Crothersville man pleaded guilty today to voluntary manslaughter in the killing of Aaron Hall, whose beating death in April sparked outrage well outside the Southern Indiana town. Coleman M. King, 18, also had faced a more serious murder charge, but his plea agreement allowed him to admit the Class A felony charge instead.
Garret L. Gray, also charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter, is scheduled to plead guilty to manslaughter on Jan. 2.
The terms of both men's plea agreements set sentences of 30 years in prison, said Amy Marie Travis, the Jackson County chief deputy prosecutor. King's sentencing is set for Jan. 15, and Jackson Circuit Court Judge William Vance took today's plea under advisement until then.
If they had been convicted of murder, each would have faced 45 to 65 years in prison. Voluntary manslaughter requires that a killing occur in sudden heat; Travis declined to comment until after sentencing about why prosecutors agreed to dismiss the murder charge.
A police detective who handled the case told the Star's Jon Murray that the case was not treated as a hate crime despite the fact that King said the beating of Hall took place after Hall placed his hands on his genitals and propositioned him for sex. "Some gay-rights activists followed the case closely, saying sexual taunts referenced in the probable cause affidavit meant Hall was killed because the men thought he was gay," Murray writes. "But Detective Robert Henley has said the case wasn't investigated as a hate crime." Describing King's appearance in court accepting the plea deal, Murray writes:
King told the judge Monday that Hall set him off by grabbing his crotch and making rude comments, Travis said.This case becomes a huge black eye on the State of Indiana. The defendants in this case have been given a deal a Wyoming prosecutor and its courts wouldn't give to the killers of Matthew Shepard. Shepard's killers invoked the so-called "gay panic" defense to avoid more serious murder charges. Comparisons to the Matthew Shepard hate crime killing by two men in Wyoming because Shepard was gay have been drawn to Hall's case in national media coverage of the case. That case sparked national interest in hate crimes legislation, which provides enhanced sentences for persons convicted of committing a crime based upon a bias against their victim, such as their race, religion or sexual orientation. All but five states have adopted hate crimes law. Indiana and Wyoming are among the five states without a hate crimes law. A summary of Advance Indiana's previous coverage can be viewed here.
"He admitted in court that he left him out there knowing he was going to die," said Martha Gumm, Hall's mother.
She attended the hearing and reluctantly agreed to the plea deal to avoid trial. It means King and Gray will go to prison, even if for as little as 15 years.
According to a probable cause affidavit, Hall and Gray took turns beating Hall over a several-hour period after King said Hall grabbed his genitals and asked for oral sex. During the beating, the two took out time to snap photos with the badly beaten Hall on their cell phone, which were text-messaged to a friend. The two dragged Hall's near lifeless body out of Gray's home and put him in the back of a pickup truck. They drove to a secluded farm road where one of the men asked Hall if he wanted to live. When he said yes, they beat him some more, after which they dumped his body. The killers returned to the scene a few hours later with Gray's shotgun to make sure Hall was dead. Hall's body was discovered stripped naked in a nearby field the following day. The killers retrieved the dead body, wrapped it in a tarp and stashed it in Gray's garage.
The Jackson County Coronor's autopsy report showed Hall's death resulted from blunt force trauma as a result of beating with hypothermia as a contributing cause. A probable cause affidavit detailed the gruesome killing of Hall by King and Gray. The beating took place in a home owned by Gray's father, a former deputy coroner of Jackson County, where Hall's body was stashed for days before police discovered it in a detached garage while executing a search warrant on the residence. Under the plea agreement worked out with prosecutors, King and Gray could serve as little as 15 years for their crime.
I'm reprinting the contents of the probable cause affidavit. Police video-taped the interviews with the killers, which are summarized in the affidavit. You decide. Is this a case of voluntary manslaugther, regardless of whether you believe a hate crime occurred? Here's what the killers had to say in their own words:
Hall's body was discovered Sunday, April 22, wrapped in a tarp in the garage at the residence of Garrett Gray on South Bethany Road (also known as County Road 1025 East) ten days after he was last seen. Police say Hall, Gray and King were drinking at the Gray residence when a fight developed.
The following information is taken from the probable cause affidavit filed with Jackson Circuit Court. Readers should be warned that information contained in the court document is graphic and may be offensive to some. The affidavit gives police accounts from interviews from witnesses and thus may only reveal one side of the matter.
Sometime after April 13, John Hodge told police he had information on the disappearance and death of Hall. Indiana State Police Sgt. Rob Bays and Crothersville Police Capt. Vurlin McIntosh interviewed Hodge on Saturday, April 21.
Hodge told police that as he was at work on the evening on April 12, he received a multi-media text message on his cell phone from Garrett Gray. Hodge said the photo showed Hall between Gray and King. Hall had a swollen black eye and a large, swollen lip, Hodge said.
Court documents indicate that about 15 minutes later, Hodge received a cell phone call from Jamie Hendricks who was at the Gray residence. Hodge said Hendricks told him, "They're beatin' the h--- out of that guy". Hodge told police he could hear screaming and yelling in the background and thought he heard Hall yelling "Bitches".
Hodge said Hendricks told him Hall grabbed King in the groin and told him he wanted King to perform oral sex. Hendricks also said Hall made some comment about Gray's deceased mother. Then there was an altercation.According to Hodge, Hendricks told him that Gray and King were beating Hall and King "went crazy on Hall." Hendricks said he saw king at one point remove his boot and began striking Hall with it.Hendricks said this incident went on for several hours before Hall was loaded into Gray's pickup and taken to a farm lane off County Road 1025 & 800 S when Hall was left in the ditch.
Hodge went to the Gray residence on Friday morning. He said Hendricks began talking about the new camouflage coat that Hall was wearing and wanted to go get the coat. Hodge said Hendricks directed him to where they had dumped Hall and when he pulled up, he saw clothes lying in the ditch. Hodge said he saw a pair of tennis shoes, blue jeans, socks and a camouflage coat.
Hodge then described seeing something in the field that he thought at first was a dead deer. Hodge said he walked towards the object and saw it was a human body. Hodge said he went back and forth a few times before he finally approached the body. Hodge sad the body was completely naked and was severely beaten. He said he recognized the subject to be Aaron Hall and that Hall was dead.
Hodge said he and Hendricks left and went back to Gray's house and told Gray they found Hall and he was dead.Hodge said Gray began vomiting and making statements of what his dad would say when he found out about this incident.
Hodge said he left Gray's house and later received a phone call from Hendricks that the body was moved, wrapped in a blue tarp and taken to Gray's garage.According to the court document, Garrett Gray told Indiana State Police Sgt. Rob Bays and Jackson County Sheriff's Lt. Darrin Downs that Hall and King came to Gray's residence early in the evening on April 12. Gray said they were drinking beer and whiskey on the second floor of the residence when Hall grabbed King in the groin asking questions whether King had homosexual tendencies.
Gray said these comments caused King to physically assault Hall. Gray said King then left the room and Gray approached Hall to inquire it he was all right. Gray then admitted to striking Hall several times in the eye area causing significant damage.
Gray said King walked back into the room and moved Hall to the couch. According to Gray, King then straddled Hall and began physically assaulting him multiple times with his hands.
The pair moved Hall out onto the deck area of the home where both he and King assaulted Hall again.Gray said they then dragged Hall down the wooden steps and put him in the bed of Grays Ford Ranger pickup.
With Hall, King and Gray in the bed of the truck, James Hendricks drove the truck south on Bethany Road turning east down a farm lane at the intersection of 800 S.
During the drive south, according to the court document, Gray admitted to asking Hall if he wanted to die tonight. While he said Hall could not really talk, he did hear him say that he did not want to die.
Stopping the truck on the dirt lane, Hall was pulled from the truck bed into a ditch. Gray said King assaulted Hall again and they threw Hall camouflage jacket over the top of Hall body.Gray said he thought Hall was alive but his breathing was labored. He said Hall would take a breath of air and hold it for a long time before exhaling.
Gray admitted to going back to the scene and Hall was not at the location they left him. He said they later went out and saw Hall dead lying in the field.
Gray said several days later they went back to the scene, wrapped Hall's body in a tarp and transported him to Gray's detached garage.
Coleman King was interviewed by Jackson County Sheriff's Dept. Detectives Rob Henley and Bob Lucas telling them that he want to Garret Gray's home around noon on April 12. King said he and James Hendricks, who was also at Gray's home, went to Stop-In Liquors in Crothersville. On their way back to Gray's house they picked up Aaron Hall.
King said they were all drinking beer and whiskey when Hall grabbed him in the groin asking King to perform oral sex.
King said he punched Hall then jumped on him punching him several more times. King said Gray also punched Hall while King held Hall down.
King said Gray also held Hall down while beating him. King said Hall was bleeding, his eye swollen shut and he was spitting up blood.
King said Gray dragged Hall down the stairs by his feet and his head bounced down all of the steps.King said they loaded Hall into the back of the pick up and continued beating Hall as Hendricks drove south to the dirt farm lane.
King said they pulled Hall from the truck and left him in a ditch.
King admitted to striking Hall a few more times. The trio then left Hall in the ditch.
When they returned to Gray's home, Gray started saying that they had to kill him or they will go to jail. King said Gray grabbed a shotgun when they went back to the house.
King said he and Gray went back to the place where they left Hall. King said he did not get out of the truck but didn't see Hall. King said Gray shot the gun twice into the woods and they returned to Gray's residence. (It is not clear from the court document and the postmortem exam included in the affidavit did not indicate whether Hall's body had been shot.)
King said the next day, Gray called him telling him Hall was dead. King told detectives a couple of days later, he, Gray and Hendricks removed Hall's body, wrapped it in a tarp and hid it in Gray's garage.