Opening arguments made in murder trial

·5 min read

Jul. 18—LA GRANDE — The murder trial of Ronald Lee is underway in Union County Circuit Court, more than three years after his arrest for the slaying of his ex-wife, Loretta Williams.

Union County District Attorney Kelsie McDaniel opened her case against Lee the afternoon of Thursday, July 14. The state has charged him with one count of second-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The 74-year-old Lee has pleaded not guilty to both charges and remains in the Union County Jail.

Opening statements

McDaniel began by describing the night of Williams' death. The evening of Nov. 17, 2018, was bitterly cold and frost covered the ground — a point the state will return to throughout the trial.

McDaniel reconstructed for the jurors the scene at 61307 Conley Road, Cove, where Williams was shot to death. McDaniel played the dispatch call Williams made to 911. The quiet courtroom filled with the sounds of gunshots, screaming and Williams begging the dispatcher, "Get out here please."

Dean Gushwa, the lawyer for the defendant, opened his remarks by telling members of the jury he was going to show them his hand. He held up his hand so the backside was facing the jury box, saying they must believe they have now seen his hand. He then showed the jury his open palm to illustrate his point there are two sides to every situation.

"Now you have seen my hand," he said.

He acknowledged that in 95% of cases where a spouse is murdered the other spouse is responsible.

"But what about the other 5%?" Gushwa asked.

He argued the state has "got the wrong man."

Relationship history

McDaniel told the jury about Williams and Lee's relationship.

The couple met when Williams was working at a gas station and Lee was in the area for hunting season. The pair had an instant connection, and it was not long before Lee moved to the area. According to McDaniel, Williams always was reclusive, but became even more so after her marriage to Lee. She quit her job because Lee did not want her working outside of the house. The DA described Lee as an obsessive, controlling husband who struggled to let go of Williams and their property.

Gushwa describes a different story to the jury. He also acknowledged the marriage had rough patches but said Lee was a devoted and loving husband who worked to take care of Williams despite difficulties that arose due to her mental health.

"He loved his wife, he still does," Gushwa said.

McDaniel and Gushwa each referenced a previous 911 dispatch to the residence over an argument. McDaniel argued that during a domestic dispute Lee stomped on and injured Williams' foot, and afterward she took out a restraining order against Lee and filed for divorce. Gushwa said the situation arose when Lee was on a step ladder retrieving a crockpot for Williams and accidentally stepped on her foot.

Witnesses take stand

The state's first witness was Toni Grove, the 911 dispatcher who answered Williams' call the night of her slaying.

Upon listening to the recorded call, Grove said she picked up Williams saying she had been shot and heard her say Lee's name. The DA also had a forensic audio expert enhance the recording to clear up background noise from the radio and make the recording of the 911 call easier to hear.

Dr. Michele Stauffenberg, Oregon's chief state medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Williams, told the jury she determined Williams had been shot four times — once in the left shoulder and three times in the head.

The bullet that entered Williams' shoulder continued into her chest cavity, then hit her lung, filling the space with 500 milliliters of blood, before passing through the soft tissue and exiting through her lower back. There were too many factors for Stauffenberg to say whether the gunshot to the torso would have been fatal on its own. However, she said the gunshot wounds to the head were potentially immediately fatal.

During cross examination from Gushwa, Stauffenberg said if Williams was shot and then talked — which is suggested from the 911 call — that would indicate the torso gunshot occurred first.

The state called law enforcement officers who first responded to the scene as witnesses, including Union County sheriff's deputy Justin Hernandez, who was the primary on the scene. Hernandez documented finding a new yellow leather work glove near the driveway. Due to the environmental conditions and the frost under the glove, he said he believed it had been left there recently.

Senior Oregon State Police Trooper Robert Routt — who was called to the residence to create a scaled diagram of the scene and location of evidence — also was questioned on the stand about the glove. Routt said everything was frosted over except for the glove, which he would expect to frost over because leather has no special properties that would inhibit frost from forming on it.

McDaniel said the glove belonged to Lee during her opening statement — referencing a tag found in his shop for the same type of gloves, a receipt from Ace Hardware for the gloves along with video security footage from the store of him making the purchase and DNA evidence from Lee within the glove — but this still remains to be confirmed by witnesses or with the physical evidence submitted for review by the jurors without challenge from Gushwa.

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