Two women ordered to stand trial on murder, arson charges in Eudora man’s killing
A judge on Tuesday added two new murder trials to the Douglas County District Court calendar: one for Tria L. Evans, 38, of Lawrence, and the other for her alleged accomplice Christina L. Towell, 38, of Leavenworth.
Both women are charged with the same crimes in connection with the Nov. 3, 2017, slaying of 34-year-old Joel Wales of Eudora, whose body was found shot six times and set afire inside his mother’s house at 1104 East 1200 Road, south of Lawrence.
Evans is the mother of Wales’ child, and the two had a tumultuous relationship since splitting up, according to court documents in related cases and testimony in this one. The nature of Towell’s relationship with Evans isn’t clear, but according to the charges she’s accused of driving Evans to and from the scene of the crime.
Judge Kay Huff said testimony presented at a preliminary hearing on Friday showed probable cause to bind over the women for trial on all counts: first-degree premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree premeditated murder, arson and aggravated burglary.
“This is a circumstantial case, and I think the web of circumstantial evidence certainly led to a possible inference that Ms. Evans and Ms. Towell were involved,” Huff said.
Evans’ seven-day jury trial was scheduled to begin Sept. 10.
A seven-day jury trial for Towell was scheduled to begin Oct. 22.
Both women entered not guilty pleas on Tuesday. While Evans’ trial date falls within 150 days of her arraignment, Towell waived her right to a speedy trial in agreeing to the October date.
Evidence showed the killing was premeditated, prosecutor Amy McGowan said.
“Joel Wales was alone at the house,” McGowan said. “He was shot through the door at least three times … we know that the shooter went into the house and then shot him inside.”
Further, she said, the house was extensively damaged by fire, and testing showed gasoline was poured on the front porch and the living room, including on Wales’ body. To commit the shooting and arson, one or both of the defendants entered the house without permission, McGowan argued.
McGowan didn’t specify which woman the state believes did the shooting, but she said the state’s theory is that they conspired on the crimes.
“They acted together to commit them,” she said, recapping testimony presented Friday. That testimony included a different friend of Evans who said Evans offered to pay her to kill Wales months earlier; forensic testing showing all bullets came from the same gun; plus traffic cameras and a GPS device placing Towell’s red Ford Mustang at Evans’ house and then the scene of the crime.
Evans’ appointed attorney, Carol Cline, had argued that there wasn’t enough evidence to specifically identify her client.
Also, Cline argued that there was no evidence that any conspiring took place in Douglas County, noting that Towell lived in Leavenworth and presumably would have been taking any phone calls from Evans there.
Towell’s appointed attorney, Michael Clarke, said he consulted with his client and they chose not to make arguments at the preliminary hearing phase “given the low burden of proof that the state has.”
Douglas County currently has two other murder trials scheduled where multiple defendants will face juries as a group.
The state plans to go a different route with Evans and Towell.
“Right now, I’m not planning to join them,” McGowan said.