Russell Wilkinson admits he’s been a drug addict and a criminal for a good part of his adult life, but he insists that his decision to tell police about a murder-for-hire plot likely saved the life of a Mount Pleasant real estate agent targeted for death.

Wilkinson, who is in jail now for his alleged involvement in the crime, said Wednesday the murder plot against Nancy Latham was “100 percent real.” He acknowledged that part of his motivation in talking to police was self-preservation, but he said he also wanted to stop an innocent woman from being killed.

“I feel like had I not come forward, she would be dead,” he said. “It was going to happen.”

The 39-year-old carpenter from Louisville, Ky., spoke to The Post and Courier in an interview at the Charleston County jail. A trim, bearded and balding man with a skeleton tattoo running up his left arm, he painted himself as a reluctant participant who did everything he could to foil the plot once he discovered the details.

“From the moment I knew, all I conspired to do was to make it stop,” said Wilkinson, who has been charged by federal authorities with conspiracy to commit murder.

Wilkinson said he felt sympathy for Nancy Latham when he watched her speak in court last week.

“That poor lady, listening to her talk in court and seeing her shake. She was so scared,” he said. “I can only imagine her shame, her embarrassment, her fear. But all the things she’s going through, she’s going through alive.”

‘I’ve never hurt a soul’

Wilkinson was arrested April 5 after Charleston police conducted a traffic stop on the East Side of the peninsula and discovered a pistol and ammunition inside the car the ex-con was driving. He volunteered that he and Samuel Arthur Yenawine, 38, also of Louisville, had been hired to kill Nancy Latham, authorities said.

Latham is a real estate agent and treasurer of the S.C. Education Lottery Commission. She is married to Chris Latham, a Bank of America executive who is vice president of Spoleto Festival USA and a board member of the Trident Technical College Foundation.

Yenawine, Wilkinson and Yenawine’s ex-wife, 37-year-old Wendy Annette Moore, have been arrested in connection with the alleged plot. Chris Latham has not been charged, although his wife accused him of being part of the conspiracy in a civil lawsuit this week. She has also accused him of being romantically involved with Moore.

Yenawine’s attorney, Bill Butler, and Moore’s attorney, David Aylor, have depicted Wilkinson as a heroin addict and convicted felon whose story holds no credibility. Aylor said his client doesn’t even know Wilkinson.

Beth Drake, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to discuss the case or Wilkinson’s version of events.

Wilkinson does not deny that he is a heroin addict and a former meth head who has been doing hard drugs since the age of 16. He also readily admitted that he spent nearly 10 years in prison for various crimes, including check fraud.

But he said he also went to work every day, paid his mortgage and cared for his two daughters, ages 4 and 5, and his 8-year-old stepson. And of all the years he spent in prison, it was never for a violent crime, he said.

“I’ve never hurt a soul,” he said.

Wilkinson said he thought he was heading to Nashville to get drugs when he agreed to accompany his former cellmate, Yenawine, on a road trip late last month. It was only after they arrived in Charleston that he learned the truth from his wife, Beth, who was still in Louisville, he said.

Wilkinson said his wife told him she had spoken with Yenawine’s girlfriend, who relayed details about the murder plot. He grew uneasy and scared of Yenawine. But his wife told him she would come up with a plan to derail the scheme, he said.

‘It worked like a charm’

He realized just how serious the plot was, he said, when he and Yenawine met Moore on Sullivan’s Island and got a packet that contained cash and a detailed “dossier” with directions to Nancy Latham’s house, a handwritten description of woods they could hide in and biographical information.

The next day, Wilkinson’s wife told Yenawine’s girlfriend back home that the pair had actually traveled to Charleston to film a porn movie with Moore, who had owned an adult entertainment business in Louisville, Wilkinson said. The girlfriend called Yenawine in a rage, which caused him to head back to Louisville, with Wilkinson in tow, to make sure she didn’t spend some $4,000 he had been paid for the murder and left in her care, he said.

“It worked like a charm,” Wilkinson said of his wife’s ruse. “It was brilliant.”

Once in Louisville, Wilkinson said he volunteered to return to Charleston on his own to finish the job. He scored some heroin, then left the next morning with his wife and their lap dog, Rusty, he said. His kids were in Florida on spring break at the time, he said.

Wilkinson said he had no intention of going through with the murder. In fact, he and his wife spent much of the ride discussing whether they should call the FBI and how they could get out of this mess, he said.

“Once me and Beth got to Charleston, the only times we left the hotel was to eat and get heroin. In the hotel, all we talked about was who should we tell,” he said. “I didn’t intend to do anything. I intended to do heroin.”

Yenawine would call often to check on their progress, Wilkinson said. He would lie, telling Yenawine he was following Nancy Latham but he couldn’t find her alone without her kids. They had been told they wouldn’t be paid in full for the hit if the children were present, he said.

Wilkinson said his journey came to an end while he and his wife were trying to buy heroin on America Street. When police found the gun, he feared that Yenawine would learn the plan had unraveled and that he would be the next target, Wilkinson said.

‘Self-preservation’

To save himself, his wife and Nancy Latham, Wilkinson said, he started telling police everything he knew about the plot, going against a long-ingrained aversion to law enforcement and snitching.

“It was a matter of self-preservation, in a lot of respects, but it wasn’t just my preservation,” he said.

He doesn’t see himself as a hero by any means. In fact, he thinks he was stupid to allow himself to become entangled in such a high-stakes crime. Now, he said he is worried that he will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder, with a target on his back, for ratting out Yenawine, who spent time in prison for a 2001 homicide.

“When all this is said and done, I’ll have a stone-cold killer looking to kill me,” he said. “That’s if I survive prison.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Natalie Caula at 937-5594.