Heskett trial: All-female jury selected; coroner, first responders testify

The first-degree murder trial of 49-year-old Ronald Eugene Heskett, of Eudora, commenced Tuesday after prosecutors and the defense selected an all-female jury.

Ronald Eugene Heskett, 49, of Eudora, appears in court Aug. 14, 2015. Heskett is charged with first-degree murder in the September 2014 death of 65-year-old disabled Lawrence resident, Vance Van Moulton.

Heskett is accused of killing a 65-year-old man in his care on Sept. 12, 2014. Prosecutor Eve Kemple alleged in her opening statements Tuesday that Heskett suffocated Vance “Van” Moulton for financial gain at Moulton’s residence at Prairie Ridge Place Apartments, 2424 Melrose Lane. Heskett’s attorney, Michael Warner, told jurors Tuesday that evidence will show it was an assisted suicide.

Moulton, of Lawrence, had cerebral palsy, which restricted his mobility, Douglas County Coroner Erik Mitchell testified Tuesday. Mitchell said he ruled Moulton’s death a homicide by asphyxiation.

Heskett worked as a home health care attendant for Moulton, both Kemple and Warner said. In photos presented to jurors, Moulton was seen hours after he was pronounced dead the morning of Sept. 12, 2014, lying on his right side with a purple towel twisted around his neck, the ends extending behind him.

In addition to finding evidence of cerebral palsy and limited mobility, Mitchell said he also found petechiae, or dot-like hemorrhages in Moulton’s face and eyelids, plus a rug burn-type scrape beneath his chin. Mitchell said the petechiae and abrasion were consistent with being suffocated with a towel.

Though Moulton’s body showed signs of having bladder irritation and kidney infection due to his cerebral palsy symptoms, causing Moulton to need catheters to relieve himself, Mitchell said Moulton otherwise could have lived a longer life had it not been cut short by the asphyxiation.

“There’s no reason he would have died soon with adequate care of the bladder,” Mitchell said. “His anatomy would support survival.”

Mitchell said that because of Moulton’s limited mobility — he had control of just his right arm — it would not be possible for Moulton to have twisted the towel tight enough to asphyxiate himself.

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Captain Patrick Talkington testified Tuesday that when he arrived at the apartment at 10:12 a.m. Sept. 12 after being dispatched two minutes prior, Heskett was “crying really loud, wailing almost.” He also said that he thought Heskett’s emotions were “excessive,” but indicated he was not saying that Heskett was “faking it.”

Lawrence police officer Dan Ashley said he was also dispatched to Moulton’s apartment and arrived at the scene at 10:16 a.m. Ashley said that when he arrived he saw Heskett in the hallway outside the apartment, speaking with a fire department division chief.

Ashley said he overheard Heskett telling the division chief that Moulton had previously asked Heskett to shoot him and that he “had a history of depression.” However, during open statements, Kemple said that evidence would be shown this week to suggest Moulton was not on any antidepressants and was not depressed.

Ashley said that after a short time, he was assigned to interview Heskett. During their conversation, Heskett told Ashley that the night before the death, Moulton had grown upset when another home health care attendant failed to show up to assist Moulton with his nighttime routine.

Ashley said Heskett told him that Moulton called him the night before and Heskett took over the nighttime duties, but that as he did, Moulton was “generally in a hopeless state of despair.”

Ashley later took Heskett to the Lawrence Police Department’s Investigations and Training Center for a more formal interview. While speaking to Ashley, Heskett seemed “calm and controlled,” Ashley said.

“I think my questions were distracting him from the nature of the scene,” Ashley said.

But when the conversation went quiet, Ashley said Heskett grew “frustrated” with his “brow furrowed.” Ashley said that while they weren’t talking, Heskett would say things apparently to himself such as, “Why did you do this now? We almost had you out of this place.”

During opening statements, Warner and Kemple said one thing that distressed Moulton in the months prior to his death was that Moulton despised his landlord and wanted to move from his apartment complex. Kemple indicated that Moulton was getting close to being able to move.

The trial will continue Wednesday morning with more testimony. The trial is expected to last through Friday.