The secret ‘double life’ – and violent death – of a beloved Charlotte nursery owner

When the beloved Charlotte nursery owner was shot and killed in his home last year, messages of sorrow poured out from the community. Longtime customers recalled how the 64 year-old, Jesse Campbell, would welcome them with hugs, and remember each of their children by name. They called him one of Charlotte’s “bright and shining staples,” a man who exemplified the best in the town’s small businesses. His business was in Dilworth, an elegant and wealthy residential neighborhood just adjacent to Charlotte’s downtown.

Why, everyone asked, would anyone want to kill him? A court hearing Thursday helped provide an answer and it was a shocker.

Both prosecutors and the defense attorney for the man accused in his death said that Campbell repeatedly withheld pay from young employees, often young Hispanic men, forcing them to have sex with him. He was an extortionist, they said.

“Mr. Campbell lived a double life,” said Harry Dest, the public defender representing the man arrested in connection with Campbell’s death. In videotaped recordings of the hearing, the lawyer added that the nursery owner “would use his position of authority, particularly of a person of his stature, to try to engage in sexual acts.”

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A former greenhouse employee, Kevin Mauricio Arita DeJesus, 21, pleaded guilty Thursday to shooting his former boss on Jan. 5 at Campbell’s home near Lake Wylie.

Police initially charged him with murder, but prosecutors ultimately determined it was voluntary manslaughter, a “heat of passion” killing, The Herald reported. He is expected to spend 12 year in prison.

DeJesus quit his job after Campbell offered to pay him $400 a day to move to Florida with him and become his companion, the defense said in the hearing.

DeJesus hadn’t been paid for several weeks worth of cleaning, household chores and landscaping work at Campbell’s house, The Herald reported, so he went to Campbell’s house to ask for the money owed to him. The employee had his own key to enter the home, located on a peninsula in an upscale part of Lake Wylie.

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After a struggle for a gun that Campbell had in his possession, DeJesus shot the man in the head, under the ear, according to court statements. When the nursery owner didn’t show up for work, a concerned employee checked Campbell’s home and found him lying on his kitchen floor, pants down, the Charlotte Observer reported.

York County deputies found and arrested DeJesus after they matched paint and a broken taillight from the getaway vehicle to DeJesus’ truck.

DeJesus, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, will be deported to his home country after serving his prison sentence.

Dest said his client fled Honduras to escape violent gangs, WCNC reported.

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“He was trying to avoid a life of horrific violence in Honduras,” Dest said. “It’s tragic it ended this way because he really wanted to live in the United States and avoid that type of environment for himself and his family.”

During Thursday’s meeting, DeJesus appeared to be holding back tears, keeping his head down as he listened to his lawyer read details of the case. After the hearing, other longtime employees of Campbell’s Nursery were noticeably expressing anguish for a different reason, grieving the death of the nursery owner they still believed was a wonderful, gentle man, The Herald reported. He was the shooting victim – not DeJesus, they said. “It is almost like Jesse got killed twice,” employee Debbie Capps told The Herald.

Before opening his nursery, Campbell was a high school biology teacher, and would fill his classroom with plants of all kinds, his former students told the Charlotte Observer. One student, who kept in touch with Campbell, said the former teacher helped her cope with the death of her mother a decade later.

In the mid-2000s, Campbell battled cancer and survived, Charlotte Magazine reported. He then suffered two heart attacks, in late 2012 and early 2013. In May 2015, he underwent open-heart surgery, and soon after that he was back at his post at the nursery. Less than a year later, he was killed.

A longtime customer, Charlotte attorney Lauren Harkey, called Campbell “the orchid whisperer” and wrote that he would watch over her plants like a parent when they weren’t blooming. “At the first signs of future blooms, you’d get an excited phone call telling you to come quick and enjoy your orchid.”

Lee Ellen Lawn, another customer, told Charlotte Magazine that she could walk into any of her friend’s homes in the community and “the majority of them have bought or been given plants from Campbell’s Greenhouses.”

“You think, ‘Who would want to do this to the kindest man you know?’ ” she said.