Co-defendant, business client takes stand in Lee trial

·8 min read

Aug. 3—LA GRANDE — Steve Hamilton took the stand Friday, July 29, in a tearful testimony against Ron Lee before facing cross examination from the defense Aug. 1.

Lee is charged with murdering his wife, Loretta Williams, in November 2018 in Cove. They were in the process of getting divorced. Hamilton also is charged with Williams' murder and has pleaded guilty on two charges of hindering.

Hamilton said he and Lee had a business relationship that started after Hamilton and his wife brought a generator from their RV to Lee's repair shop in 2018.

Hamilton told Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel that Lee would call him nearly every day to speak and see if he was coming out to the shop. Hamilton — who at the time was the business administrator for Post Acute Rehab — would head out to Lee's shop after work a couple of times a week.

McDaniel asked if he had known Williams. Hamilton started crying before answering no.

Hamilton testified that Lee often talked about his problems, including his pending divorce from Williams.

Conley Road visits, trips with Lee

Hamilton documented for the jury the four times he visited Williams and Lee's property at 61307 Conley Road, Cove.

Hamilton said he drove to the property because Lee was worried Williams had sold a pickup and because Lee was concerned about the condition of his horse.

Before recounting the fourth and final time he went to the property, Hamilton told jurors about two occasions he had driven with Lee.

Hamilton invited Lee to drive with him to Ontario to pick up a medical device for the rehabilitation center. On the way back to La Grande there was a crash on Interstate 84, which led Hamilton on a detour. While driving, Hamilton said he engaged in small talk, pointing out where his wife's children lived — a decision he would come to regret.

The second trip was supposed to be to Spring Creek, where Lee told Hamilton an RV had broken down. But when the pair were almost to the exit, Lee revealed he actually needed to go to Meacham, where he met a man with a brightly colored plastic shopping bag.

During the drive back, Hamilton said, Lee asked if he wanted to see what was in the bag. Hamilton said Lee pulled out a box, opened it and revealed a gun. Earlier during his testimony, Hamilton said he has an intense fear of guns.

Testimony about Lee's demeanor

Hamilton testified he became uncomfortable with Lee's language and attitude, which escalated once the Conley Road property was listed for sale.

He told the jury Lee would say his wife was costing him everything, that she needed to be gotten rid of and he knew people in Portland that for $3,000 would come to deal with the problem.

Hamilton said Lee asked him if he would serve as an alibi if something happened. Hamilton said he would not lie to police.

McDaniel asked why Hamilton continued to work with Lee. He explained they were so close to being done with the trailer and it felt like the end was in sight.

She asked him why he did not go to police. Hamilton said he did not think Lee's threats were sincere and he was merely mad about the divorce.

The night of Williams' slaying

Hamilton was supposed to meet Lee and his son at the repair shop the night Williams was killed, Nov. 17, 2018.

Hamilton said he was feeling incredibly anxious that night — worrying that perhaps it was not Lee's son coming from Portland but someone else.

Hamilton ended up going to Lee's shop after 11 p.m. He said he took back roads to avoid cameras, not wanting any association between himself and Lee in case something did happen that night.

When he arrived, Lee came out from his trailer and the pair had a brief interaction where Hamilton demanded his keys because the work on his RV was still not completed.

Hamilton said Lee went back inside to get the keys, but when he came back he was wearing different clothes and was carrying a bag. According to Hamilton, Lee opened the passenger door, tossed the bag down and got in the car.

Hamilton testified Lee grabbed a long-barreled gun and pressed it to Hamilton's temple. Hamilton told jurors he was scared and thought Lee was going to kill him.

During this line of questioning from McDaniel, Hamilton broke down crying again and needed time to compose himself.

When he continued, he said as Lee directed him to drive, he was desperately trying to think of a way out. He said he considered trying to knock the gun out of Lee's hand, but was worried the gun would go off while it was pressed against his head.

Hamilton said as they approached the Conley Road house, Lee had him slow down and partially turn around until the car was straight across the road. Hamilton said Lee was acting erratically — half screaming, half mumbling. He could not recall if he or Lee had shut off the car, just that the keys ended up on the passenger seat after Lee got out. Hamilton said Lee kept the gun pointed at him as he went around and opened all of the car doors.

McDaniel asked Hamilton why he did not drive away at this point. He answered Lee had told him not to move or he would shoot.

Hamilton said he heard gunshots — two incredibly loud shots and then possibly two or three quieter shots. He told McDaniel he thought maybe there was a gunfight happening. Other than the shots, he heard nothing.

He said Lee returned, closing all the car doors.

Hamilton said he asked Lee if someone was shooting at them. He said Lee told him to shut up and drive.

Hamilton testified Lee also said "she" would no longer be bothering him, but did not clarify whom he was speaking about.

Hamilton said Lee was breathing heavily, seemed mad and did not want to talk. He said Lee held the gun to Hamilton's head again as they started to drive. As they passed police on the road, Hamilton said he slowed down and turned on his brights — trying to get law enforcement to pull him over. Lee noticed and told him if he slowed down again he would shoot.

Along Highway 237, Hamilton said Lee rolled down the passenger window and tossed the gun. He was momentarily relieved until Lee pulled another gun. McDaniel asked if this was the same gun from Meacham and Hamilton responded he did not know at the time, but later made the connection.

Hamilton said after they arrived at the shop, Lee got out while keeping the gun trained on him and said, "Don't tell anyone or we'll kill you, Cindy, the family, just like we killed her."

Hamilton said he started begging for his life, reassuring Lee he would not say anything. He said he was too scared to go home, so instead he went to his office.

McDaniel again asked Hamilton why he did not go to the police. Hamilton said he was scared and his family came first.

Hamilton told the jury that Lee called him two times after that night. The first time Lee asked him what was going on and Hamilton assured him that he had not talked to anyone. The second call, which went to voicemail, was Lee telling Hamilton the RV was ready.

When Hamilton was arrested in connection to Williams' death, he said he tried to deflect their questions and not say exactly what happened that night. Hamilton said he believed Lee's threats to kill his family, and he still was worried and terrified to be testifying.

Defense's cross examination

Lee's attorney, Dean Gushwa, on cross examination asked Hamilton multiple times if he heard anything the night of Williams' slaying. Hamilton said the only sounds he heard that night were the gunshots.

Gushwa turned to Hamilton's agreement with the district attorney in exchange for his testimony. Hamilton said he pleaded guilty to two charges of hindering, which came with 7 1/2 years of prison time. Hamilton said he believed this was all he would be charged with, but the murder charge had not been dismissed.

Gushwa asked Hamilton why he had changed his mind and finally testified about the murder. Hamilton said he wanted to put Williams' family, and his own family, at ease.

Gushwa noted instances when Hamilton lied to police and asked Hamilton whether he told the truth in his final interview with police.

When Gushwa continued his cross examination Monday morning, Aug. 1, he asked Hamilton if he and Lee were intimate together. Hamilton said he did not know what Gushwa meant, to which the defense clarified a sexual relationship.

Hamilton said no.

The district attorney rested her case on Aug. 2, and Gushwa scheduled defense witnesses for Aug. 3. The court anticipates closing statements could happen Aug. 3, after which it will be up to the jury to determine a verdict.

Isabella Crowley is a reporter for The Observer. Contact her at 541-624-6014 or icrowley@lagrandeobserver.com.