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STATE OF LOUISIANA Vs. TOBIAS LAMONT WILLIAMS
Case Number: KA -0019-0718
Judge: Billy Ezell
Court: STATE OF LOUISIANA
COURT OF APPEAL, THIRD CIRCUIT
Plaintiff's Attorney: Asa Allen Skinner
Call 918-582-6422 for free help finding a great criminal defense lawyer.
Testimony presented to the jury revealed the following facts. The Stateís first
witness was Mrs. Sarah Ellis, the wife of the victim, Jonathan Ellis. She testified
that at the time Mr. Ellis was murdered, he was living in Vernon Parish in a travel
trailer while transitioning out of the military and she was living and working in New
Iberia. Mrs. Ellis testified her husband would stay at their home in New Iberia and
travel back to Vernon Parish when he had meetings for the military. She stated she
last spoke to him on September 19, 2016, when he called to let her know he had
arrived safely and had spoken to their kids. Mrs. Ellis stated she was awaiting a call
regarding her husbandís meeting the following day, a call she never received.
Mrs. Ellis testified that after two days of no one being able to contact her
husband, she finally contacted his commander. She testified military police tried to
locate his phone but were unable to and she was eventually put in contact with the
Vernon Parish Sheriffís Office. About two weeks later, Mr. Ellisís phone was
reactivated in Lafayette, and Mrs. Ellis attempted to help law enforcement find the
phone using a locator app on her phone. Eventually, they recovered Mr. Ellisís
phone from a man named Shawn Bowman. Mrs. Ellis testified her husbandís bank
card was used to make a purchase at a Shop Rite directly across from where he kept
his travel trailer before a failed attempt to withdraw money from an ATM.
Mrs. Ellis testified that she initially told law enforcement the only thing
missing from Mr. Ellisís trailer was his gun, but that she subsequently found the
weapon and informed law enforcement. She testified numerous items were missing
from Mr. Ellisís 1996 green Ford F250 truck when it was recovered, including a red
toolbox and a CB radio. Mrs. Ellis stated law enforcement found Mr. Ellisís remains
in November but could not identify them until May of 2017; during that time, the
military considered him AWOL.
The Stateís next witness was Special Agent Joaquin Thomas with the United
States Army, Criminal Investigation Command (CID). Special Agent Thomas noted
that he worked jointly with the Vernon Parish Sheriffís Office, particularly Detective
David Vance. Special Agent Thomas stated CID began investigating around
September 23, 2016, initially considering the case a missing persons case. He noted
the initial investigation connected Mrs. Wanda Gordon to the case as a person of
interest because her number was one of the last to contact the victimís phone. He
noted that Mrs. Ellis helped the Lafayette Police Department locate the victimís
phone, which was in the possession of Mr. Bowman. Mr. Bowman informed law
enforcement that he purchased the phone from Mrs. Gordon. Special Agent Thomas
testified that while canvassing in Leesville, law enforcement spoke to a Mr. Brian
Cheley, who introduced them to the name Tobias Campbell, which was subsequently
identified as a nickname for Defendant, who has a brother with the last name
Special Agent Thomas testified that his involvement in the case lasted from
September of 2016 into June of 2017; he stated there were no serious suspects
uncovered other than Wanda Gordon and Defendant. On September 29, 2016, Mrs.
Gordon and an associate named Ashley Cenate were arrested in Tyler, Texas, in
relation to a stolen truck they were driving, which was unrelated to the instant case.
The same day, Special Agent Thomas spoke to Defendant via telephone for the first
time. Initially, Defendant stated he never called Mr. Ellisís number, then
immediately stated he called the number after he had multiple missed calls from said
number. Special Agent Thomas testified Defendantís initial story indicated Mrs.
Gordon was walking when Defendant saw her and Defendant did not have a vehicle.
Special Agent Thomas testified Vernon Parish law enforcement located Mr.
Ellisís truck at a trailer park in Leesville and had the vehicle towed. According to
Special Agent Thomas, Defendant spoke with Special Agent Brian Beetle on
October 3, 2016, and Defendant stated he met with Mrs. Gordon on September 20,
2016, in Leesville, where Mrs. Gordon tried to sell him sex and a phone. Defendant
apparently stated he turned down the sex but wanted the phone; however, he did not
purchase it because Mrs. Gordon insisted on trading drugs for the phone. Special
Agent Thomas testified Mrs. Gordon was arrested in Tyler, Texas, on October 18,
2016, and he had the opportunity to interview her in Tyler. According to Special
Agent Thomas, Mrs. Gordon denied having any involvement in Mr. Ellisís
disappearance, but admitted to selling his phone to Mr. Bowman, claiming she got
the phone from a man named ďLeggs,Ē who came to her in Mr. Ellisís truck. She
stated she had known Mr. Ellis for about three months and had had sex with him
previously. Mrs. Gordon initially stated she never drove Mr. Ellisís truck.
Special Agent Thomas testified Ms. Cenate was also arrested in Tyler, Texas,
and extradited back to Leesville and noted one of the first things she said upon her
arrest was that Mrs. Gordon was involved in some kind of homicide. Special Agent
Thomas stated Ms. Cenate was fitted with recording equipment and subsequently
had a conversation with Mrs. Gordon about the killing. Special Agent Thomas
testified another interview of Defendant occurred on October 24, 2016, and that
Defendantís story now included him being in the victimís truck with Mrs. Gordon
and a Mr. Denny Peters. According to Special Agent Thomas, Defendant stated
Mrs. Gordon was driving the truck and told him the truck belonged to one of her
ďtricks,Ē or prostitution clients. Defendant again stated Mrs. Gordon tried to sell him
a phone, which he did not buy. At that time, Defendant denied having ever met the
victim and stated he had called the victimís phone because that was the number Mrs.
Gordon gave him.
On October 27, 2016, a multi-stage interview of Defendant was conducted.
Special Agent Thomas observed the initial portion of the interview and noted
Defendant was falling asleep in his chair while being questioned. Defendant stated
he had never met Mrs. Gordon prior to September 19, 2016, admitted he got into Mr.
Ellisís truck, which Mrs. Gordon told him belonged to one of her tricks, and went
with her to the Shop Rite in Leesville. Defendant then claimed he and Mrs. Gordon
went to the Old Forks Projects where Mrs. Gordon tried to obtain drugs. Special
Agent Thomas noted Defendantís story no longer involved Mr. Peters being in the
vehicle with them.
During the second phase of the interview, Defendant introduced his cousinís
mother into the story, as she allegedly told Defendant she had seen Mr. Ellis and
Mrs. Gordon together in Leesville. In Defendantís next story, he claimed he saw
Mr. Ellisís truck driving past him and stated Mrs. Gordon asked him if he knew how
to withdraw money from a bank card, which he described as green with ďJonathan
EllisĒ on it, without the PIN number. She asked him if he wanted to purchase a
phone. Defendant stated he attempted to withdraw money from the bank card and
mentioned that Mrs. Gordon smelled like gas. He also alleged Mrs. Gordon disposed
of a wallet while driving. Defendant then stated they picked up Denny Peters at an
area known for prostitution and drugs. Defendant stated Mrs. Gordon told him two
other individuals, named Anthony Burns and Money Mike, were responsible for Mr.
On October 28, 2016, Defendant was again interviewed. Special Agent
Thomas participated in the interview and noted Defendant told them Mrs. Gordon
had approached him with Mr. Ellis in the vehicle. Defendant then stated Mrs.
Gordon killed Mr. Ellis in the woods near Industrial Road, claiming she shot him
four times. Defendant claimed Mr. Ellis and Mrs. Gordon were ďdoing businessĒ on
a pile of trash while he sat in Mr. Ellisís truck. Law enforcement searched the area
and found no evidence to corroborate Defendantís story. Defendant then gave
another interview, this time stating some unidentified ďtheyĒ had moved the body.
Defendant did, however, state he knew the body had been burned.
Defendant was interviewed, again on October 28, 2016. This time,
Defendantís story was that Mr. Ellis was driving the truck and that he was offered a
ride after discussing drug purchases with Mrs. Gordon. Defendant claimed Mr. Ellis
wanted sex, but Mrs. Gordon refused because he had not paid her for his last
encounter with her. According to Defendant, Mr. Ellis drove out into a secluded
area where he and Mrs. Gordon got out of the truck. Defendant stated he could not
see Mrs. Gordon but that he heard four gunshots before Mrs. Gordon returned to the
truck and the two of them left Mr. Ellis in the woods. Defendant described both
Mrs. Gordon and the truck as smelling strongly of gasoline and stated Mr. Ellisís
wallet was tossed out of the vehicle. Mrs. Gordon allegedly gave Defendant a pill
bottle containing Percocet. Special Agent Thomas confirmed Mr. Ellis had been
prescribed Percocet. Defendant stated he removed the label from the pill bottle and
stated the bottle had been burned on a burn pile at Defendantís home.
On November 14, 2016, Defendant was again interviewed by Special Agent
Thomas and Detective Vance. Special Agent Thomas summarized Defendantís new
version of the story:
Initially Mr. Williams denied he moved Captain Ellisí body, but
then he knew where it was, but then he later changed that and said he
moved the body with the help of others. He reconfirmed in his words
that Mrs. Gordon shot Captain Ellis four times. Mr. Williams stated he
saw the body at Industrial Road and he said Mrs. Gordon wrapped the
body now in a sheet that was found out there and put Mr. Ellis in the
rear bed of his truck. Mr. Williams described the effects of the wounds
as he perceived saying there was a bullet wound to the right side of his
face and two bullet wounds in his chest. Mr. Williams stated he and
Mrs. Gordon drove to Cassetti Brownís house and now he introduced a
new person by the name of Amy and said that they picked Amy up. At
this point Mrs. Gordon, Amy and Williams drove to the area of Captain
Ellisí - - where his vehicle was found and met with a David.
Defendant told law enforcement this individual, David, threatened him with a
shotgun and purchased gasoline to burn Mr. Ellisís body. Defendant claimed they
took the victimís body to a burn site and burned the body in a pile of tires and
subsequently wood, with Defendant claiming he helped out of fear. Law
enforcement located a burn pile in the area Defendant indicated but found no
evidence a human body had been burned there.
On November 15, 2016, Defendant again spoke with law enforcement and
indicated Mr. Ellisís body did not burn properly, so it was moved to Defendantís
property. Law enforcement then proceeded to 376 Dean Conerly Road, Defendantís
residence. Again, law enforcement found a burn pile; however, this time they found
human remains. Special Agent Thomas noted they also searched a pond on an
adjacent piece of property. Additionally, he noted they contacted the FACES
(Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services) lab at Louisiana
State University. While discussing numerous photographs of Defendantís residence,
Special Agent Thomas noted remains were found in the burn pile, in a dry creek bed,
and along the tree line separating Defendantís property from his neighborís land. He
also noted remains were located in the pond on Defendantís neighborís property.
Following recovery of the human remains, Defendant was taken into custody.
On November 17, 2016, Defendant gave another statement to Special Agent
Thomas and Detective Vance. Noting that he recorded the conversation, Special
Agent Thomas could not recall the specifics of Defendantís statement that day.
Special Agent Thomas testified he and Detective Vance interviewed Defendantís
live-in girlfriend, Ms. Dominishca Smith, on November 22, 2016. He noted Ms.
Smith was interviewed multiple times and gave differing stories during those
interviews. Eventually, information from Ms. Smith led to both Defendant and Mrs.
Gordon being charged with murder and obstruction of justice.
The State then called Mrs. Wanda Gordon. Mrs. Gordon noted she is serving
a forty-year sentence pursuant to pleading guilty to the manslaughter of Mr. Jonathan
Ellis. Mrs. Gordon testified that she was not receiving any benefit for testifying and
acknowledged that she has told ďa lot of liesĒ to law enforcement in order to try and
avoid criminal liability. She testified that she believed Mr. Ellis had four or five
hundred dollars in his possession and that she brought him to Defendantís home in
the hope that Defendant could help her rob Mr. Ellis. Mrs. Gordon acknowledged
having a bad crack cocaine addiction and noted she drank vodka and smoked Kool
100s cigarettes. She stated she had supported her addiction through prostitution for
eighteen years, ďon and off.Ē She testified she used the dating site Plenty of Fish to
meet prostitution clients and testified she met Mr. Ellis on the website and saw him
three or four times, starting in June of 2016. She also acknowledged that she
frequently robbed her prostitution clients.
Mrs. Gordon testified that she texted Defendant and told him she had someone
with money who would be easy to rob and Defendant told her to bring him to
Defendantís house. She stated she and Mr. Ellis went to Defendantís home in Mr.
Ellisís truck. Mrs. Gordon testified she believed Mr. Ellis had four hundred dollars
because he had told her that was how much he had, at which point she texted
Defendant from a phone Mrs. Gordon had stolen from her friend, Emmett Cheley.
Mrs. Gordon also stated she was interested in pills that Mr. Ellis had because of their
street value, although she claimed she found out about the pills ďafter everything had
happened.Ē She testified she and Mr. Ellis made a stop and he bought vodka and
Kool cigarettes before heading to Defendantís home.
Mrs. Gordon testified that she told Mr. Ellis to give her the four hundred
dollars he had previously told her he had, and he refused. At that point, she told
Defendant, who handed her a gun and told her to just kill Mr. Ellis. After again
telling Mr. Ellis to give her the money, Mrs. Gordon shot him in the back of the head
as he was walking away from her. Mrs. Gordon testified that after she shot Mr. Ellis,
she and Defendant robbed him, ultimately obtaining Mr. Ellisís cell phone, eighty
dollars cash, and a bottle of Percocet. According to Mrs. Gordon, she took the phone
and Defendant took the cash and the pills. They then drug Mr. Ellisís body to
Defendantís burn pile, doused him in gasoline, and lit his body on fire. Mrs. Gordon
stated she was unaware of anyone else being at Defendantís home but that she did
not go inside the home. Eventually, she and Defendant left in Mr. Ellisís truck and
drove around, noting they picked someone up in the Old Forks Project on Nona
Street then went to the home of Mrs. Gordonís ex-boyfriend, Clarence Justice. She
testified Denny Peters was the individual she and Defendant picked up prior to
heading to Mr. Justiceís house. She stated they were all getting high when
Defendant started ďacting fidgety and funnyĒ so she and Defendant left Mr. Justiceís
house to ride around, ultimately ending up in a wooded area where Mrs. Gordon
performed oral sex on Defendant. Mrs. Gordon testified she got high on crack
cocaine while the three men smoked methamphetamine.
According to Mrs. Gordon, after she killed Mr. Ellis, they stole eighty dollars
out of his pocket, as she claimed he was not carrying a wallet and did not have any
debit cards on him. Although Mrs. Gordon stated she and Defendant did not speak
once they returned to Defendantís home, she claimed she stayed in the truck drinking
through the night until the sun had come up. She testified Defendant then brought
her to Eddie Shawís house and she did not hear from him again until she was
Mrs. Gordon testified that while she was going back and forth between Mr.
Shawís house and ďthe slabĒ where she often picks up clients and buys drugs, she
ran into her ex-girlfriend, Ashley Cenate, also a prostitute. Ms. Cenate obtained a
truck from a Mr. Cory Evans by trading drugs for use of said truck. Ms. Cenate and
Mrs. Gordon then travelled to Alexandria, where Mrs. Gordon stole money from her
husbandís wallet, before travelling to Shreveport and ultimately Tyler, Texas. Mrs.
Gordon testified they spent two hours at a casino in Shreveport before heading to
Tyler. Mrs. Gordon stated Ms. Cenate got rid of the truck and they remained in
Tyler until they were arrested. She acknowledged telling multiple false stories prior
to pleading guilty but stated her testimony was the whole truth; namely that
Defendant gave her the gun to kill Mr. Ellis and was involved in robbing Mr. Ellis
after the shooting.
On cross-examination, Mrs. Gordon stated she did not initially identify
Defendant in a photographic lineup because she did not want to at that point. She
stated she was high when she killed Mr. Ellis and that affected her judgment. Mrs.
Gordon testified she took Mr. Ellisís phone from his pocket.
The Stateís next witness was Mr. Denny Peters. Mr. Peters testified he saw
Defendant and Mrs. Gordon in a blue or green Ford truck on September 19, 2016,
which he believed Defendant was driving. He testified he was hanging out at ďthe
slab,Ē when Defendant and Mrs. Gordon picked him up and they drove to Clarence
Justiceís house, where they did drugs until Mr. Justiceís wife got into an altercation
with Mrs. Gordon. At that point, Defendant and Mrs. Gordon left Mr. Justiceís
home. On cross-examination, Mr. Peters clarified he was not sure who was driving
the truck but that only Defendant and Mrs. Gordon were in the vehicle. He stated
he did not see anyone sell drugs to Mrs. Gordon while he was with her.
The State then presented the testimony of Ms. Dominishca Smith. Ms. Smith
stated Defendant is her fiancť and acknowledged they have children together. She
testified she saw Mrs. Gordon shoot Mr. Ellis in the back of the head. Ms. Smith
stated Defendant helped Mrs. Gordon but it was not voluntary because Mrs. Gordon
hit him in the back of the head with a gun prior to him helping her. Ms. Smith
testified that only Mrs. Gordon took anything from Mr. Ellis, claiming she took two
phones and a wallet from him before they disposed of the body. She acknowledged
Defendant and Mrs. Gordon placed Mr. Ellisís body on the burn pile and burned it
but claimed she could not remember how long it burned. Ms. Smith testified that
Mrs. Gordon ďtold [Defendant] if he didnít help her dispose of the body she was
going to kill him and his children and [Ms. Smith] and burn the house down.Ē
While the State tried to walk Ms. Smith through the various versions of events
she has previously given, she stated she did not remember changing her story after
the first time she was interviewed but claimed she was emotional during the second
conversation because law enforcement mentioned her deceased grandparents while
trying to get her to tell the truth. She claimed she did not remember what she said
to Detective Vance at that time. Ms. Smith acknowledged testifying at the grand
jury hearing, but stated she gave different testimony because she felt threatened by
the district attorney and law enforcement. She continued to avoid answering
questions about why her story had changed multiple times by claiming she was
threatened by Detective Vance because she overheard his conversation with Mrs.
Ellis prior to her testimony. When the prosecutor explained what perjury is, noted
it is a felony, and reminded Ms. Smith that her ďarrest based on [her] behavior in this
case is a possibility, but itís not a threat,Ē Ms. Smith stated she felt threatened with
perjury as well.
Ms. Smith acknowledged that during her first interview with law enforcement,
she did not give the same story that she gave at trial. She also acknowledged her
story of what happened when Mr. Ellis died was different during her second
interview, her grand jury testimony, and during the motion to perpetuate her
testimony held in March of 2017. Ms. Smith acknowledged she had never told law
enforcement the version of events she testified to at trial. After reviewing Ms.
Smithís first version of events, she stated she did not tell her current version of events
because that was not what Detective Vance wanted to hear, despite admitting
Detective Vance had not told her what to say. She then stated law enforcement did
not intimidate her the day of her first interview. Regarding her initial story, she
stated it was true that Defendant had called her about buying Percocet for her to
resell, stating she did not take them herself.
Ms. Smith then stated Mr. Ellisís body had stopped burning within three
hours. Although she could not remember what time Mrs. Gordon left, she testified
she got into a car and left. She then testified Denny Peters ended up with Mr. Ellisís
truck, not Defendant, although she had no idea how the truck left her yard. Ms.
Smith then changed her story and stated Mrs. Gordon took the truck. Ms. Smith
testified she had no idea who Mr. Ellis or Mrs. Gordon were until getting involved
with the case, as she initially identified them simply as a Caucasian male and a
Caucasian female. Acknowledging she discussed the nightís events with Defendant,
Ms. Smith stated Defendant told her what happened, then argued with the State about
whether Defendant told her what happened or if she saw it happen.
Ms. Smith testified Mrs. Gordon got the gun she used to kill Mr. Ellis out of
his truck, claiming neither Mrs. Gordon nor Defendant had a gun. She assumed Mrs.
Gordon hid the gun before having an argument with Mr. Ellis about wanting drugs
before they had sex. At that point, Mr. Ellis told her no and turned to walk away,
and Mrs. Gordon shot him in the back of the head. Ms. Smith again testified that
she has never lied, despite telling a different story each time she has been interviewed
The State played a video of Ms. Smithís second interview with law
enforcement, during which she claimed Mr. Ellis was killed somewhere other than
her home. Again, she stated she did not lie to law enforcement. Ms. Smith
maintained that she was threatened and/or emotionally exploited and claimed that
part was not included in the video. She finally agreed she lied when she said the
murder happened at a different location. In her third interview, Ms. Smith again
stated law enforcement did not tell her what to say but that she did not make up the
details. Despite her not mentioning Defendant being coerced, stating he went
through Mr. Ellisís pockets, and stating Defendant periodically added fuel to the fire
over multiple days, she insisted she gave the true details of what happened during
her third interview. She acknowledged the version she told during that third
interview was the same story she testified to at the grand jury proceedings.
Additionally, she noted that story made up a large part of what she testified to at the
March 17, 2017, hearing on the motion to perpetuate her testimony.
Ms. Smith acknowledged that she involved Denny Peters during her testimony
at the motion to perpetuate her testimony, despite not including him in her initial
testimony at trial. The State then introduced the recordings of Ms. Smithís prior
interviews with law enforcement, as well as transcripts of her testimony at the grand
jury hearing and the hearing on the motion to perpetuate her testimony.
On cross-examination, Ms. Smith testified that she knew Mr. Ellis from the
Plenty of Fish website and that he was coming to bring her money and nothing else.
She stated she had never told law enforcement that fact. She maintained she had no
idea who Mrs. Gordon was. Ms. Smith stated she was sitting in the living room
watching TV with Mr. Ellis, getting to know him, when Mrs. Gordon came into the
house and began arguing with Mr. Ellis. She then stated she heard the gunshot and
never saw Mrs. Gordon shoot Mr. Ellis, despite repeatedly telling the State that she
had seen Mrs. Gordon kill Mr. Ellis. She claimed Mrs. Gordon arrived in a separate
vehicle after Mr. Ellis had already arrived, a vehicle which left, and that Mrs. Gordon
left in Mr. Ellisís truck. Despite saying she did not see the shooting, she still testified
Mrs. Gordon got the gun she used to kill Mr. Ellis from his truck.
Ms. Smith adamantly refuted the suggestion she was a prostitute, claiming she
was on Plenty of Fish to meet friends, that Mr. Ellis was just a charitable person
bringing her money to buy some things for her children, that he was the first person
who had ever come to her house from Plenty of Fish, and that she was not getting
paid for sex. Ms. Smith testified Defendant told Mrs. Gordon he was going to call
the police, at which point Mrs. Gordon started cussing at Defendant and threatened
to kill both Defendant and Ms. Smith if Defendant did not help her get rid of the
body. She testified that once Defendant helped Mrs. Gordon place Mr. Ellisís body
on the burn pile, Mrs. Gordon took the gun back out and made Defendant get fuel
for the fire at gunpoint.
When asked why Defendant continued to burn the body for two days after
Mrs. Gordon left the morning after Mr. Ellis died, Ms. Smith testified that a man in
a black vehicle that knew Mrs. Gordon was hanging around to make sure the body
continued to burn. She testified the man would stand outside of his black car with a
gun in the yard, making sure the body was burned. Ms. Smith subsequently stated
the man, whom she described as a black male with short dreadlocks, would leave
and come back every two or three hours, that he did not stay. She testified that
Denny Peters was not involved in the killing.
The following testimony from Ms. Smith was related by her at the hearing to
perpetuate her testimony held on March 17, 2017. This version of Ms. Smithís story
involved Mr. Ellis and Mrs. Gordon coming to 376 Dean Conerly in Mr. Ellisís truck
and Defendant going outside to meet them. She ultimately stated that after Mrs.
Gordon shot Mr. Ellis, both she and Defendant went through Mr. Ellisís pockets
before putting him on the burn pile. She testified that Mrs. Gordon got rid of Mr.
Ellisís truck and that Defendant had nothing to do with disposing of the truck. She
testified Defendant put parts of Mr. Ellisís body into a garbage bag and took it to the
pond behind their home. She also testified she saw Defendant throw parts of the
body into the woods line behind the house. Ms. Smith acknowledged it took multiple
days for Mr. Ellisís body to be burnt and stated Defendant obtained a number
Percocet pills from Mr. Ellis.
Ms. Smith ultimately changed her story and stated Defendant was riding with
Mr. Ellis and Mrs. Gordon when they arrived at her home. She eventually stated the
reason they were there was so Mrs. Gordon and Defendant could rob Mr. Ellis,
noting they split eighty dollars that was taken out of his wallet before it was burned.
She stated she could not hear any conversation between Defendant and Mrs. Gordon
after the shooting. She claimed Mrs. Gordon never came inside her home. She then
changed her story again and claimed Mrs. Gordon, Mr. Ellis, and Denny Peters came
to her house in Mr. Ellisís truck. She also repeatedly claimed she had been coerced
into giving stories by the prosecutor, Detective Vance, and Special Agent Thomas.
She stated Denny Peters forced Defendant to help with burning the body.
Ms. Smith testified that Mr. Peters hit Defendant in the back of the head with
a gun for asking why Mrs. Gordon was not helping move the body. According to
Ms. Smith, both Mrs. Gordon and Mr. Peters had guns. In this version, she attributes
to Mr. Peters the threat that Defendant, Ms. Smith, and their children are going to be
murdered and the house burned down. She claimed Mr. Peters made Defendant
leave with Mrs. Gordon, in Mr. Ellisís truck, to get more gas for the fire. The State
and Ms. Smith repeatedly went through a circular argument wherein Ms. Smith
admitted some of what she said in her interviews with Detective Vance was untrue,
claimed it was not a lie, said she was coerced into saying it, then admitted that no
one told her what to say while still claiming she did not make details up.
Ms. Smith then stated Mr. Peters, his nephew, and his brother told her they
would kill her and her whole family if Mr. Peters was charged and Defendant was
not. She stated those threats stopped after the grand jury charged Defendant and not
Mr. Peters. The State then played a jail recording wherein Ms. Smith refused to
speak to Defendant about the case until he verified he was using someone elseís
phone card, she told him she already told law enforcement that he helped voluntarily
before he told her she needed to say it was forced and that Denny Peters, a/k/a Tall
for Nothing, was involved. She concluded by acknowledging that both Defendant
and Mrs. Gordon went through Mr. Ellisís pockets, that Defendant took his wallet
and split the money with Mrs. Gordon, they burned the body together, and Denny
Peters had nothing to do with any of it.
The State then called Mr. Larry Smith, who worked at Chapel Rounds, a
mobile home park. Mr. Smith testified he spoke to Detective Vance in November
of 2016 about a dark F250 that had been abandoned near the park for about a week.
The State then called Dr. Ginesse Listi of the LSU FACES lab, who was
accepted as an expert in the field of forensic anthropology. Dr. Listi stated the first
thing she did upon arriving in Vernon Parish was meet with law enforcement at the
Sheriffís Office to verify some of the remains recovered were human before she and
her team went out to help law enforcement continue the search for human remains.
Dr. Listi noted there were three separate areas from which remains had been found
near Defendantís home: the large burn pile, a drainage ditch, and ďa third area some
distance from the drainage ditch.Ē Noting there was also a large wooded area nearby,
Dr. Listi and her team split up to help law enforcement search the different areas.
Dr. Listi noted definite human remains were recovered from the burn pile, the
drainage ditch, and the wooded area. Dr. Listi testified she believed the bones
located in the wooded area and the drainage ditch had been burned on the burn pile
then moved, as there was no evidence any fire had occurred in the woods or drainage
The State then called Ms. Tayla Pinell, a forensic scientist specializing in
DNA analysis for the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab. Ms. Pinell was accepted as
an expert in DNA analysis. Ms. Pinell testified they were unable to match DNA
from the recovered remains to anyone in the CODIS system but were able to identify
the remains as that of Mr. Ellis based on DNA information subsequently obtained
from the United States Army.
The Stateís next witness was Detective David Vance, a thirteen-year veteran
and investigator for the Vernon Parish Sheriffís Office. Detective Vance testified
he was initially contacted by Army CID on September 23, 2016, regarding an
individual who had been missing since September 19, 2016. He stated he spoke with
Mrs. Ellis early and on multiple occasions, eventually contacting the Lafayette
Police Department when Mr. Ellisís phone was recovered in the possession of Mr.
Shawn Bowman. Detective Vance testified Mrs. Gordon became a suspect because
her estranged husband told Mrs. Ellis that Mrs. Gordon had contacted him and told
him Mr. Ellisís number was her new number. Detective Vance acknowledged Mrs.
Gordon gave multiple statements to him and noted Ms. Cenate was initially a
possible person of interest. He testified Ms. Cenate wore a wire to record a
conversation with Mrs. Gordon during which Mrs. Gordon acknowledged shooting
Mr. Ellis and after seeing Defendant, noted he was in just as much trouble as she
Detective Vance testified that he interviewed Ms. Dominishca Smith twice,
noting her first interview was largely the same story Defendant had initially given
and which in no way incriminated Defendant. Detective Vance stated Ms. Smithís
story changed dramatically in her second interview. During her second interview,
Detective Vance testified Ms. Smith, while sobbing uncontrollably, told him she had
witnessed the entire incident. When she asked Defendant why Mr. Ellis and Mrs.
Gordon were there, he told her they were about to rob Mr. Ellis because Defendant
needed money. Ms. Smith saw Defendant, Mrs. Gordon, and Mr. Ellis talking, when
Defendant walked away. She told Detective Vance Mr. Ellis went to walk away and
Mrs. Gordon shot him in the back of the head. Ms. Smith subsequently saw
Defendant and Mrs. Gordon taking things from Mr. Ellisís body before moving him
to the burn pile and burning him for roughly two days. According to Detective
Vance, Ms. Smith stated Defendant and Mrs. Gordon went to Walmart to obtain
bleach and hand wipes. She also said Mr. Williams continued to try and burn the
Detective Vance then clarified that Ms. Smith actually returned a few days
later, at his request, when she was less emotional and at that time she more or less
confirmed her story from the second interview. He discussed the evolving nature of
Ms. Smithís testimony and how she began to change her story when she felt bad
about telling on Defendant, noting they were in communication while Defendant
Detective Vance testified the first time he encountered Defendant during the
investigation was October 24, 2016. He stated Defendant told him he did not know
Mrs. Gordon, but that he passed her on the street one day and she asked Defendant
if he wanted to buy a cell phone, which Defendant did not do. Detective Vance
stated he told Defendant Mrs. Gordon was in custody, at which point Defendant
stated Mrs. Gordon approached him in Mr. Ellisís truck looking to buy drugs.
Although he noted Defendant kept adding to his story, Detective Vance stated there
were no other serious changes to the story that day. He did, however, note that he
allowed Defendant and Mrs. Gordon to see each other in the jail.
Detective Vance acknowledged interviewing Defendant multiple times on
October 27, 2016, noting Defendant offered to take a polygraph at one point and was
initially pretending to fall asleep during interviews. Detective Vance testified
Defendant told them he was in the truck with Mrs. Gordon, whom he claimed threw
Mr. Ellisís wallet out of the truck while driving on Nona Street. Detective Vance
notes Defendant eventually stated Mrs. Gordon killed Mr. Ellis in an area off
Industrial Road. Defendant told Detective Vance the same story described by
Special Agent Thomas, wherein Mrs. Gordon and Mr. Ellis got out of the car,
Defendant heard three or four gunshots, then Mrs. Gordon returned to the truck and
they left. As previously described by Special Agent Thomas, Detective Vance
indicated Defendantís story continued to change after law enforcement searched the
Industrial Road area and found no body.
A few weeks later, Defendant told Detective Vance that he helped Mrs.
Gordon move Mr. Ellisís body, claiming they loaded the body into Mr. Ellisís truck,
visited Mr. Cassetti Brown, picked up a woman named Amy, then met a man named
Dave at a trailer park. Detective Vance noted Mr. Ellisís truck was ultimately
located at said trailer park. After Dave threatened Defendant, Defendant and Mrs.
Gordon took Mr. Ellisís body to a burn pile off Pine Road with Dave and Amy
following in another vehicle. According to Detective Vance, they spent hours
looking for the burn pile off Pine Road, but Defendant was unable to lead them to it.
Detective Vance testified Defendant led them to an address on Gunn Drive, directly
off Pine Road. Detective Vance testified there was a burn pile at the location, but a
search turned up no human remains. At that point, Defendant admitted to Detective
Vance that Mr. Ellisís body had been brought to Defendantís home.
Defendant told Detective Vance they wrapped Mr. Ellisís body in a tarp and
placed it back into Mr. Ellisís truck in order to move it to Defendantís home.
Detective Vance testified Defendant stated he and Dave brought the body back to
Defendantís home, Dave left, and Defendant continued burning the body. At that
point, Detective Vance, Special Agent Thomas, and Defendant headed to
Defendantís residence at 376 Dean Conerly. Initially finding no human remains,
Detective Vance testified he confronted Defendant, who insisted the body was
burned on his property, identified a maul that he had used to break up some of the
bones, and stated he and Mrs. Gordon had thrown some of the remains near the wood
line. Defendant subsequently told Detective Vance he had swept up chunks of bone
and thrown them into two ponds on neighboring land. Detective Vance testified he
found what he believed were pieces of a skull plate in the small pond and notified
his superiors. The coroner was contacted, and he eventually contacted the LSU
FACES lab. Defendantís final interview, given on November 17, 2016, was then
played for the jury.
Noting Defendant had claimed the body was transported in the back of Mr.
Ellisís truck multiple times, Detective Vance testified the bed of the truck was
undisturbed and did not support Defendantís story that Mr. Ellis was dead when his
body was brought to Defendantís home. Detective Vance testified that after Ms.
Smith broke down and told them Mrs. Gordon and Defendant planned to rob Mr.
Ellis prior to his death, Detective informed Defendant he was under arrest for first
degree murder. According to Detective Vance, Defendant insisted there was another
person involved in the whole thing but would not discuss it then, asking Detective
Vance to come back and talk with him after a couple days.
The State then played a short audio recording of a phone conversation between
Defendant and Ms. Smith wherein she told Defendant law enforcement already knew
Mrs. Gordon killed Mr. Ellis, that Defendant helped, and that Defendant was not
forced to help. Detective Vance testified that after this phone call, Ms. Smith started
changing her story so that it was not so damning to Defendant. Following Detective
Vanceís testimony, the State rested its case.
Defendant took the stand on his own behalf. He acknowledged having
multiple felony convictions, including illegal use of a moveable in 2009, attempted
possession of Alprazolam in 2009, unauthorized use of a moveable in 2012, simple
burglary in 2012, and simple escape in either 2013 or 2014. Defendant testified that
prior to September 19, 2016, he did not know Wanda Gordon and had never spoken
to her. Defendant testifies that Ms. Smith was using the website Plenty of Fish as a
source of income, claiming Mr. Ellis came to Defendantís home on September 19,
2016, to meet Ms. Smith. Defendant stated Ms. Smith met Mr. Ellis outside, they
came into the house, and the two of them were sitting on a bed in the living room
talking while he was in another room with the kids. After about fifteen or thirty
minutes, Defendant heard another voice in the living room.
Defendant testified he looked into the living room and saw Mr. Ellis arguing
with Mrs. Gordon, who he repeatedly stated he did not know at the time. Defendant
stated he spoke to Mr. Ellis, who he believed was drunk and who kept apologizing.
According to Defendant, Mr. Ellis went outside, where Mrs. Gordon was waiting;
the two began to argue, and in less than thirty seconds there was a gunshot and Mrs.
Gordon was standing over Mr. Ellisís body. He testified that when he tried to walk
away from Mrs. Gordon, she hit him in the back of the head with the gun. Defendant
testified that in order to avoid Mrs. Gordon from shooting him, he would help her
cover up the murder. Defendant did not hear Mrs. Gordon threaten Ms. Smith or
Defendant stated Mrs. Gordon took Mr. Ellisís wallet out of his pocket before
the two of them moved the body to Defendantís burn pile. Defendant then stated the
rest of his recorded statement was true, that he participated in burning and breaking
up Mr. Ellisís body. Defendant claimed he helped Mrs. Gordon dispose of the body
out of fear. Defendant stated they gathered wood to start a fire as well as some tires
and other items to keep the fire going. During this process, Defendant testified Mrs.
Gordon asked if he could get her crack cocaine and Defendant called someone who
told him they were waiting on more supply. Defendant testified Mrs. Gordon
obtained gasoline from Defendantís property and doused the body to accelerate the
fire before demanding he go to the store with her to ensure she got some crack.
After deciding she was not going to keep Mr. Ellisís phone, Defendant
testified Mrs. Gordon asked him if he knew anyone who would want to buy it. He
stated they then went to Cassetti Brownís house. Defendant testified Mrs. Gordon
was inside for ďquite a whileĒ before coming back aggravated that she could not sell
the phone. Defendant stated that he was speaking to Brian Cheley at Shop Rite while
Mrs. Gordon purchased a beer, cigarettes, and gas. They then proceeded to the slab,
where they met Denny Peters, who told Mrs. Gordon he could get her some crack.
According to Defendant, they then proceeded to what he believes was Clarence
Justiceís house, where an Asian guy sold Mrs. Gordon a crack rock. Defendant
testified a woman came out and told Clarence to get rid of everyone. At that point,
Defendant and Mrs. Gordon left and headed to Eddie Shawís house. Despite not
knowing how to drive a vehicle with a standard transmission, such as Mr. Ellisís
truck, Defendant stated he drove the truck to Walmart. Defendant then drove home.
Once home, Defendant wiped down the inside of the truck to try and remove
his fingerprints. According to Defendant, Ms. Smith tried to convince him to call
law enforcement, but he convinced her that she might get in trouble and refused.
Defendant acknowledged pouring the gasoline Mrs. Gordon bought onto Mr. Ellisís
body. Defendant then drove Mr. Ellisís truck to the trailer park where it was found,
which was near Defendantís grandparentsí home before getting a friend to drive him
to DeRidder. He testified he spent a few hours in DeRidder before getting a ride
back to his grandparentsí home, where his grandfather ultimately brought him home.
After re-lighting the fire, Defendant testified he called his grandfather to bring him
to the library so he could work on online classes. Over the course of the next month
or so, Defendant continued disposing of unburnt pieces of Mr. Ellisís body in
multiple locations, as described by Dr. Listi.
Defendant acknowledged continuously lying to law enforcement throughout
the months of October and November. He stated he was testifying to try and give
Mr. Ellisís family closure. He repeatedly denied having any knowledge of who Mrs.
Gordon was prior to her killing Mr. Ellis and denied having ever agreed with her to
rob Mr. Ellis.
On cross-examination, Defendant acknowledged his conviction was for
attempted possession with the intent to distribute Alprazolam, not simply attempted
possession, but contended he had no intent to distribute the pills. He also argued
that although he was convicted of simple burglary, he never actually entered
anyoneís home. He then argued with the State regarding his knowledge of the Plenty
of Fish website after acknowledging he was having a sexual relationship with a
woman in DeRidder he met on the website. Defendant and the State then heatedly
discussed Defendant telling Ms. Smith to lie on the jail call and how much of her
testimony was false, with Defendant claiming multiple times Ms. Smith was forced
to lie by law enforcement.
Defendant acknowledged that all his stories about Amy and Dave and being
compelled by them to help Mrs. Gordon were complete fabrications and that they
had nothing to do with Mr. Ellisís death. Defendant, having previously admitted to
drinking alcohol that had been purchased by Mr. Ellis, claimed the alcohol was part
of Mr. Ellisís payment to Ms. Smith for their time together. The State questioned
Defendant about Percocet pills that may have been in Mr. Ellisís possession, and
Defendant again claimed Mr. Ellis had brought the pills for Ms. Smith and that
Defendant had simply forgot to mention them during his direct testimony.
Following Defendantís testimony, the defense rested, and the State offered no
rebuttal. A unanimous jury found Defendant guilty as charged on both counts after
sixteen minutes of deliberation.
In accordance with La.Code Crim.P. art. 920, all appeals are reviewed for
errors patent on the face of the record. After reviewing the record, we find one error
Defendant was advised at sentencing that he has ďtwo years to file any claim
for post-conviction relief.Ē We find the trial court failed to properly advise the
Defendant of the time limitation for filing an application for post-conviction relief.
Louisiana Code of Criminal Procedure Article 930.8 provides the defendant has two
years after the conviction and sentence become final to seek post-conviction relief.
We find the advisement was insufficient and direct the trial court to inform the
Defendant of the provisions of La.Code Crim.P. art. 930.8 by sending written notice
to the Defendant within ten days of the rendition of this opinion and to file written
proof in the record that the Defendant received the notice. State v. Roe, 05-116
(La.App. 3 Cir. 6/1/05), 903 So.2d 1265, writ denied, 05-1762 (La. 2/10/06), 924
ASSIGNMENT OF ERROR
In his sole assignment of error, Defendant contends there was insufficient
evidence to convict him of being a principal to second degree murder. Specifically,
Defendant contends the State failed to prove he was involved in a robbery of Mr.
Ellis because the only evidence that he was involved comes from Ms. Smith and
Mrs. Gordon, whose testimony Defendant contends ďis so incoherent and internally
inconsistent that it could not be believed by a rational finder of fact.Ē The State, on
the other hand accurately points out that ď[t]his case is a matter revolving almost
exclusively around the juryís determination regarding witness credibility.Ē
Additionally, the State contends Defendant need not have been involved in a robbery
in order to prove second degree murder, noting Defendant was charged under the
general second degree murder statute, La.R.S. 14:30.1, and not the specific
subsection regarding murder during certain enumerated crimes.
The analysis for insufficient-evidence claims is well settled:
When the issue of sufficiency of evidence is raised on appeal, the
critical inquiry of the reviewing court is whether, after viewing the
evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier
of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime proven
beyond a reasonable doubt. Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 99 S.Ct.
2781, 61 L.Ed.2d 560, rehearing denied, 444 U.S. 890, 100 S.Ct. 195,
62 L.Ed.2d 126 (1979), State ex rel. Graffagnino v. King, 436 So.2d
559 (La.1983); State v. Duncan, 420 So.2d 1105 (La.1982); State v.
Moody, 393 So.2d 1212 (La.1981). It is the role of the fact finder to
weigh the respective credibility of the witnesses, and therefore, the
appellate court should not second guess the credibility determinations
of the triers of fact beyond the sufficiency evaluations under the
Jackson standard of review. See State ex rel. Graffagnino, 436 So.2d
559 (citing State v. Richardson, 425 So.2d 1228 (La.1983)). In order
for this Court to affirm a conviction, however, the record must reflect
that the state has satisfied its burden of proving the elements of the
crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
State v. Kennerson, 96-1518, p. 5 (La.App. 3 Cir. 5/7/97), 695 So.2d 1367, 1371.
As noted by this court in State v. F.B.A., 07-1526, p. 2 (La.App. 3 Cir.
5/28/08), 983 So.2d 1006, 1009, writ denied, 08-1464 (La. 3/27/09), 5 So.3d 138
(alteration in original):
Furthermore, the testimony of a single witness is sufficient to
support a conviction ď[i]n the absence of internal contradiction or
irreconcilable conflicts with physical evidence.Ē State v. Dixon, 04-
1019, p. 12 (La.App. 5 Cir. 3/15/05), 900 So.2d 929, 936. The trier of
fact may accept or reject the testimony of any witness, and the
determination of the credibility of that witness, in whole or in part, is
left to its sound discretion and ďwill not be re-weighed on appeal.Ē Id. at
Defendant explicitly asks this court to reject the juryís credibility
determinations and acquit him of being a principal to second degree murder. The
law of principals, defined in La.R.S. 14:24, states: ďAll persons concerned in the
commission of a crime, whether present or absent, and whether they directly commit
the act constituting the offense, aid and abet in its commission, or directly or
indirectly counsel or procure another to commit the crime, are principals.Ē
Additionally, second degree murder is relevantly defined in La.R.S. 14:30.1(A), in
pertinent part, as the killing of a human being:
(1) When the offender has a specific intent to kill or to inflict
great bodily harm; or
(2) When the offender is engaged in the perpetration or attempted
perpetration of aggravated or first degree rape, forcible or second
degree rape, aggravated arson, aggravated burglary, aggravated
kidnapping, second degree kidnapping, aggravated escape, assault by
drive-by shooting, armed robbery, first degree robbery, second degree
robbery, simple robbery, cruelty to juveniles, second degree cruelty to
juveniles, or terrorism, even though he has no intent to kill or to inflict
great bodily harm.
There is no question in this case that Mrs. Gordon was attempting to rob Mr.
Ellis when she shot him in the back of the head after he refused to hand over his
money. By definition, her actions qualify as second degree murder, despite her plea
to manslaughter. The question before the jury was whether Defendant was a
principal to said crime. According to Mrs. Gordonís testimony, Defendant provided
her with the murder weapon and told her to kill Mr. Ellis when Mr. Ellis would not
hand over his money. Considering the previous quote from F.B.A., 983 So.2d 1006,
we find Mrs. Gordonís testimony alone was sufficient to prove Defendant aided and
abetted in the murder of Mr. Ellis.
Defendant contends that Mrs. Gordonís testimony is internally inconsistent
and thus ďis insufficient to establish that Mr. Williams was part of a robbery.Ē We
suggest this argument lacks merit. The story Mrs. Gordon testified to at trial was
not internally inconsistent and lacked any serious internal contradictions. Instead,
as evidenced by Defendantís summary of Mrs. Gordonís story, the only
contradictions within Mrs. Gordonís testimony was the fact that her trial testimony
was different from her prior statements:
This testimony was given under circumstances where sheówho killed
Mr. Ellis in cold bloodóhad been given a 40-year plea to manslaughter.
She in fact failed to identify Mr. Williams in a lineup, and claimed she
only knew him as ďLeggsĒóa nickname that authorities never
otherwise linked to Mr. Williams. In addition, she did not mention this
level of cooperation between herself and Mr. Williams until the time of
trial. She claimed that she did not want to identify him when she was
first arrested, and she did not mention Mr. Williams at all when she first
admitted to the killing to Ashley Cenate.
There were three living witnesses to the murder of Mr. Ellis: Wanda Gordon,
Dominishca Smith, and Defendant. All three of them gave multiple interviews with
law enforcement, all with evolving and changing stories each time they were
interviewed. At trial, all three of them presented new versions of what happened
that night, which included substantial changes to aspects of their prior versions of
events. The jury was presented with the testimony of all three individuals, as well
as extensive evidence regarding the various alternative versions of events those
individuals had previously told law enforcement. Acting as the trier of fact, the jury
unanimously convicted Defendant of second degree murder, evidently accepting the
version of events presented by Mrs. Gordon.
Given the above, we find the State presented sufficient evidence to prove
Defendant was guilty as a principal to the second degree murder of Mr. Ellis.
Furthermore, as has been previously stated, all three witnesses to Mr. Ellisís murder
lied to law enforcement on multiple occasions during the investigation.
Accordingly, we affirm Defendantís convictions and sentences.
Outcome: Defendantís convictions and sentences are affirmed. We also direct the trial
court to inform the Defendant of the provisions of La.Code Crim.P. art. 930.8 by
sending written notice to the Defendant within ten days of the rendition of this
opinion and to file written proof in the record that the Defendant received the notice.