July 2, 2014 in City

Gary Stoddard testifies at murder trial that he fabricated confession

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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A Spokane man who confessed to shooting the handcuffed girlfriend of his nephew recanted his story before a jury Tuesday.

Testifying in his murder trial, Gary Stoddard denied ever being at the scene of Heather Cassel’s fatal shooting in March 2013. Instead, he said he fabricated his statement to investigators from the words and actions of his nephew, Jonathan Ritchey, who he contends is the true killer.

“It felt like all the blood drained from my system,” Stoddard said of the alleged confession his nephew made to him. According to Stoddard, Ritchey admitted to shooting his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Cassel, minutes after the couple had left Stoddard’s duplex in the early morning hours of March 11, 2013.

No one else witnessed that confession, Stoddard said.

Jurors will begin their deliberations following closing arguments, expected to be delivered this morning.

Investigators tied DNA evidence found on the alleged murder weapon and a hat found nearby to Stoddard. Ritchey initially pointed police to his uncle as a suspect the day of the shooting, and the nephew has since pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assistance in the homicide and been released from jail.

Stoddard told the jury Tuesday he confessed to the crime to protect the nephew he still “loves without end” and because he believed he had terminal pancreatic cancer, based on his self-diagnosis by reading WebMD.com, and would die before reaching trial.

“No one cares about me,” Stoddard said when questioned why he didn’t share these health concerns with his family. He testified that he told Ritchey’s mother, who is Stoddard’s sister, “if you ever find me dead, just throw me in the Dumpster.”

Stoddard told the jury he’s since been diagnosed with diabetes and other nonterminal ailments.

In the hours preceding the shooting, Stoddard said he spoke with Ritchey and Cassel multiple times. Cassel was found shot at apartments near the Spokane Falls Community College campus, handcuffs dangling from her left wrist. Ritchey and Cassel’s son was staying with Stoddard and Ritchey’s mother that night while the pair, who had just recently broken up, went out drinking with friends.

Stoddard said after multiple phone calls, he picked up the couple at the apartment they shared. He took them back to his duplex several blocks away, where Ritchey and Cassel left for the casino shortly before 4 a.m.

According to witness accounts, the fatal shooting took place about 20 minutes later and 2 miles from Stoddard’s duplex. Ritchey returned to Stoddard’s home shortly after to tell his uncle what he’d done, Stoddard testified. Stoddard then took steps to “distance” Ritchey from the crime, including driving Cassel’s Honda away from the area.

Under pressure from prosecuting attorney Larry Steinmetz, Stoddard said he made up his mind to confess late in the day.

But Stoddard offered no clear timeline of his decision to confess, saying he also considered leaving his home.

“My plan, and I didn’t pack up my belongings, my plan was to distance myself from this the best that I could, and I was simply going to go to a friend’s house for a while,” Stoddard said.

Steinmetz asked Stoddard why he was blaming the nephew he loved for murder on the stand.

“Look, he’s got an option,” Stoddard said, without explaining the option.

Police arrested Stoddard in a neighboring duplex some hours after the shooting, then questioned him at length about his role. Stoddard denied making several specific statements that were in police reports of the interview, saying he offered generic evidence based on conversations he had with Ritchey and the frenzied state his nephew was in after the shooting.

Defense attorney Kevin Griffin rested following Stoddard’s testimony Tuesday. Stoddard faces potential life imprisonment if found guilty of murder.

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