Opening statements in the murder trial of Charles “Steve” Lee began Monday afternoon in Greenup Circuit Court. Lee is charged with the March 2011 death of his wife, Leslie “Crickett” Lanham-Lee.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Cliff Duvall began by explaining the commonwealth bears the burden of proof in the case, and told jurors to expect a trial “chock full of names and facts and information.” Duvall said Crickett Lee was found stabbed to death in her own bed in “the wee hours” of March 4, 2011, after her husband, Steve Lee, called 911 to ask for police to come to their home.
“Listen and hang on to each word of that call. Listen to the words he used,” Duvall advised the jury, later adding Lee used nuggets of truth mixed with many lies to fabricate an alibi that he had left the home and gone for a drive that morning, returning home to find his wife murdered. “If you listen, he always tells on himself.”
In the 911 call, Duvall said Lee laid the foundation for his story, including that he had failed to lock the door when he left and that his wife’s dog, described as a highly protective 100-pound bull dog, was missing. Lee also told the dispatcher that his wife’s body was stiff when he found her, and that she was lying in a different position than when he left, with bed linens on the floor.
Lee seemed frantic when an ambulance arrived, Duvall said, but became calm and sat in the floor while police and detectives investigated the scene inside their apartment.
“He was totally and utterly without any emotion. He didn’t seem to be upset at all,” Duvall told the jury.
The commonwealth’s attorney said testimony will indicate Crickett Lee died from one of two stab wounds to the neck, although blood on the bed was pooled in an area under her waist where an orange and black railroad-company glove was also found. Steve Lee worked as an engineer for Norfolk & Southern, the company which issued that type of gloves, although his DNA was not found inside the item recovered from the crime scene. During interviews with Detective David Bocook of the Greenup County Sheriff’s Department, Duvall said Lee offered no information about the message “SNITCH U R NEXT” written in block-style letters on a wall next to the bed where Lee was killed, along with a diamond-shaped symbol. Duvall said the diamond symbol is often used by “outlaw bikers” who disregard the law.
Duvall also focused on the route Lee said he drove while he was away from the home on the morning his wife died, explaining he also told detective Bocook the speeds at which he drove. Duvall points out that Lee drove past several convenience stores before stopping to purchase two soft drinks, and that he admitted to stopping in the middle of the Carl Perkins Bridge at Portsmouth after one of the drinks spilled into the floor. Duvall noted that Lee said he stopped on the bridge after he was reminded there are security cameras along the span. When the detective retraced Lee’s route at the speeds he reported driving, Duvall said the investigator determined Lee was either mistaken about the length of time he was driving, or had lied to investigators.
Lee also told investigators he had to turn his cell phone on to call 911, indicating the device was not in use earlier that night. Duvall said that became relevant when state police transferred a call from Lee’s son, who reported that he and Lee’s ex-wife had been trying to contact him repeatedly throughout the evening. Lee’s ex-wife, identified as Tanya Hunt, indicated she and Lee were planning to reunite and travel to Tennessee. Noting Lee told the detective he and his wife had a “great” marriage, Duvall said testimony will indicate he had been making advances toward other women and telling them he would soon be divorced. Lee is also alleged to have said he stands to receive about $80,000 if not convicted of murder, Duvall said. Lee also gave a confession to jail trustee Joe Davis, saying he did kill his wife and, if he had it to do over again, would have killed the dog too. Cricket Lee’s dog was discovered about two weeks after her death, wandering a section of the AA Highway which corresponded to Steve Lee’s driving route on the day of her death.
Defense attorney Jonah Stevens of Pike County immediately refuted the story of Lee’s alleged jail confession, saying “It’s common knowledge no inmate would confess to a trustee,” and cast doubt on the timeline of the alleged confession. Stevens said Lee essentially has a clean record with 20 years of service to the railroad, and as a former U.S. Marine who operated radio equipment during his time in the service. The attorney said Lee comes from a large family in Pike County which has been compared to the Waltons or the Brady Bunch, with “not a blemish on his record.”
Stevens predicted the commonwealth will rely largely upon “reputation evidence” to make a case against Lee. The attorney also said he had personal questions about Crickett Lee, who was recognized for her charitable work with children “but kept her own children out of her private life.”
“She would raise money for those children, but didn’t want her own around her,” Stevens said, soon suggesting that Mrs. Lee may have found herself in trouble with some of the “outlaw bikers” she was trying to disassociate from in her charity efforts.
Prosecutors failed to secure the section of drywall with the “SNITCH U R NEXT” message for possible DNA testing, Stevens pointed out, and law enforcement officers did not seal the area with tape between their first and second visits to the apartment, allowing possible contamination of the scene. Stevens said prosecutors had theorized the killer’s DNA would be inside the glove removed from beneath Mrs. Lee’s body, but were unmoved when Lee’s DNA was not discovered on the item. If Lee had been the killer, Stevens said his DNA would have been left in the glove as it slid off the hand beneath the weight of Mrs. Lee’s body.
“Scientifically, it’s called being excluded,” he said.
Testimony in the case will resume at 9 a.m. today.
TIM PRESTON can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2651.