HAZARD – Several of Dr. Dennis Sandlin’s family members were present on Thursday as Knott County resident John C. Combs admitted that he walked into Dr. Sandlin’s clinic in 2009 and fatally shot him. Combs now faces up to 40 years in prison.
It was in December 2009 that Combs, 49, shot Dr. Sandlin inside the Leatherwood-Blackey Clinic in Cornettsville. He was indicted the next month on charges of murder, burglary, tampering with physical evidence, and terroristic threatening. He was set for trial on July 22, and was facing the death penalty had he been convicted by a jury.
While entering his plea in Perry Circuit Court on Thursday, Combs admitted he had been seen by Dr. Sandlin on the morning of Dec. 8, 2009. He said he had been taking the antidepressant Xanax for a period of time and had decided to quit taking the medication, and, upon advice from his family, was seeking help for what he described as high anxiety. He also noted he began taking medication for depression again in the months following the shooting.
Judge John David Caudill of Floyd County, who had been assigned to the case as special judge, asked Combs if he had been coerced to plead guilty or if Combs had made the decision to enter the plea himself. Combs replied that the decision was his, and he was entering the plea because he is guilty.
“What did you do that got you charged with murder?” Caudill asked.
“I killed a man,” Combs replied.
“That’s not what I’m asking you,” the judge continued. “What did you do?”
“I killed him,” Combs said.
“Killed who?” Caudill asked.
“Dr. Sandlin,” he answered.
Judge Caudill asked Combs to described the circumstances that led to the shooting. Combs replied he was suffering from anxiety and was angry. He said he couldn’t recall much, that the morning was “vague, like a dream.”
Caudill then asked what Dr. Sandlin had done that caused Combs to shoot him that day.
“He told me he couldn’t help me without insurance,” Combs said, which drew an audible reaction of disbelief from some of Dr. Sandlin’s family members in the audience.
Combs said he asked for his money back, which he received, and left the clinic. Caudill asked if he had a firearm with him the whole time. Combs said he did not have the gun during his initial visit to the clinic, and was only armed when he returned.
“Where’d you get it from?” Caudill asked about the gun.
“I stole it from my mom,” Combs answered.
“Then you went back?” Caudill asked.
“Yes, sir,” he replied.
Combs said after returning to the clinic he walked back in through the front door and met Dr. Sandlin at the nurse’s station and shot him.
Judge Caudill went on to make a finding that Combs is guilty of murder based upon his plea. He set a sentencing hearing for Oct. 10.
According to the plea agreement announced in court, Combs pleaded guilty to murder in exchange for a 40-year prison sentence. The remaining charges will be dismissed at the time of sentencing.
Combs’s plea likely will bring to a conclusion a case that has gone on for more than three years and included numerous hearings on topics ranging from a change of venue to evidentiary issues. He was found competent to stand trial in 2010, and the trial has been continued several times since. A gag order was also placed on the case that prevented participants, including family members, from speaking publicly.
Combs is currently lodged in the Kentucky River Regional Jail in Hazard. He will next appear in court for sentencing, at which time Caudill will announce whether he has accepted the plea agreement. While none of Dr. Sandlin’s family members were permitted to speak during the hearing on Thursday, Caudill did indicate that they would be allowed to address the court concerning any issues they may have with the plea agreement at a later date.