Handcuffed and terrified, 20-year-old Heather Cassel broke free from her abductor early Monday morning and ran toward an apartment complex screaming for help when bullets ended the chase.
One bullet tore through her stomach. The second bullet struck below her eye, fired from close range. Gary L. Stoddard, 45, later told police that he shot Cassel because he was afraid to go to jail.
Asked by detectives why he decided to shoot his nephew’s girlfriend, Stoddard replied, “When things came apart and I couldn’t control the situation,” according to court records.
Stoddard, a convicted felon also known as Michael Gary Stoddard, remains in custody on a $1 million bond. Both he and his nephew, 23-year-old Jonathan J.L. Ritchey, face charges of first-degree murder. Stoddard faces the additional charge of first-degree kidnapping.
Public defender Steven Reich argued Tuesday that the Spokane police investigation lacked probable cause to charge Ritchey. Investigators couldn’t place him at the scene of the shooting, he said, which took place at about 4:30 a.m. Monday just outside the College Terrace Apartments near Spokane Falls Community College.
“There’s no connection between what I’m reading, the defendant (Ritchey) and the charge of murder,” Reich told Superior Court Judge James Triplet.
Triplet noted that Ritchey – who has a child with Cassel – has no prior criminal history and set the younger man’s bond at $100,000.
Initially investigators didn’t know the identity of the young woman gunned down on the lawn of the apartment complex.
“When someone is shot twice who has handcuffs on, that gives us a great cause for concern, especially when we can’t identify her through any traditional means,” said Cmdr. Brad Arleth, of the Spokane Police Department. “She obviously was taken away from some residence by force.”
Detectives didn’t learn Cassel’s name until about 12 hours into the investigation, after the department released photos of Cassel’s distinctive tattoos. Once her identity was confirmed, they quickly learned her boyfriend’s name.
Detective Jeff Barrington found Ritchey at his mother’s home at 1415 W. Grace Ave. He agreed to talk to police and explained that he’d had an argument with Cassel early Monday about someone she’d met on Craigslist.
Ritchey initially claimed he had no knowledge of Cassel’s death, court records state. He eventually admitted, however, that his uncle, Stoddard, had killed his girlfriend.
Ritchey also said he had seen Stoddard with a pistol and a pair of chrome-hinged handcuffs in recent days, and that he’d handled both items. “Ritchey admitted that his DNA would likely be on both the Glock 9 mm pistol and the hinged handcuffs,” Barrington wrote.
Ritchey had a series of phone conversations with Stoddard but told detectives he deleted most of those records from his phone, court documents say.
Detectives Neil Gallion and Corey Turman found Stoddard hiding under a bed next door to Ritchey’s mother’s residence. Under questioning, Stoddard, who has previous convictions for domestic violence assault, theft and fraud, admitted he had gone to a residence on West Cora Avenue, where Ritchey and Cassel were arguing.
Ritchey told police that sometime after 3 a.m., Stoddard arrived and left with Cassel in her Honda Accord. He said he saw Stoddard with a backpack.
Stoddard said he drove Cassel – who divulged her plan to seek custody of her child with Ritchey – to a parking lot on West George Fort Wright Drive. Stoddard told detectives he put Cassel in handcuffs to try to control her. They were in an area north of the apartment complex, Barrington said in court documents.
Stoddard walked Cassel back to her Honda and put her in the front passenger seat, where she freed herself from one of the handcuffs. She kicked Stoddard and tried to run away, court documents say. Stoddard panicked and shot Cassel “because he said he was afraid to go to jail,” Barrington wrote.
Arleth lauded the efforts of the detectives to arrest two suspects in a case that started with so little information.
“It’s a terrible tragedy not only for the victim’s family but for the child who will now grow up without a mother,” Arleth said.
Cassel had started a new job just six weeks before at Avalon Care Center at Northpointe, said Randy Clabaugh, director of nursing services.
“She was a very good employee,” Clabaugh said. “She will be missed.”