Plea deal wraps up Tennessee murder case

Published 11:52 am Tuesday, December 12, 2023

By Jan Runions

jan.runions@claiborneprogress.net

Jimmy Riffe has spent the last 1,014 days behind bars waiting to face the judge as the last standing suspect in the Massengill murder case. The other two – Courtney Gilpin and Patrick Smith – have taken plea agreements. Riffe decided instead to hold out for a trial, which was set to begin on Dec. 12.

However, plans changed when Riffe decided to a plea deal on Friday afternoon, Dec. 8.

Riffe will be spending the next 35 years in prison for his part in the Massengill murder. He pleaded guilty to a concurrent second degree murder, aggravated robbery and conspiracy to commit robbery for an effective 35 years at 100 percent confinement.

Graham Wilson, Assistant Attorney General of the 8th Judicial District, spoke of the outcome.

“We feel that this sentence is appropriate, especially with the approval of the family,” said Wilson directly following the hearing.

On a bitterly cold evening in mid-February 2021, Aaron Massengill climbed into his pickup never again to be seen alive. A massive manhunt stretched over an estimated 800 miles and six long days and nights. Law enforcement along with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation worked alongside volunteers in grids searching for the 28-year-old who had gone missing. Planes and helicopters combed the area from the sky.

The Massengill case captured the hearts of a region, as individuals from the tri-state area joined in the search, posting updates on a Facebook page devoted to the hunt. People from distant states joined the page, wanting to keep updated and show their support.

Massengill was discovered on Feb. 22 along a stretch of ditch line on Ferguson Ridge Road in the Cave Springs community of Claiborne County. He had been shot in the chest after a brief but aggressive struggle – his body wrapped in a blanket for transport to the drop off site.

The public first learned of the details during Gilpin’s plea hearing. Jared Effler, Attorney General for the 8th Judicial District, outlined the events.

Effler said Smith and Riffe were engaged in a brief struggle with Massengill in which a cylindrical object was used to hit him twice on the head. He said Smith grabbed Massengill from behind in a type of bear hug/choke hold. The struggle ended abruptly when Gilpin delivered the killing blow as she grabbed a gun and shot Massengill in the chest.

According to Effler, Gilpin had lured the young man to a home on the pretext of having him drive her to a local fast-food restaurant. Instead, Massengill was met with the trio’s plans to steal his truck, a 1991 Nissan pickup, and any money and belongings found on him.

Victim impact statements were read during that first hearing by Massengill’s mother and two sisters. One sister said Aaron was “always there for everybody” regardless of who they were. The other sister questioned how anyone could throw her brother out “like a piece of trash.”

Massengill’s mother Sharon spoke with the Claiborne Progress during those early search days. She said she knew something wasn’t right when he failed to return the next morning to care for his dogs.

“I know a lot of people thought I was crazy but I know my kids. He would brave a snowstorm to get home to feed his dogs. He also wouldn’t have done me and his sisters like that because he knows we fret over him and he can’t stand it if he thinks he’s worried you.”

She spoke of the outpouring of support and the tangible way in which even strangers have taken on the hunt for the missing man – how it has given the family hope that Aaron will be found.

“It’s a string and a prayer. If it were not for the people in this community, I don’t think we’d be standing. They lift us up daily. It’s overwhelming. It’s the most heart wrenching thing that anybody can go through. I understand he’s a grown man but they’re never ‘not your babies.’ Not knowing if they’re safe, not knowing if they’re laying out in these cold temperatures. There’re just no words to describe.”