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Despite serving as pastor of his church for decades, Steven Pearson said he never fully understood the meaning of Jeremiah 17:9 – “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked” – until he and his family were forced to face the facts of the murder of his stepdaughter, Dana Mackay, who was beaten to death in her home.
Pearson took the stand four times in Williamsburg-James City County Circuit Court on Tuesday to describe the effects Dana’s death has had on his family as each of the four accomplices in her murder – Dana’s husband John, his girlfriend Nicole Houchin, her husband Nace Houchin and friend Gregory Crawford – came before the court to receive their sentences for their roles in the murder-for-hire scheme.
Though John Mackay, Nicole Houchin and Nace Houchin were all sentenced to life in prison, each of them will serve less time as part of their plea agreements with Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Mackay, 44, will serve 28 years and two months; Nicole Houchin, 37, will serve 23 years and 11 months; Nace Houchin, 35, who is accused of beating Dana to death, will serve 40 years.
Gregory Crawford, 26, was sentenced to 20 years with three years suspended.
Dana’s family and friends – many of whom sported matching T-shirts and and pins emblazoned with her smiling face and the words “Justice for Dana” above the date of the hearing – filled the courtroom for the closing chapter of a story that began more than two years ago.
On the night of July 27, 2013, the Houchins and Nicole’s coworker Gregory Crawford broke into the Mackays’ home in Seasons Trace. Nicole Houchin and Crawford remained downstairs and ransacked the living room so it would appear a robbery had been committed, while Nace Houchin went upstairs and kicked in the door on the bedroom where Dana was sleeping as she recovered from a recent surgery.
Once in the room, Nace Houchin beat Dana to death with a breaker bar, which is a tool similar to a socket wrench. James City County Police were called to the scene the next day after a neighbor went to check on Dana at the request of Dana’s mother. Upon arrival, they found Dana’s naked body face-up and covered in “a tremendous amount of blood,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green said.
Blood had been smeared on the walls and the bedroom door had been kicked in, indicating to investigators a struggle had taken place. Dana’s cause of death was ruled to be multiple blunt force and sharp force injuries to the head.
“I’ve never heard of anything as brutal, wicked and cowardly as what Nace Houchin did to our Dana,” Pearson said at Tuesday’s hearing.
After Dana was killed, the Houchins and Crawford then allegedly drove to Crawford’s apartment at Monticello at Powhatan behind Monticello Marketplace, where he allegedly took the murder weapon and the clothing the group wore.
The next day, Crawford told Nicole Houchin he burned the clothing and threw the bar from the Jamestown Ferry into the James River. Nicole Houchin told investigators Crawford was acting under the assumption he would receive $20,000 for assisting in the scheme.
Two days after the body was discovered, police charged John Mackay and Nicole Houchin in connection with the case. Several months after their arrests, Nace Houchin was also charged in the murder.
Confessions from Mackay and the Houchins, who all initially pleaded not guilty but later entered into agreements that allowed them to plead guilty to first-degree murder to avoid facing the death penalty, allowed James City County Police to arrest and charge Crawford more than 18 months after the murder occurred.
Pearson testified he and his wife – Dana’s mother – were both aware Dana and John Mackay had been having marital troubles since Dana discovered John was having an affair with Nicole Houchin that began in the spring of 2013.
“Our Dana knew there were good people and bad people in the world, but I never heard her call anyone evil until she knew Nicole Houchin,” Pearson said.
Though Dana told neighbors she had received multiple threatening text messages from Nicole, she was still committed to fixing her marriage.
“I begged her to come home [to Georgia], but she refused and said she was going to make it work,” said Holly Watkins, one of Dana’s cousins.
Though several of Dana’s family members testified she was optimistic about her chances at reconciliation, court documents reveal Mackay and Nicole Houchin had begun texting and e-mailing one another about plans to get Dana “out of the picture” just months into their affair.
Mackay and Nicole Houchin exchanged emails on July 24, three days before Dana’s body was discovered in her home, about a plan to kill Dana that would be put in action while Mackay was out of town on an upcoming business trip.
“Will she be gone before I get back?” “I’ll be forever in debt to you and will show you every day,” Mackay wrote. “Trying to make it happen asap,” Nicole Houchin replied, according to court documents.
Court documents also show Mackay offered to pay $20,000 to anyone who would commit the murder; Nicole Houchin turned to her estranged husband, Nace Houchin.
Crawford was the first to be sentenced Tuesday on one count of conspiracy to commit capital murder, a crime that triggers a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. WJCC Circuit Court Judge Michael McGinty sentenced Crawford to the full 20 years allowable by law, suspending three years so Crawford will serve a total of 17 years.
“I have given you just about the maximum punishment because I think that’s exactly what this type of crime deserves,” McGinty said.
As part of her plea agreement, Nicole Houchin could serve up to 23 years and 11 months in prison. After issuing a life-in-prison sentence, McGinty ordered she serve the maximum under the plea agreement despite the prosecution’s recommendation she receive special consideration because of her cooperation, which allowed them to build a strong case against her accomplices despite a lack of physical evidence.
Nace Houchin also entered into a deal with the prosecution that had him pleading guilty to first-degree murder, but his plea agreement made no stipulations as to how long he might be required to serve.
McGinty expressed some hesitation before pronouncing his sentence for Nace Houchin, noting he found his demeanor to be more sincere than those of his co-defendants, but due to the brutal nature of the crime he ultimately felt compelled to sentence him to life in prison with all but 40 years suspended.
Mackay was the last of the co-defendants to come before the court.
“Without Mr. Mackay, the Commonwealth’s evidence in this case would have been sorely lacking, but without Mr. Mackay we wouldn’t have a need to be here,” Green said, reflecting on the balance the court might strike in punishing Mackay for his crimes while acknowledging the crucial role he played in bringing his co-defendants to justice.
Taking this balance into consideration, McGinty adhered to the state’s recommendation Mackay be required to serve two years less than the maximum time permissible under the terms of his plea agreement, which was 31 years and two months. Mackay will have to serve 28 years and 2 months of a life sentence.
Though justice for Dana has been served in the legal sense, her friends and family who took the stand throughout the hearings expressed a feeling that no amount of punishment would be able to heal the wound of her loss.
“We will get through Dana’s death,” Pearson said, “but we will never get over it.”