Man accused of murdering sister, shooting mother in Jacksonville in 2007, soon to be eligible for release

Published: Sep. 21, 2023 at 7:15 PM EDT
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JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WITN) - A Jacksonville man could soon be free after finishing treatment at a state psychiatric hospital.

Now-51-year-old James Connolley was accused of murdering his sister and shooting his mother back in 2007. A judge deemed him unfit to stand trial. He’s been in treatment ever since, but by the end of this year, he could be out.

His now-late sister’s husband and daughter feel it’s far too soon, and that his freedom could spell danger for the community.

“It pretty much ripped all those scars back open again, and it’s like reliving it again,” said widower Patrick Baker.

Reliving the day Patrick Baker’s wife, Victoria, was shot and killed, authorities say, by her own brother - Denis James Connolley, Jr, who many refer to as James.

“She was a wonderful person,” Patrick said, recalling his wife’s memory. “We had 12 years together that I imagined would be forever. She was the kindest, most loving person. She’d give you the shirt off her back if you needed it. She loved everybody. I can’t say enough good about her.”

But they lost that beautiful person far too soon. In her last hours alive, Victoria was at her and her husband’s Onslow County home near Harris Creek off Burgaw Highway. Patrick and his daughter, Nicole, still recall details from July 11, 2007. Nicole was just four years old at the time.

“I remember the last thing she said to me was that she loved me,” said Patrick and Victoria’s daughter Nicole.

“James shot her, went outside, and played with Nicole in her pool for about two hours, and then grandma and grandpa showed up, and that’s when they found Victoria dead in the bathroom,” Patrick Baker explained. “And as they came to leave the bathroom, James shouldered the rifle and shot his mother too, in the right collarbone. It went through and through. She’s still alive to this day, and she’s the one that called 911.”

Connolley was arrested and later deemed unfit to stand trial. He’s received treatment at Central Regional Hospital in Butner ever since. The Bakers have since moved to Washington state to try and leave what happened behind.

But now, they’ve learned Connolley may be free by the end of this year - news they only learned through a letter from Onslow County District Attorney Ernie Lee.

“I immediately started to cry. That night, I barely got much sleep and I’ve barely slept since then,” said Nicole. “It’s a constant feeling of paranoia, feeling like I have to watch my back, feeling like there’s always someone there.”

Lee’s letter read that medical personnel at Central Regional Hospital said: “further treatment is not necessary.”

“This case was very tragic. It was very sad,” said Onslow County District Attorney Ernie Lee.

Lee has written several letters to the hospital since 2013 - all, saying he was concerned about Connolley’s release.

“I will continue to respond every time I get a letter from the parole commission about a serious case or a hospital or whatever,” said Lee. “I’m going to give them my voice.”

But he says there’s not much the family can do to stop Connolley’s release and says the court’s decision to find him not guilty by reason of insanity was not made lightly.

“The state relies upon experts. The defense relies upon experts,” said Lee. “That’s what they are: experts. And in this case, though, all the experts were in agreement, which made it more formidable for the state of North Carolina to be able to proceed in this case. So, the judge made the call based upon the evidence.”

Rakesh Patel works at Central Regional Hospital. He couldn’t speak specifically on Connolley’s case but described what it requires for a patient to get to a point where they have the possibility of release.

“They have to exhibit a lot of stable behavior throughout many months and years before I think we’d be ready to go full-time,” Patel explained. “So, if there is an event on any of their activities where they elope or there’s any sort of aggression then they will immediately go from the minimum to the medium unit and delay their eventual release by years, actually.”

“There has to be some trust in the system that the person who got that designation was in fact psychiatrically ill,” Patel continued. “So there’s a tragedy on the patient’s side that they had an illness you know, that got them to do something that day if they were taking their medication, that they would have never done.”

Even so, Patrick is skeptical and feels Connolley was being manipulative during the legal process.

“I, in the back of my mind, have felt like this was a head game to him this entire time. I firmly believe he knows what he did was wrong,” Patrick said, emphatically.

When asked what he would consider “justice,” Patrick said this:

“He (Connolley) stays incarcerated until the day he dies. I don’t think the public is safe. I don’t think someone can be rehabilitated from being a murderer.”

The Bakers want anyone who can, to write to Central Regional Hospital to also oppose Connolley’s release.

Their address is 300 Veazey Rd, Butner, NC 27509.

There will be a hearing where a judge will still have to approve Connolley’s release.

In that hearing, they will hear from family members. A date for that has yet to be set.

We called Connolley’s mother several times and left voicemails to see if she was interested in commenting, but we never heard back.