JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — District Attorney Ernie Lee issued a notice Wednesday of a suspect in a 2019 homicide in Onslow County where the suspect pled guilty.

Lee said Saundra Wagner pled guilty on Tuesday to fatally stabbing James Pannoni back in 2019. She was sentenced to between 20-25 years in prison.

Below is more from Lee on the plea and sentencing.

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Saundra Wagner pled guilty to Second Degree Murder on July 5, 2022, in Onslow County Superior Court.  Superior Court Judge Clinton Rowe sentenced the defendant to an active sentence of a minimum of 240 months and a maximum of 300 months in the North Carolina Department of Adult Correction.  The State was represented by Assistant District Attorney Caroline Wahoff. 

      The State’s evidence showed that on April 7, 2019, at approximately 9:44 p.m., Deputy Carter with the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office was dispatched to 101 Chasity Way in Hubert in reference to a welfare check.  An officer with the  Truro Police Department in Massachusetts was contacted by the daughter of James Pannoni, requesting a welfare check be done on her father, because she had received information from family members that James’s vehicle was located in a trailer park and appeared to be abandoned.

     Deputy Dixon went to 101 Chasity Way and was unable to contact with James Pannoni.  However, he located a vehicle that appeared to be abandoned that was parked between two vacant trailers near Patriot Place mobile home park on Hubert Boulevard.  The vehicle was a tan 2000 Toyota Tundra registered to James Pannoni.  The vehicle’s driver side window was rolled down, and the keys were still in the ignition.  Deputies also located what appeared to be tire tracks from the vehicle’s current location to Hubert Boulevard through the large grassy area to the right of the mobile home park. 

     A resident of Patriot Place spoke with deputies and informed them at around midnight on the night of April 6, 2019, she heard two vehicles arrive in the mobile home park.  She stated that a car and a truck drove into the park, and when she woke up the morning of the 7th, she observed the tan Tundra parked across the driveway from her, between the abandoned trailers. 

     Deputies then made their way to 101 Chasity Way.  The residence appeared to be secured with no signs of a disturbance.  At this time, deputies attempted to call James Pannoni on his cell phone, however, the call went straight to voicemail.  Deputies then contacted his daughter, who stated that she had last heard from her father on his birthday, March 5, 2019.  She stated that her father did not typically leave his residence and not return due to several health problems.  She informed deputies that he was prescribed several medications, and had recently had open heart surgery. She then told deputies that her father had been dating a woman who was significantly younger than him.  Deputies learned that James Pannoni was involved with a female identified as the defendant, Saundra Wagner.

     On April 8, 2019, Detective Lucinda Hernandez went to 504 Mattocks Road in Maysville to speak with the defendant.  The defendant agreed to speak with Detective Hernandez, and when she was asked if she had seen James Pannoni, she stated that she had lied to a deputy about seeing Mr. Pannoni the previous evening.  She stated that a Jones County deputy came to her residence to ask if she had seen Mr. Pannoni, and she stated that she had not.  She told Detective Hernandez that James had, in fact, been at her residence, but when deputies came looking for him, he fled out the back door and was picked up in a white SUV driven by an unknown female.  The defendant stated that the same female had dropped Mr. Pannoni off at her residence the night before. 

     While detectives were at the residence, the defendant attempted to call Mr. Pannoni, however, the call went straight to voicemail.  The defendant allowed the residence to be searched.  When asked about her relationship with Mr. Pannoni, the defendant stated that Mr. Pannoni was significantly older than her, that they had been dating for a while, and that they were going to move in together.  However, Saundra then told detectives that she was the one who had hidden Mr. Pannoni’s truck at the mobile home park.  She stated that he asked her to hide the truck and go along with his plan of changing his identity and leaving the area.  She stated that she drove the truck to the exact location that it was found, and she stated that Mr. Pannoni had followed her in a car and driven her back to his residence.

     When detectives looked at the defendant’s text messages with Mr. Pannoni, they noted that the text messages began on April 1, 2019, even though the defendant stated that they had been dating for some time.  Furthermore, most of the text messages read that Mr. Pannoni was leaving everything to the defendant and leaving her with his credit cards “because he was leaving and changing his identity.”  When asked why Mr. Pannoni decided to leave when they were planning to move in together, she stated that he was in some sort of trouble with law enforcement, and he was going away.  The defendant later claimed that Mr. Pannoni decided to change his identity because he was involved in a hit and run in Swansboro the first week of April.  When the defendant was asked when she last saw Mr. Pannoni, she began breathing heavily and rubbing her head, and stated that she had trouble with dates and times.  The defendant declined to write a statement.

     Based on the defendant’s statements, detectives returned to 101 Chasity Way to try and locate Mr. Pannoni, and a search warrant was obtained for the residence.  In the meantime, detectives spoke to friends and family members of Mr. Pannoni, and learned that he and the defendant had been dating and had separated, but had recently gotten back together.  However, Mr. Pannoni informed one of his friends that the defendant had obtained some of his bank information, and that was the “last straw,” and Mr. Pannoni ended the relationship with the defendant.  He stated that the defendant smashed his laptop after being confronted by Mr. Pannoni.  Mr. Pannoni’s family and friends also told detectives that the defendant had incurred several charges on his credit cards.

     On the evening of April 8, 2019, a search warrant was executed at 101 Chasity Way.  The interior of the residence was neat and organized, however, when searching the outside of the residence, detectives noticed that a flower bed in the back yard appeared new and well maintained compared to the landscaping in front of the residence.  Deputies noticed that the flowers were not completely planted and some of the plants were in the plastic container they were sold in.  The flower bed was excavated, and  deputies located a piece of plastic and what appeared to be a human leg.  Deputies located a deceased male, identified as James Pannoni, wrapped in several pieces of plastic.  The plastic smelled strongly of bleach.  It appeared that an attempt had been made to dismember the body.  Shower curtains were missing from the bathrooms of the home.  Detectives were able to confirm that the defendant had purchased all the materials used to make the flower bed at the Walmart in Swansboro.

     An autopsy was performed, and the medical examiner located 4 stab wounds to the defendant’s chest, as well as 2 cuts to the victim’s forearm, which appeared to be defensive wounds.  Deputies were able to use Blue Star in the victim’s home, and determined that a large amount of blood was present in one of the bedrooms.  The cause of death for James Pannoni was 4 stab wounds to the chest, and the manner of death was ruled a homicide.

     During the investigation, an individual arrived at the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office to speak with detectives about the case.  He stated that on March 31, 2019, the defendant called him and told him she had done something stupid.  She stated she had used the victim’s credit card, and she wanted him to pose as the victim and speak to employees at Altitude Trampoline Park so she would not get caught.  The individual stated that the defendant showed up at his residence at around 6 in the morning the following day, April 1, 2019, and was visibly distraught.  When he asked the defendant what was wrong, she stated, “I did something really bad, I killed him.  I stabbed him.”  When asked who she had stabbed, she responded, “James.”  He further stated that on April 9, 2019, the defendant told him she was leaving town and then the following day, she asked him for money.  It was at this point that he contacted the Sheriff’s Office.

     Detectives were unable to locate the defendant.  The defendant’s family members and friends were also unable to locate her, although her brother stated that she sent him a message apologizing and letting him know that she had been driving for a while and was almost out of gas.

     On April 15, 2019, Detective Hernandez learned that the defendant had been located and apprehended in Dothan, Alabama.  The defendant was involved in a motor vehicle collision in Dothan, Alabama, and was in critical condition in the hospital.  Downloads of the defendant’s phone included “what if you just mix bleach and acetone on March 31, 2019.  She also searched “do I need a passport to travel to Mexico,” and “place an order to expedite your passport application.”  The defendant was transported to the  Onslow County Jail on May 1, 2019.

     The Onslow County Sheriff’s Office, the Dothan Police Department, and the District Attorney’s Office worked together to investigate and prosecute this case.  Detective Lucinda Hernandez was the lead detective on the case.  The State would like to thank the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office for their efforts in investigating this case, and for their continued efforts to bring those who commit violent crimes to justice.  As District Attorney, I was with the Onslow County Sheriff’s Office when the victim’s body was discovered in the backyard of the residence in Hubert.  I appreciate the hard work and professionalism of Sheriff Hans Miller and the Sheriff’s Office during this investigation.   The work of the Sheriff’s Office ensured this office was able to obtain a conviction.