Emotions were strong Thursday afternoon in the York-Poquoson Circuit Court room as a man was sentenced for concealing a woman’s dead body in a trash can.
Michael Kerlin, 48, of York County, was sentenced to five years in prison with four years suspended for hiding the body of Michelle Hull, 46, in a trash can at his business, Dixie Fuel Company, in Newport News.
The benches in the courtroom were filled with over 20 of Hull’s friends and family as Judge Richard Rizk heard testimony and statements from both the defense and prosecution.
“She was my only child… my daughter was my life,” said Hull’s mother Donna, during testimony Thursday.
Kerlin pleaded guilty to unlawfully concealing a dead body Nov. 29. Two charges of possession of a schedule I or II controlled substance were nolle prossed, meaning the prosecution will not pursue them unless new evidence comes to light.
As part of his sentence, Kerlin will serve one year in prison, be on supervised probation for five years and undergo substance abuse screening. He will get credit for the 57 days in jail he has already served, Rizk said.
“What you did is deplorable and selfish,” Rizk said to Kerlin, explaining that the court must balance both the weight of the crime and the progress Kerlin has made toward sobriety. “I’m confident another thing like this is not going to happen…but this act is not going to be condoned by the court.”
Just before hearing his sentence, Kerlin spoke for the first time, tearfully addressing the judge.
“I don’t think there are any words to express how sorry I really am,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do to change the past.”
Kerlin was arrested May 8 after the body of Hull was found in a trash can at Kerlin’s company, surrounded by propane tanks, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jacob Lambert said at Kerlin’s plea hearing in November.
Hull’s mother filed a missing person report with the York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office on May 7 after not hearing from her daughter since May 5, Lambert said. Hull communicated with her mother often, and it was unusual for her to be out of touch for more than a day, he added.
One of Kerlin’s coworkers told police Kerlin said Hull overdosed at his house, and he needed to “get rid of the body,” Lambert said.
Investigators found Hull’s identification and cell phone at Kerlin’s house in York County, as well as a trash can lid and tire tracks from a two-wheeled hand truck.
Friends of Hull witnessed Kerlin leaving the Dixie Fuel Company, located at 512 Muller Lane, during the night on May 7.
He was then pulled over by York County deputies, who questioned him about Hull’s disappearance. Hull refused to provide any information, Lambert said.
On May 8, Kerlin’s father found the body in a trash can, hidden among propane tanks on the company’s property. The can was with a hand truck, which matched the tire tracks found at Kerlin’s house, Lambert said.
The lid found at Kerlin’s house also matched the trash can Hull’s body was found in.
In the courtroom Thursday, several family members and friends wore T-shirts with photos of Hull printed on them. One shirt showed a photo of the woman smiling and sitting on a motorcycle with the words “RIDE FREE” on a banner above the photo.
Hull’s mother testified during the sentencing, describing how her daughter’s death affected her family.
“My husband is practically never seen,” said Donna Hull, who cried as she testified. “He’s not the man I married.”
Donna Hull said she and her husband have been prescribed medication to help deal with their daughter’s death. They also have been working with the pastor of their church, she testified.
Kerlin waited outside the courtroom while other criminal proceedings took place Thursday, entering only when his name was called for sentencing after 1 p.m.
Kerlin was out on bond until his sentencing Thursday, residing at Edgehill Recovery Retreat and then at an Oxford House group home in Winchester, Va. He served 57 days in jail between his May 8 arrest and his sentencing Thursday.
During his sentencing, Kerlin’s attorney presented the court with at least seven letters attesting to Kerlin’s character, including some from people who work and operate the treatment facilities he resided in.
Kerlin’s father, Bill, also testified in court during the sentencing.
“Before, we would have family functions at the house and he would be hasty to get out of the house…He wouldn’t show up to work,” Kerlin’s father said. “Just talking to him now, he’s himself.”
“Heroin is the devil,” he added.
Lambert told the court an ex-girlfriend of Kerlin’s, Wendy Hinckle, had overdosed at Kerlin’s house Nov. 11, 2015, only months before the body of Hull was found in a trash can. Hinckle later died at a hospital, Kerlin’s attorney, Tim Clancy, confirmed in court Friday.
The presentence report, which details Kerlin’s history, interests, character and other factors, reported Kerlin admitted he was “part of the problem due to drug use” in connection with Hull’s death, Lambert said.
“But unfortunately, because of his actions, we may never know how Michelle Hull died,” Lambert said.
Kerlin’s father said his son expressed a desire to sell his businesses in Newport News, including the Dixie Fuel Company, and his home in Yorktown. He will move to Winchester and continue his treatment, he said.
Kerlin has received death threats and there has been graffiti at his house since his arrest, his father said.
Clancy said Kerlin wants to continue treatment in Winchester, whether it is required as part of sentencing or not.
“He cannot defend what he did in May 2016,” Clancy said, adding that Kerlin was using heroin daily when Hull died. “His recovery is based on his ability to assist others… That’s the only way he says he can atone for what he did.”
After the sentencing, Hull’s friends and family exited in a steady stream, some crying and others with solemn expressions.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Benjamin Hahn declined to comment on this case.
Clancy also declined to comment further after the sentencing was over.
Fearing can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.