerry said. “We told him that we were speaking to him about a woman who had been shot and killed and just didn’t seem to really care that she was killed.”
Strawser told police that he knew Amy, but that she was just someone with whom he was having sex.
“She was just a sex toy. She got somebody better,” he told police. “... I’ve got five (sex) buddies. Well, four now.”
Entries from Amy’s diary provided a very different view on the two’s relationship.
The diary, covered in red heart stickers and the words “Amy Loves John,” painted a picture of a woman who cared deeply about Strawser.
She wrote about getting excited when she knew she was going to get to see him and feeling overcome with remorse when she lied or knew she had hurt him. Buckingham scribbled things like “I love John and the kids 4 life 4 ever.”
On one page Amy wrote down Strawser’s name and date of birth, along with the names and dates of birth of her three children. The two went to high school together and had been dating since 2010, after they reconnected through Facebook, Elsie said.
Other diary entries, however, showed Amy’s disappointment by Strawser’s, at times, lack of reciprocation of her feelings.
“I just wish that everything will go alright today, but it didn’t,” Amy wrote in one entry in 2012. “... I was hopen (sic) to see (Strawser) ... I don’t think it is going to happen tonight if he do come down it will be a mircle (sic).”
Amy invited Strawser to visit nearly every day of their five-year relationship, but he typically came up with an excuse, upsetting Amy, Elsie said.
Amy’s 37th birthday on Jan. 4, 2014 was no different. The day typically spent in celebration was filled with tears.
“He never showed up on her birthday,” Elsie said. “She cried all that night.”
Unbeknownst to her, the day that marked Amy’s birth had begun with Davison’s death.
Strawser is accused of chasing down, shooting and killing Davison along Interstate 81 near Greencastle shortly after 2 a.m. Jan. 4, 2014.
Strawser told police that on the night of Amy’s murder, he had gone to see her but left and purchased marijuana in a neighboring town. He said the car he was driving, the one that was found burning, was stolen when he went to buy the drugs.
Strawser told police he heard a gunshot, but Amy was fine when he left the home.
“She did a little sigh that she does when she gets mad and walks away,” he told police.
Officers pressed further.
“She just like when she gets mad, if we argue and she gets mad she’ll go,” Strawser said, pausing to make a sighing noise. “And just walk away. And I know that’s ...”
“She couldn’t walk too far,” an officer interrupted.
“... The end of the conversation,” Strawser finished.
History of violence
But, Strawser was not one to “walk away,” especially when it came to women. Court records are filled with women accusing him of becoming jealous and violent, striking out and destroying property whenever they tried to get away.
Elizabeth Butler had only been on one date with Strawser when she said Strawser destroyed her truck, stalked and harassed her in 2013 in Garrett County, Maryland.
Despite a long history of similar criminal behavior, Strawser was given a deal to essentially drop those charges if he paid Butler $800 to repair the truck. Butler tried for more than a year to collect the money from Strawser.
Multiple court hearings were delayed because Strawser knew how to manipulate the system, Butler said.
Just before Strawser murdered Amy he was brought into court to answer for his failure to pay, but the case was not heard, Butler said.
“They didn’t have time to hear my case, because they had overbooked the docket,” Butler said. “Not my problem, and that’s exactly what I told them. I said ‘This is bull. This is not my problem. He should be going to jail because he hasn’t paid.’”
His next court date was scheduled for three days after he murdered Amy, Butler said.
“I say, if Maryland would have done their job, that woman would still be alive,” she said.
Multiple calls and emails by The Sentinel to Garrett County State’s Attorney Lisa Thayer-Welch were not returned.
In August, Strawser was convicted of first degree murder for killing Amy following a nearly week-long trial filled with emotional testimony from her family.
The only available sentence under West Virginia law for this conviction is life without parole, Snyder said.
“She never deserved to have her life ended this way,” Elsie said.
She said her sister’s main goal was to see her three children graduate from high school, a dream that was snuffed out by one man who was not stopped in time. Amy’s oldest son graduated a little more than year after her death.
“My sister was filled with joy. (She) always had a smile,” Elsie said. “And most of all loved her family. ... Her children was her life.”