Jury returns guilty verdict in Lee murder charge

·4 min read

Aug. 5—LA GRANDE — Union County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Powers sentenced a La Grande man to life in prison on Friday, Aug. 5, after a jury convicted him of murdering his wife in November 2018 at her Cove home.

Ronald Lee, 74, will serve a life sentence for killing Loretta Williams. The two were in the process of divorcing.

"This could be described, as it was by many witnesses, as a cold-blooded execution," Powers said.

The jury deliberated for about three hours on Thursday, Aug. 4, after the prosecution and defense presented closing arguments earlier in the day.

"I'm very grateful that the jury saw the evidence for what it was and held the defendant accountable," said Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel. "This has been a long journey, not only for my team, but especially for the family. I hope that the conclusion of the trial brings them some peace and closure."

Powers said the murder conviction comes with a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Lee will, however, be eligible for parole in 25 years.

Lee takes the stand

Lee took the stand Wednesday, Aug. 3. Lee's attorney, Dean Gushwa, asked just three questions: Did you know Steve Hamilton, did he perform sexual acts upon you and was he afraid your wife would find out? Lee answered yes to each question.

On cross-examination, McDaniel asked Lee for more details about the relationship. Lee said the relationship progressed through their work on Hamilton's RV and that Hamilton was the one who turned things sexual.

McDaniel asked Lee why he never mentioned his relationship with Hamilton during the last four years. Lee said that he did not talk about sex. McDaniel then referenced video recordings of Lee's interviews with law enforcement after Williams' death — where Lee spoke to officers about his sex life, or lack thereof, with his wife and denied being in any other relationships.

McDaniel then asked Lee why Hamilton was worried about Williams finding out about their relationship when Hamilton testified that he had never met Williams. Lee responded he thought Hamilton knew Williams a lot more than he said and he was going out to the Conley property to look at her. Just a few minutes earlier, Lee told McDaniel he was not sure if Hamilton knew Williams.

When Hamilton testified earlier in the trial he denied having a sexual relationship with Lee.

Throughout his testimony, Lee said he could not recall Hamilton's name. Lee suffered a series of strokes while in custody, which has affected his memory.

Closing arguments

During her closing, McDaniel once more took members of the jury through the timeline of events that led to Williams' death. She highlighted key pieces of evidence and witness testimony that supported the state's theory that Lee murdered Williams to avoid paying spousal support and having his finances exposed.

The district attorney started her description with April 2018, when police were dispatched to Conley Road for a domestic disturbance, progressed through Lee's "stalking" behavior and need to control his soon-to-be ex-wife, and culminated in Williams' murder.

According to McDaniel, Lee seemingly got what he wanted. The divorce deposition and proceeding were canceled, but then the assets were moved into an estate and Peggy Titus — Williams' sister — was named the personal representative. Lee objected to this, tried to get homeowners insurance payouts for damage to the property during the murder deposited into his account, and sued Titus.

McDaniel closed by saying that Williams dedicated her life to being Lee's wife, and that he killed her.

During his closing argument, Gushwa said the state had not provided sufficient evidence to prove to the jurors, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Lee committed the murder. He told the jury that Lee was in the unlucky 5% — referencing his opening statements, where he acknowledged that 95% of the time when a spouse is killed it is the other spouse who did it.

According to Gushwa, Lee stood to gain nothing from killing his wife, whereas Hamilton had a motive to kill Williams — keeping his relationship with Lee secret. Gushwa said that Hamilton planted key evidence — a work glove, an unfired bullet, the .22-caliber revolver and Glock accessories — as insurance that law enforcement would pursue Lee.

Gushwa concluded his argument by saying the state had mischaracterized evidence and had not pursued evidence to the fullest degree.

During rebuttal, McDaniel reminded jurors that anything she or Gushwa said was not considered evidence. She said Gushwa had not provided any evidence for the claims he made in closing and no evidence submitted by either the state or the defense pointed to Hamilton's guilt.

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