One of the attorneys representing a couple accused of violating dozens of graves called the case against his clients “poppycock” as their trial began Monday in Christian Circuit Court.
In his opening statements, Thomas Osborne said that Christian County Sheriff’s Detective Ed Stokes, who investigated Jason and Taunya Strader, was too close to the investigation. The detective’s family is currently involved in a lawsuit against the defendants. The lawsuit was filed after the couple were indicted, but the dispute that led to it predates the charges.
On Tuesday, Osborne and another defense attorney, Rick Boling, hammered the detective on the stand. At one point, Osborne insinuated that Stokes’ relationship with Commonwealth’s Attorney Lynn Pryor, who’s prosecuting the case, was romantic and helped fast-track the charges against his clients.
The Straders own Green Hill Memorial Gardens. They are each charged with 46 counts of violating graves, one count of theft by unlawful taking (more than $10,000) and theft by deception (more than $500). The charges stem from the Straders pulling up bronze markers at the cemetery, which they had recently purchased, and then selling them for scrap.
The Straders don’t deny they removed the markers. Instead, they claim the markers were damaged, warped or bowed as a result of years of neglect and poor workmanship, which the Straders blame on the previous owner. The Straders also claim they had an obligation to replace the markers, deeds giving them the right to do so and did it at a considerable cost to themselves — tens of thousands of dollars more than they received for the markers they sold.
“That this was a sleazy, get-money idea is poppycock,” Osborne told the jury. “I always liked that word, but I don’t know what it means exactly. It just came to me.”
In her opening statement, Commonwealth’s Attorney Lynn Pryor tore into the Straders’ defense. She told the jury to consider that the Straders made no attempt to clean up or repair the markers before discarding them. According to Pryor, the Straders simply ripped them up and recycled them for their cash value.
“There are 46 counts of violating graves, and these aren’t just embellishments, or flowers, or small ornaments left by friends and family members, but actual markers set in stone,” Pryor said.
Pryor maintained that some of the markers had been pre-purchased, were still in their boxes and had never been placed. She claimed the Straders took them along with the ones they’re claiming were damaged to make some cash.
“Some of these hadn’t even been placed in the ground so there is no excuse to claiming that they were damaged,” Pryor said.
She said the jury will hear from the owners of the markers and hear how those owners felt when they found out their markers had been sold to a scrapyard.
Pryor said the Straders received $3,821 for the first batch of markers. A second run earned the couple $1,741. On the third trip, Pryor continued, the scrapyard called the sheriff’s office, and that’s what sparked the investigation.
Pryor also maintains that it wasn’t until the Straders became aware that the authorities were involved that they began to purchase new markers.
On Monday, Osborne said Detective Stokes was “distraught” and believes that his grandmother was buried in the wrong plot at Green Hills and that the Straders later moved her body to make room for another burial. It’s a charge the Straders have denied.
Osborne said Stokes was “uniquely situated not to be fair or impartial” as the lead investigator in the case.
“He would march up and down in front of the (cemetery’s) office like a bull, snorted, and he would ask (the Straders) if they knew who he was? Did they know what job he had?” Osborne said.
“What he did was comedy,” Osborne continued.
Stokes took the stand Tuesday and endured three hours of questioning by Osborne and Boling. The pair repeatedly asked Stokes how he conducted his investigation and, at one point, insinuated that he was involved in a romantic relationship with Pryor at the time.
“Did you receive all the help you needed from Ms. Pryor?” Osborne asked.
Stokes responded that he only relayed information from the attorney general, whom he spoke to over the phone while he was in Pryor’s office, to the grand jury. Osborne then asked Stokes if Pryor had come to her own conclusion about the case outside of the grand jury’s consideration.
“Not that I’m aware of,” the detective responded.
“What I’m trying to say is that there wasn’t anything to do with independence or fairness in this case because you had been dating Ms. Pryor at the time this matter went to the grand jury,” Osborne said.
Pryor objected, asking for the relevance to Osborne’s line of questioning, and Christian Circuit Judge Andrew Self called for a private conference.
After the conference, Osborne probed no further into Stokes and Pryor’s relationship.
Osborne also cross examined Stokes at length about his knowledge of burial law, although the attorney’s questions sometimes confused the detective and, at times, the judge and jury.
Later Boling asked Stokes why he didn’t keep an accurate account of the state and local officials he spoke to about burial law.
Stokes responded that he only wrote down statements that were relevant to the investigation. He said many of his sources, including some in the attorney general’s office, couldn’t answer his questions and suggested he contact another agency.
In response to questions about his motives during the investigation, Stokes remained calm and collected as he told the jury that he didn’t seek out the case. Instead, he said, it was assigned to him.
The trial will resume today at 9 a.m.
Reach Steve Breen at 270-887-3240 or email@example.com.