Thursday, July 30, 2015

Leslie County Quintuple Murder Mystery


In the early morning hours of February 6, 2004 a school bus driver beginning his route noticed a trailer on fire.  He notified the authorities but the fire quickly consumed the trailer. After firefighters arrived and extinguished the flames they made a gruesome discovery. Inside were the remains of five people; 25 year-old Chris Sturgill and his wife Amanda, 21, along with their three children Michael, 4, Robert, 3, and Jordan, 18 months.

Chris and Amanda had been shot with a bow and arrows in their Leslie County, KY home. The children had died of smoke inhalation.  The bodies of Chris and Amanda were found in bed, the fire’s ignition point having been directly on top of Amanda.
 
The Sturgill Family



The man accused and convicted of murder has been granted a retrial, set to begin next month.  We've dug into this case as local interest has risen. What we found raises a few questions.  There is limited information regarding the case to be found online and others' attempts to obtain transcripts of the original trial have failed to produce them.  While frustrating to the curious, what information we were able to obtain makes the case read just like a true crime mystery, complete with a psychic witness.

Disclaimer - The story presented is a based on the testimony of witnesses at the trial and others.  As there is no physical evidence to go on, it is presented relying on witness accounts.  We're not responsible for any slandering others may have done in the past, we're presenting a version that exists in the public consciousness based on the most verifiable information available.

The day before, Chris had been drinking with his friend, Clayton Jackson. The two often fished and hunted together.  Jackson sometimes rode with Sturgill in his coal-hauling truck, and Sturgill had been trying to teach him to drive it [1].  At some point they went to a local bootlegger’s for more alcohol.  Heavy rain all day had caused creeks to rise, so Clayton said Chris had dropped him off that night and that he waded across the creek to his house where he took the phone off the hook and passed out until after 10 a.m. the next morning when a phone call made him aware of the Sturgills' deaths. 

Police began looking for Chris' 1989 Mack coal truck. Neighbors told authorities they heard someone leaving in it, the inexperienced driver grinding the gears and driving slowly sometime before dawn.  Walter Noland, a security guard who had just finished his overnight shift at nearby Red Bird Mission saw the truck, driving an estimated 15 m.p.h., with a small red car following it.  Others mentioned the red car following, some saying it was driving without its headlights on.  Several witnesses reported seeing three or four men driving Chris' truck sometime after 11 p.m. the night before.  Clayton Jackson was not one of them. 

Area of Leslie County, KY where the Sturgills and Clayton Jackson lived


Police received multiple phone calls from Shirley Mae Barrett that morning. She told them her boyfriend, Clayton Jackson, had spent the night at the Sturgill home the night before and she had been unable to reach him all night. She also called Clayton's mother, and others in the Roark community looking for Clayton.

At the scene of the fire Shirley Mae Barrett approached John Griffith, who had been assigned his first case as a State Police detective. She asked how many bodies had been found inside and he told her there had been five. She then asked, “Don’t you mean six?" Griffith assured her there had been five.

Later that day Chris’ coal truck was found on an old strip mine site four miles away with the interior burned out.  The only clue they found was a single footprint leading away from the truck. 

Barrett’s phone calls pointed Det. Griffith to Clayton Jackson. When police arrived at Jackson’s home he consented to being interviewed and voluntarily gave hair and DNA samples.  Over the next three days he was questioned a total of four times. Three days after the fire, police served Jackson with a search warrant and found marijuana, pipes, seeds, and other paraphernalia in his home.  They also recovered a sawed-off shotgun, said to have been given to him by a relative and forgotten about. The barrel was an inch under the legal limit and had no serial numbers.  Police charged him with possession of the gun and arrested him.   

Clayton Jackson's mugshot

Clayton Jackson, who had no prior criminal record, signed a plea deal and was sentenced to 35 months, which he served in Beckley, West Virginia.  His cellmate there, Kinsey McCloud, was serving a 48 month sentence for a firearms charge.  Looking to shave some time off his sentence, McCloud helped Jackson write a letter which he forwarded to investigators. In the letter Jackson changed his story and confessed to having been in the Sturgill’s home on the night of the murders.  He named at least two local men, Porter Morgan and Dustin Slusher, as the killers.  According to Jackson, they had been involved in a meth deal gone bad with Chris Sturgill.  Jackson claimed to have been in the bathroom when it happened, then fled out the back door. He concluded the letter by saying, "I don't want to lose any more than I already have. If I can't find any help, (Kentucky State Police) are going to cause me to lose my life."
[2]

Clayton Jackson served his time and was released.  He started to go on with his life.  Then nearly four years later the Leslie County Grand Jury indicted Jackson, charging him with the murders, arson, and theft of the truck.

Rumors began spreading like wildfire throughout the small community of Roark.  In the weeks leading up to the trial a forum on the Topix.com web site, where users can post anonymously, was filled w/ comments both defending his innocence and expressing hopes that he burn in hell after receiving the death penalty.  A few users were unsure of Jackson’s guilt but were sure of the involvement of more than one perpetrator.  Versions of the story that had been through the local rumor mill were posted by anonymous users.  Facts and rumors blurred together in a reflection of what was happening offline as well.  As a result the trial was moved to nearby Clay County after the court was unable to seat an impartial jury. 

Commonwealth's Attorney Gary Gregory based his case against Clayton Jackson on the testimony of Jackson's ex-girlfriend, the men accused in the letter, and 2 men who were inmates with Jackson while he was imprisoned for the gun charge.  During questioning the men whom Jackson named in the letter testified that they had been partying the night before, drinking and doing cocaine.  Gregory said they had been cleared during the investigation. The gruesome crime scene photos were shown.   Gregory pointed out that Jackson had bought a pair of gloves on the day before the murders and suggested Jackson had wanted to have an affair with Amanda Sturgill and became angry when she turned down his advances as a possible motive.

Rerferring back to the muddy footprint found near the burned-out coal truck, Gregory pointed out that, although 4 miles away, it happened to point in the direction of Clayton Jackson's home. "As the crow flies, that's not a long way to his house," Gregory said. Detective Griffith testified that FBI investigators searched for fingerprints and footprints at the scene and found nothing that implicated Jackson
[3]. Another informant, Troy Hanley, contradicted the story in Jackson’s letter, testifying that Jackson had told him, “we set the place on fire.” No physical evidence was presented.

Jackson entering the courtroom

In Jackson’s defense, public defender Barbara Carnes argued that police had zeroed in on Jackson from the beginning and didn’t follow up on other leads.  She cited the lack of physical evidence, pointing out that everything was circumstantial.  Clayton had told detectives he bought the gloves to pick up aluminum cans for money in the cold weather.  Carnes also stated that flooding the night of the murders made it impossible for Jackson to have ditched the coal truck and walked home. She pointed out that Shirley Mae Barrett, Jackson’s ex-girlfriend, was said to have owned a car similar to the one following the coal truck, but Barrett denied it. Is it possible the red car was driven by someone connected to the crime, perhaps following the coal truck to give its driver a ride back? Sure, just as possible as it being a random driver who found themself stuck behind the slow moving truck with nowhere to pass it.

Witnesses for the defense included Red Bird resident Naomi Brock.  During cross-examination Brock admitted to having “psychic powers,” and being able to tell what has happened or what will happen to people she spends enough time with. Her psychic abilities, however, weren’t in question during her testimony, which related to what she saw with her own eyes.  She told of four men driving Chris Sturgill’s pickup truck to her home and parking at the end of her driveway around 10 p.m. the night before the bodies were discovered.  She watched them from her kitchen window.  She identified some of them as the same men Jackson named in the letter he wrote from prison.  They left about 11 p.m. and were seen after that by another neighbor who also testified at the trial

During her closing argument Carnes drove home the lack of evidence and the defense’s reliance upon questionable witnesses.

While trying to reach a decision the jury asked to review the video testimony of Porter Morgan, Dustin Slusher, Slusher’s brother Shawn, and Brian Saylor, all of whom’s names had been part of the local rumors.  They also asked to review testimony from Shirley Mae Bennett again.  Unable to reach a decision the first day, jurors were sequestered for the night and continued deliberations the next day.  That evening they returned to the courtroom, in agreement that Clayton Jackson was guilty of arson and the murders of the Sturgill children; Michael, Robert, and Jordan. He was not found guilty of the theft of the coal truck or the murders of Chris and Amanda, on which they were split 10-2.

Because of the multiple murders Jackson was eligible for the death penalty under Kentucky law.  Days after the verdict the jury elected to give him a life sentence without the possibility of parole for each of the murder convictions, as well as the maximum 50 year sentence for the arson charge. 

Supporters of Jackson immediately proclaimed his innocence on the Topix forum, citing the lack of evidence, lack of a motive and expressing their hopes of an appeal. Others expressed joy in the conviction and their hopes of eternal suffering for the man found guilty.  More anonymous users posted thoughts that if Jackson was guilty, he hadn’t been alone and hoped the others involved would be brought to justice..  The same names, and a couple new ones, were thrown around again.   

The Kentucky Supreme Court reviewed an appeal filed on Jackson’s behalf, which argued that a juror should have been dismissed because of ties to one of the victims.  The appeal, which can be read in its’ entirety here, cites a conversation the juror in question had with the judge. He admitted that Amanda Sturgill’s brother had lived with his family years ago and the two had been close friends.  The judge discussed the conversation the juror had with him with both attorneys.  When the judge asked the juror if the old relationship would effect his ability to make an impartial decision, he replied, “I doubt it,” going on to say that, “It would be better to let somebody else serve it
[4].”  However, it was decided the juror would remain.

Based on the decision to allow the juror to remain, the Kentucky Supreme Court granted a retrial, which is scheduled to begin in August.  I'd love to be able to go and look into this story with the time and attention to detail it deserves. If any of our readers out there wished to finance the project, I'm ready to go!  We will continue to bring you updates to this case as new information unfolds.





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[1] http://lists.washlaw.edu/pipermail/deathpenalty/2007-November/007265.html

[2] http://www.kentucky.com/2011/04/06/1697582/deliberations-begin-in-clayton.html

[3]http://www.kentucky.com/2011/03/26/1684413/prosecutor-shows-jury-two-bows.html

[4] http://caselaw.findlaw.com/ky-supreme-court/1626355.html 

Also of interest:
Topix forum relating to the case




4 comments:

  1. I can't wait to read the book! I am so excited!! If you need a research assent I am always available!

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