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Stoddard confessed to murder to protect nephew, attorney says

Thu., June 26, 2014

A man whose murder trial started Wednesday claims that he falsely confessed to protect his nephew because he believed at the time that he had a terminal illness and wouldn’t be alive to serve a long prison sentence.

Gary Stoddard, 46, is accused of shooting and kidnapping Heather Cassel on March 11, 2013, at an apartment complex near Spokane Falls Community College.

During opening statements of his trial, prosecutors said DNA evidence as well as Stoddard’s confession point to Stoddard as the killer. The man’s nephew, Cassel’s ex-boyfriend Jonathan Ritchey, already has finished a yearlong jail sentence for his role in the death.

Police officers found Cassel dead from two gunshot wounds near the apartment complex. Handcuffs dangled from her left wrist.

Defense attorney Kevin Griffin said his client offered a confession to police to protect Ritchey, whom he described as Cassel’s “on-again, off-again” boyfriend. Griffin said Stoddard believes Ritchey killed the 20-year-old in anger over a recent breakup.

“You’ll hear that (Stoddard’s) efforts to confess … included every detail that he could remember Jonathan had told him,” Griffin said in his opening statement. Griffin said there were inconsistencies between the confession and physical evidence because Stoddard “was not there.”

Ritchey, an early suspect in the killing, pleaded guilty in March to a charge of rendering criminal assistance and was released from jail with credit for the year he served awaiting trial. Ritchey implicated his uncle in an interview with police shortly after the shooting, prosecutor Larry Steinmetz told the jury.

Detectives searched a duplex where Stoddard was thought to be staying and found him hiding from police behind a bed, Steinmetz said.

“Ultimately, the detective said we can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way,” Steinmetz said. Stoddard struck the arresting detective, Neil Gallion, and a scuffle ensued that ended in Stoddard’s arrest, he said.

The confession, which was ruled admissible by Judge Tari Eitzen, followed Stoddard’s arrest. He told police he drove around with Cassel for a while to discuss “information about him” that she was planning to give police that would result in him returning to jail. Stoddard also told police he handcuffed Cassel to “control her” and shot her after she tried to flee, Steinmetz said.

“He was very matter-of-fact when he told officers this,” Steinmetz said. “He showed no emotion.”

DNA evidence on the gun believed to be used in the shooting, the handcuffs on Cassel’s wrist and a black stocking hat found at the scene all matched Stoddard, who had been accused in the past of several violent sexual crimes but only served time in a few of those cases.

Stoddard is expected to testify during the trial, which likely will last into next week. Also scheduled to testify are several witnesses who saw Ritchey and Cassel together the night before she was killed. Griffin, the defense attorney, said the two were drinking and Ritchey went into a rage after Cassel discussed her new boyfriend she met online.

Griffin said his client had planned to hand over a computer business to his nephew, adding that he believed at the time he made his confession he was suffering from a terminal illness.

“He’ll explain to you that after his nephew Jonathan came to him on the morning of March 11 and told him what had happened, at some point after that – not immediately – but at some point after that he decided to try and take the rap for his nephew,” Griffin said of Stoddard.

Residents of the College Terrace, the west Spokane apartment complex where the shooting occurred, testified Wednesday that they woke to a desperate cry followed by gunshots, alerting them to the fatal shooting.

“I thought, at that moment, that the bullet was going to come through the window, because it was so loud,” said Maritza Oquendo, a resident who lived in the apartment with her children next to where the shooting took place around 4 a.m.

Oquendo and a few other residents at the apartment complex said they could not provide a description of the shooter, only the red sedan the killer sped off in from the apartment complex. Oquendo described seeing a shadow of the shooter through her curtains. The defense questioned why she didn’t give that detail to investigators earlier. She responded that she thought she had.

“I saw the shadow of his body, because I didn’t see him physically,” Oquendo said. “I have curtains, and the shade was closed.”

Stoddard faces a potential life sentence if convicted of murder. A 16-member jury was seated earlier this week.

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