Over a poorly placed blindfold of red duct tape, Peter Tournay could see his childhood friend being beaten before being shot to death.
The 34-year-old recounted to a jury Wednesday how Hoyt Birge was beaten with a hammer, fists and the butt of a rifle by at least four armed men. Then he saw Birge shot at close range with an AK-47, ending his life on May 8.
Tournay was the first witness to testify at the murder trial of 29-year-old Paige Vowell. She is one of eight suspects to face trial in connection with Birge’s murder during a drug deal turned robbery.
Vowell is accused of first-degree murder, two counts of kidnapping, armed carjacking with a firearm and accessory after the fact.
Patrick Berrane, Page Briggs, Jesse Fox, Brittney Guthrie, David Howard, Vicki Strickland and Stanley West have also been arrested in connection with the murder. They face trial in September.
More coverage of the Hoyt Birge murder:
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- First suspect in Hoyt Birge murder goes on trial
- Suspect connected to murder lured victim with drug sale
- Eighth suspect charged in Birge murder
During opening arguments, Assistant State Attorney Georgia Cappleman said Vowell was responsible for luring Birge and Tournay to a Mission Road duplex to buy commonly abused prescription opioids called “blues,” and then helping to clean up the crime scene after the shooting.
“Not one person called for help,” Cappleman said. “What did they do? They tried to cover it up. This defendant was an integral part of the plan. This defendant knew exactly what was going to go down.”
The extent of Vowell’s involvement in the murder is in dispute, said her defense attorney Chuck Collins. He pointed to what he said would amount to differing statements by Tournay and others set to testify about what happened that night.
“Based on the inconsistencies, you’re going to have to try and figure out what’s credible and what’s not,” he said during his opening remarks. “Despite what other people may have knowledge of what they intended to do, it will be clear that the sole purpose of Mrs. Vowell contacting Mr. Birge was to get high.”
Tournay told jurors it was not unusual for Birge and Vowell to meet and use drugs together, but he didn’t have pills to sell her.
At about midnight, Tournay said he and Birge met up at the house where Briggs and Vowell lived. Tournay brought 10 pills, which he planned to sell for $175, he said.
They went into the house and were greeted by Vowell and Strickland. Within moments, four armed men came out of a back room. They beat Birge, Tournay said, and during the scuffle, Berrane shot Birge while he lay on the floor bleeding.
“They were hitting him in the face and a piece of his skin and eye was hanging off,” Tournay told jurors somberly. “And I heard a gunshot go off.
“The room was silent. The shot went off and he just laid there still. Within a few seconds, I heard someone say, ‘He’s gone. He’s dead.’”
Tournay described a panic inside the house as the suspects discussed what to do with the body. He said the two women were involved in the discussion.
They discussed taking the body to rural Jefferson County to cut it up and bury it or to take it to Gainesville. They gathered saws, trash bags and shovels while Vowell and others scrubbed blood off the walls, Tournay said. While Vowell was cleaning, he said she went through Birge’s pockets and asked where the pills were.
He was asked to help carry the body to the trunk of his mother’s car outside. Tournay begged for his life as Howard and Berrane drove around with Birge’s body in the car. Tournay convinced them to take him to his mother’s house off East Mahan Drive where he was able to escape and call the Leon County Sheriff’s Office.
Birge’s body ultimately was found in the trunk at a student housing complex on Woodward Avenue.
During cross-examination of Tournay, Collins asked if Vowell was involved in beating or shooting Birge. He asked if Tournay remembered seeing her don a pair of pink dishwashing gloves while he was cleaning up blood, as prosecutors contend.
“No,” Tournay answered.
Collins also homed in on Tournay’s past. He has been convicted of 11 felonies and 14 misdemeanor charges including passing worthless checks, forgery, grand theft. He faces charges of trafficking in methamphetamine and DUI from December.
“He’s the only uncharged witness in this case,” Collins said. “The issue is what you believe Mrs. Vowell’s involvement was and her knowledge leading up to this case.”