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'Religious motivation' probed in triple Keeling slaying; suspect's phone believed to have audio diary of 'things that he had heard from God'

'Religious motivation' probed in triple Keeling slaying; suspect's phone believed to have audio diary of 'things that he had heard from God'


The suspect in a triple homicide in Keeling “was operating under religious motivation” on the day of the slayings, according to a recently filed Pittsylvania County Circuit Court document.

Police investigators wrote about the religious aspect in a search warrant filed to pry from cellphones thought to belong to suspect Matthew Thomas Bernard, 18, any digital records that might reveal the impetus for the killings.

Bernard faces first-degree murder and related firearms charges in the slayings of his mother, Joan Bernard, 62; his sister, Emily Bernard Bivens, 25; and her 14-month-old son, Cullen Bivens, on Aug. 27.

According to the search warrant, Jason Adkins, the youth pastor at Central Boulevard Church of God, where the family regularly attended, told investigators Bernard maintained on his cellphone an audio diary of “his thoughts, what he had seen in dreams, visions, and things that he had heard from God.”

The youth pastor estimated there are more than 100 recordings on the phone, but said Bernard never had directly shared any of them with him.

“Mr. Adkins said Matthew told him he wanted to keep this in case it comes to pass,” investigator Dusty Sheppard wrote in the search warrant.

Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office deputies found two cellphones at the Bernard family home at 1949 Keeling Drive, where the killings happened.

One iPhone, which had a cracked screen, was listed in the search warrant as being found in Bernard’s bedroom. Previous search warrants indicate the phone showed two missed calls from “mom” when it was found.

Another iPhone in a black case, which father Skip Bernard confirmed to investigators as belonging to his son, was listed in the search warrant as being found in the front yard. Adkins did not confirm this phone is the one where the recordings are located, the warrant states.

Sheppard wrote information found on Bernard’s phone — including voicemails, recordings, social media activity, internet history and location data — would help them better understand Bernard’s motives and activities on the day of the killings and in the days and hours leading up to those events.

Deputies initially arrived at the Bernard home the morning of Aug. 27 to find the bodies of two adults and an infant. They responded after a 911 call by neighbor and relative Rachel Jefferson following a brief visit by Bernard — he knocked on her door, punched her in the arm when she answered and ran away. The sound of gunshots punctuating the air minutes later.

She arrived at the Bernard residence to find a body in the driveway and to see Bernard walk from the garage.

“At that time she observes him holding a rifle,” the search warrant states. “She observed him look at her, and then she observed him run into the woods carrying the rifle with him.”

Arriving deputies would find Emily Bivens with blood on her chest and Cullen Bivens shot in the head in a bedroom. Joan Bernard was found in the driveway and appeared to have been shot.

Shell casings were found near the victims and a bloody sledgehammer was found in the garage, where bullet holes had pierced an antique car, search warrants state. The rifle later was found in the woods behind the home. A deceased dog also was found inside the house.

Law enforcement captured Bernard nearly a mile from the crime scene after an hours-long manhunt involving more than 100 law enforcement officers. The manhunt concluded with Bernard jogging from the woods naked and unarmed. He received a face-full of pepper spray from a state trooper and attempted to choke a bystander before jogging down the road right into a police barricade.

At the arraignment earlier this month, Judge Brian Turpin, of the Pittsylvania Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, allowed for a competence and sanity evaluation at the request of defense attorney James Martin. The order signed by Turpin indicates the evaluation must be completed by Oct. 31.

Bernard currently is being held by the state’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Services instead of at a local jail, court documents state.

A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 6 in Pittsylvania County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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