Cory M. Hagwell has been charged with first degree murder in the death of 3-year-old Adelynn Merrell. Barbara Wozniak, accused of killing her husband and then hiding his body under the stairwell, also was indicted for first degree murder.
An Okaloosa County grand jury has returned indictments in two high-profile murder cases.
Cory M. Hagwell, 29, has been charged with first degree murder in the death of 3-year-old Adelynn Merrell. He also was charged with two counts of felony child neglect concerning two other young children under his care in a Mossy Head home.
Barbara Wozniak, accused of killing her husband and then hiding his body under the stairwell, was indicted for first degree murder and tampering with evidence. Authorities say the 65-year-old Shalimar woman shot her husband, put him under the stairwell and then made numerous trips to Lowe's, where she bought a large tarp, plastic sheeting, 20 pounds of repair mortar, Clorox, tape and other supplies to further conceal his body behind a fake wall.
The body of 72-year-old Alfred Wozniak was discovered Nov. 15 inside the couple's home at 86 10th Avenue. He'd last been seen alive Nov. 9.
That was the day before the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office was called to Adelynn's home at 4700 Bobolink Way, where her mother, Destinee Merrell, reported her missing. The other children in the home were severely malnourished and the investigation revealed they were routinely confined in bedrooms and closets.
Adelynn was found the afternoon of Nov. 10, her body dumped in the woods less than a mile from the home shared by Destinee Merrell and Hagwell, her live-in boyfriend.
An autopsy revealed the little girl had numerous blunt force trauma injuries to the head, including a skull fracture, which was determined to have occurred from Hagwell kicking her. According to his arrest report, Hagwell disciplined Adelynn and placed her in a bedroom closet the night of Nov. 9. After her dead body was discovered, he dumped it the next day in the woods near the Walton County line off rural Palmetto Avenue. The Medical Examiner's Office reported a skull fracture to the back of the head was the cause of death.
Destinee Merrell was charged with one count of accessory to murder after the fact, three counts of child neglect and one count of child cruelty. According to court records, she is scheduled to make a plea Dec. 20 and was denied bond Nov. 11 and 12. She remains incarcerated in the Okaloosa County Jail.
A grand jury must be convened in order to charge individuals with first degree murder. If someone is convicted on a first degree murder charge, they will either spend life in prison or be sentenced to death.
"These two happened within the same week and we usually try to move on these as quickly as possible," said Bill Bishop, chief assistant state attorney for Okaloosa County. "We felt it was best to try to resolve everything on the same day."
Bishop added that a committee would convene over the next few weeks to discuss whether or not to pursue the death penalty for Wozniak or Hagwell.
An attorney for Wozniak, Ashley Smith Herndon, who is co-counsel with Don Dewrell, said her client was the victim of domestic violence and would likely be claiming self-defense.
"It's my understanding that he was attacking her, strangling her, she thought she was about to die," Herndon said. "She shot him in order to save her own life."
Herndon said Wozniak never reported the previous domestic violence incidents to authorities because she is from Poland, where domestic violence is "part of her culture," but may have told a family doctor she was scared of her husband. As for hiding his body underneath the stairwell, Wozniak panicked, according to her attorney.
"I think she got really scared," Herndon said. "She's not native to here. She didn't know how to react. She did not handle it well. She waited for her children to get here. Once her children got here, she called police."
Herndon added Wozniak was struggling in jail.
"She's 65 and has never been in any trouble," she said. "She's cold and she's terrified. She was crying because another female inmate called her a 'ho.' She's a sweet grandma."
Chris Klotz and Eric Stevenson, criminal defense attorneys at Stevenson Klotz Law Firm in Pensacola, are representing Hagwell. Klotz said Thursday he had only received a copy of the indictment that morning and would be reviewing the indictment and the charges made in it.
He said he couldn’t elaborate on what Hagwell’s defense might be.
"At this point, we don’t have any access to any of the files or any of the evidence that has been collected by the state," Klotz said. "We are in the process of conducting our own investigation and are waiting to get access to the evidence that has been processed by law enforcement."
Klotz also said he was aware Hagwell’s case was high-profile.
"I’m very aware that the community has an interest in this case," he said. "But my highest concern is representing my client at this point and making sure that he receives the best representation and that the process is fair."