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Man found guilty of first-degree murder in Altavista
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Man found guilty of first-degree murder in Altavista

RUSTBURG — A Lynch Station man accused of shooting a man nearly two years ago near Altavista and throwing his body in a pond was found guilty on Thursday of first-degree murder, and a jury has recommended he spend the rest of his life in prison.

Codi Shawn Dunbar, 27, was indicted in January on the murder charge and a connected charge of using a firearm in a felony. The charges date to a November 2019 shooting that led law enforcement to Dunbar and, after a series of interviews, discovered he’d taken the body of Christopher James Tench to a pond in Pittsylvania County, according to evidence in the case.

He was in Campbell Circuit Court on Wednesday and Thursday for a trial, and the jury deliberated for just under an hour Thursday before finding him guilty of the charges.

Dunbar, Tristin Landreth and their respective girlfriends were partying at a house on Riverbend Road near Altavista the weekend of Nov. 24 for Landreth’s birthday and were taking methamphetamine and acid, Landreth testified. The two men also were hunting, using rifles and targets Landreth had brought.

Landreth said meth they expected to find at the residence — which Dunbar had gotten on credit — was missing. Prosecutors presented evidence Dunbar suspected Tench had stolen the meth, and Landreth said Dunbar asked him to invite Tench over Nov. 24.

Landreth said he and Tench had known each other for years and considered themselves brothers; Tench and Dunbar were similarly close but Landreth had only known Dunbar for a month or two. According to testimony from an investigator in the case, Dunbar said he’d gotten in a fight with Tench about 10 days prior and was prepared to fight him with a broken glass bottle.

Once Tench arrived the afternoon of Nov. 24, Landreth said, he’d barely greeted Tench when a shot rang out, followed by a gargling noise and Tench hitting the ground. Tench had been struck in the head, causing gruesome injuries to his eyes.

Landreth said he assumed Tench had been killed and began panicking and making sure the women were secure in the residence before reemerging and seeing Tench struggling to his feet, bleeding profusely.

Testifying on Wednesday through sobs, Landreth said he then saw Dunbar come down the hill from a barn on the property, where prosecutors said Dunbar had been hiding out while waiting for Tench. Landreth watched as Dunbar switched out one rifle for another before pushing Tench back to the ground and shooting him in the back of the head.

In shock and fearing for his life, Landreth said he did more drugs and saw Dunbar going in and out of the residence, at one point getting cleaning fluid. Other evidence presented at trial indicated Tench’s body had temporarily been put in a horse trough behind the residence.

Landreth went to his father’s house in Pittsylvania County later that night and called 911, he testified. Prosecutors said when law enforcement first spoke to Dunbar at the Riverbend Road house, he denied even seeing Tench that day. After further interviews, he admitted to pointing a rifle at Tench but claimed it went off inadvertently, also admitting to disposing of Tench’s body in the pond.

Dunbar’s attorney, Scott De Bruin, acknowledged his client shot Tench the first time but insisted it wasn’t intentional and asked the jury to find him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, a downgraded charge.

De Bruin said “someone” shot Tench the second time but Dunbar has denied doing so. He stressed the altered state of mind his client was in at the time and tried to poke holes in Landreth’s credibility, saying the only DNA on the second rifle that could be positively identified was Landreth’s.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jason Todd asked the jury to sentence Dunbar to life in prison for the murder, reading statements from Tench’s family.

“[Dunbar] didn’t just take this man’s life, he took it in a horrible way,” Todd said. “… [Tench] was horribly murdered over nothing.”

De Bruin asked for a more lenient sentence for the sake of rehabilitation for Dunbar, but the jury decided after just less than an hour to sentence Dunbar to life in prison plus three mandatory minimum years for the gun charge.

Dunbar opted for the jury to recommend his sentence, which used to be the only option for defendants sitting for a jury trial before Virginia law changed this past summer. A judge will give the final say on his sentence at a hearing that hasn’t been scheduled yet.

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