SAVANNAH, Tenn. — It was a prayer circle 6 ½ years in the making.
Shortly after a man was convicted of kidnapping and killing Tennessee nursing student Holly Bobo, her family and friends held hands, closed their eyes and thanked God for the guilty verdict.
Family pastor Don Franks spoke softly as those who loved Bobo wept. He told them they will see Holly again.
“She’s waiting on the other side,” Franks said. The group then said “hallelujah.”
After a tense, 11-day trial, a jury in Savannah, Tennessee, found Zachary Adams guilty Friday of kidnapping, raping and murdering Bobo. She was 20 in April 2011 when she was led into the woods behind her home by an unidentified man wearing camouflage in the rural town of Parsons.
Bobo’s disappearance led to a frantic search of the farms, fields and barns of western Tennessee, and her case received national attention. Her remains were found in September 2014 by two men hunting for ginseng in woods not far from her home in Decatur County, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) southwest of Nashville.
Adams, 33, avoided a possible death penalty by agreeing to a sentence of life in prison plus 50 years on Saturday.
Before her skull was discovered, Bobo’s relatives and friends prayed she would be found alive. After her death was confirmed, their focus switched to finding justice for the young woman known for her singing at church.
“She finally has the peace in the valley that she sang about,” family friend Rickey Alexander said.
After the jury was let out of the courtroom, Bobo’s mother Karen hugged prosecutor Jennifer Nichols and Bobo’s father Dana hugged Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwyn.
Defense attorney Jennifer Thompson patted Adams on the shoulder and spoke into his ear shortly after the verdict was read. Outside the courtroom, she said she was extremely disappointed in the verdict and maintained that Adams was innocent.
Adams was very upset and trembling after the verdict, she said.
“He was really shaking his head,” Thompson said. “He was white as a ghost.”
Judge C. Creed McGinley moved the trial from Decatur County to neighboring Hardin County in search of an unbiased jury. The jury deliberated 3½ hours Thursday and about seven hours Friday before reaching a verdict.
“I’m not sure you can get an unbiased jury” in a case that has received so much attention in the area, Thompson said.
Prosecutor Paul Hagerman declined comment.
Two other men, Jason Autry and Adams’ brother John Dylan Adams, also face charges of kidnapping, raping and killing Bobo.
Autry testified against Adams, telling jurors that Adams told him that he, his brother and their friend Shayne Austin had raped Bobo. Autry also said that he served as a lookout as Adams shot Bobo near a river in the day she was reported missing.
Autry was on a list of witnesses who were offered immunity in the case. He said he testified because he wanted leniency.
Autry’s lawyer has told the judge that a trial does not need to be set for Autry, indicating he has reached a deal with prosecutors. A trial date has not been set for John Dylan Adams.
The TBI has said that the Bobo investigation is the most exhaustive and expensive in the agency’s history.
But investigators found no DNA evidence connecting Bobo to any of the men. Instead, they relied on Autry’s story and other testimony from friends and jail inmates who said Adams spoke of harming Bobo.
Friend Anthony Phoenix used an expletive to describe how Adams told him that he “couldn’t have picked” a prettier woman. Christopher Swift said Adams asked him if God would forgive him for the “Holly killing,” while they were both jailed together.
During closing arguments, Thompson had accused Autry of selling his “tall tale” to prosecutors in return for the death penalty.
“A lot of people believed that if you say something, it must be true,” Thompson said.