When asked the first thing that went through her mind when she was told her son was dead, Debbie Wales’ response was terse.
“Tria did it.”
Wales was the first witness to testify Friday at a preliminary hearing for two women charged with murder in the death of Joel Wales, 34, of Eudora.
“I knew at some point that this was going to happen,” Debbie Wales told the court. “Her actions were just getting more aggressive. I just thought she was going to end up doing this.”
Tria L. Evans, 38, of Lawrence, is the mother of Joel Wales’ child. She and Christina L. Towell, 38, of Leavenworth, are each charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, arson and aggravated burglary. Charges allege that they conspired to kill Wales — with Towell driving Evans to and from the scene — then cover up the crime by setting the house on fire.
The killing happened in Debbie Wales’ house south of Lawrence, 1104 East 1200 Road, around 9:30 p.m. on Nov. 3, 2017, while she said she was traveling out of state and her son was house-sitting.
Answering questions from prosecutor Amy McGowan, Debbie Wales said the relationship between Evans and her son started around 2013.
“At the beginning, it seemed everything was fine,” Wales said. “As time went by, things started changing.”
Debbie Wales said Evans became “controlling,” “stalking,” and got “in a frenzy” when she didn’t know where Joel Wales was — calling, texting and sitting in her car parked down the road. After splitting up, the couple had a parenting agreement for their now 4-year-old daughter, and Debbie Wales said that when she accompanied her son for prearranged drop-off appointments, Evans frequently failed to show up.
Evans ended up on probation after a June 2016 domestic incident involving the Wales family, and Debbie Wales got a no-trespass order against Evans, which she renewed again in 2017, she said.
As for Towell, Wales said she didn’t know her and had never seen her before.
Towell herself spoke briefly — and abruptly — during Friday’s hearing.
After Debbie Wales stepped down from the witness stand, Towell stood up unannounced, fidgeting with a rolled-up paper in her hands, and said, “Your Honor, before we proceed any further, I would like to address the court.”
Judge Kay Huff asked Towell’s appointed attorney, Michael Clarke, “What is this about?”
Clarke said he did not know, and the judge ordered a recess so he could consult with his client.
Back in the courtroom, Towell did not speak again but confirmed she would communicate with her attorney.
“I think the emotional nature of the situation got a little bit much,” Clarke said.
Friday’s testimony continued with a Johnson County Crime Lab firearms technician who tested shell casings and six fired bullets recovered from the scene and Joel Wales’ body.
Jason Butell said the three bullets from the body arrived at the Johnson County crime lab in evidence containers labeled “bullet in brain,” “upper bullet in left chest wall” and “lower bullet in left chest wall.”
He said the bullets from the chest each had signs they’d been shot through glass, such as a tempered glass door or window.
Testing of marks on the bullets showed they all came from the same gun, a Smith and Wesson Bodyguard .380 pistol, Butell said. Although he said he had no actual weapon to test them against, that is the same type of handgun that detectives found a box for in Evans’ home.
In all, Wales was shot six times, though three of the bullets went all the way through his body instead of staying lodged in it, medical examiner Dr. Erik Mitchell testified.
There were four shots to his torso, with one piercing his heart, Mitchell said. One shot went through his brain. Another went through his right forearm.
Mitchell said that although Wales’ body was substantially burned, he died from the gunshot wounds before the fire.
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Other testimony included a next-door neighbor who was outside when she heard two spurts of gunshots — “like pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop,” she said — and saw a “wave” of fire erupt on the house’s front porch.
A woman ran back and forth between the house and a car parked next to the driveway before getting into the passenger side of the car, which then flipped its lights on and drove off, Monique Jaimez said.
Jaimez said it was too dark and far away for her to see the woman’s face or describe much about her appearance, however. Jaimez and her fiancee called 911, but dispatchers told them not to try to approach the house themselves.
“It was pretty scary,” she said.
The first law enforcement officer on the scene, Sgt. Robert Berryman of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, said he and another arriving deputy heard what they thought was an argument inside the house.
They saw fire around the front door, a bullet hole in the rear sliding glass door and smoke inside, he said. They kicked in a door to the garage, then opened a door into the kitchen and “smoke started pouring out.”
They crawled inside to find the source of the voices, but encountered more fire in the living room and the smoke was getting thicker.
Berryman ordered his fellow officer out of the house and called in Wakarusa Township firefighters, who had staged a safe distance away because law enforcement had not determined the scene was safe.
“I told him (the chief), ‘I need you to put that fire out now because I believe there’s somebody in the house,’” Berryman said.
It turned out the arguing voices were from the TV, but firefighters found Wales’ body on the living room floor.
Berryman and fellow officers were able to identify him themselves.
They recognized him from numerous times he’d called law enforcement when Evans didn’t show up to drop off their child, Berryman said.
A state fire investigator concluded the fire was purposely set. He said an accelerant sniffing dog and follow-up lab tests showed that gasoline had been poured on the porch and in the living room, including on Wales’ body.
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Evans was identified as a possible suspect quickly, sheriff’s Detective Dean Ohman said. Among other links, he said, phone records showed she called Wales 69 times the day of the killing up until 8:50 p.m., using *67 to block her number each time.
Towell wasn’t developed as a suspect until a week or two later, he said, in part through traffic and license plate camera images of her red Ford Mustang in Lawrence that night, and calls between her and Evans’ phones before and after the shooting.
Inside Towell’s Mustang was a GPS device that showed it left Towell’s address in Leavenworth, traveled to Evans’ house, then to the scene of the crime and stopped in the driveway for a few minutes right around 9:30 p.m., Ohman said.
After that, the GPS from the Mustang went back to Evans’ house, stopped for a few minutes just before 10 p.m., then returned to Towell’s home in Leavenworth.
Among other evidence described by law enforcement agents, the fire dog sniffed accelerant on a jacket at Evans’ house, and some tennis shoes matching those seen in her house were found wrapped in a bag and stuffed in an outdoor fireplace at Towell’s home in Leavenworth when authorities searched it about two weeks later. Authorities found a can of gasoline in the trunk of Towell’s Mustang.
Also in a backpack in Towell’s bedroom, they found a letter addressed to Towell with Evans’ DNA on the seal, according to law enforcement testimony. Postmarked September 2017, the envelope contained a photo of Wales and a handwritten list with his name, birth date, height, weight, car and description of his mother and a few of his friends.
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An arrest affidavit prepared by law enforcement said Towell was a longtime acquaintance of Evans’ who recently moved to this area from Dodge City, but testimony Friday did not explain how the two knew each other.
Earlier in 2017, however, Evans had asked another friend of hers to kill Wales for $500 — or $1,000 after the job was completed — that friend testified.
Joni Garner said she had known Evans for several years and that they became close, spending time together almost every day from fall 2016 until spring 2017, when they had a falling out and Garner cut off contact with Evans completely.
Garner said she never met Wales but knew he and Evans were no longer together, not by choice of Evans. She said Evans talked about Wales “all the time,” was jealous and showed up at his work sites uninvited every day.
“I witnessed her calling him repeatedly, I witnessed her screaming on the phone, screaming on his voicemails,” Garner said.
Garner said Evans began telling her about how she wanted Wales to die, along with his mother.
She asked Garner to help, over the course of about a dozen conversations, Garner said.
“She just asked me point blank if I would be willing to shoot Joel’s mother, and shoot Joel,” Garner said.
Specifically, Garner said, Evans told her she wanted her to go to the door of Wales’ mother’s home about 6 a.m. when she’d be leaving for work, shoot her first, then Wales. Garner said Evans told her she’d provide the weapon — she’d bought a gun online — and that she wanted to ride with Garner when she did it. She also talked about burning the house afterward, and told Garner she’d help dispose of her clothes.
Evans emphasized that Wales’ mother’s house was out in the country, not right next to other houses, Garner testified.
“She said that you could fire a weapon, and nobody would hear,” Garner said.
Garner said she’d told Evans no.
When asked whether she ever told police about the requests from Evans, Garner said no, although she did tell some friends.
“It’s not a crime to be crazy,” Garner said.
The final step of the preliminary hearing for Evans and Towell is scheduled for Tuesday.
McGowan, Clarke and Evans’ appointed attorney Carol Cline will make closing statements, and the judge will rule whether there’s probable cause to order the women to stand trial on the charges.
Contact public safety reporter Sara ShepherdHave a tip or story idea?
More coverage: Joel Wales homicide• May 11, 2018 — Victim’s mother blames his ex at hearing for defendants in rural Lawrence murder, arson case
• Feb. 14, 2018 — Affidavit: Two women plotted to kill Eudora man and cover it up
• Feb. 6, 2018 — Preliminary hearing scheduled for 2 women charged with murder of Eudora man
• Feb. 2, 2018 — 2 women charged with conspiring to murder Eudora man face judge in Douglas County
• Feb. 1, 2018 — 2 women charged with murder, arson in November homicide of man found in burning house near Lawrence
• Nov. 14, 2017 — No arrests made in death of man found inside burning house south of Lawrence
• Nov. 6, 2017 — Investigators identify man found dead in burning home south of Lawrence; homicide suspected
• Nov. 4, 2017 — Body found in burning home after report of gunshots; sheriff’s office investigating scene south of Lawrence