Heskett trial: Defendant says where missing $13,000 went; assisted suicide will not be included in jury instructions

Jurors in the case of a 49-year-old Eudora man charged with first-degree murder heard the defendant explain where the victim’s mysteriously missing $13,000 went.

Prosecutors in the case of Ronald Eugene Heskett have alleged that Heskett intentionally killed his disabled home-care client Vance “Van” Moulton, 65, of Lawrence, for financial reasons. Heskett, however, has maintained that the death was an assisted suicide.

Heskett testified Tuesday that after persistent, highly emotional pleadings from Moulton to kill him on Sept. 12, 2014, Heskett helped twist a towel around Moulton’s neck. Heskett then pulled one end as Moulton held the other, he said, asphyxiating him to death. Moulton had cerebral palsy and other serious health problems.

The state has presented witnesses over the past week who said that Moulton before his death cashed $13,000 in government checks, which was never recovered in a search of his home. They showed recorded police interviews with Heskett in which Heskett denied entering any financial agreements with Moulton or taking his money, and they presented evidence of Heskett making uncharacteristically expensive purchases of a 1972 Chevelle and car parts.

Throughout the trial, that $13,000 has been the crux of the state’s case.

When Heskett, the last witness in the case, testified Tuesday, he admitted the $13,000 had indeed been spent on the car — but only with the authority of Moulton as part of a plan to raise money to buy Moulton a wheelchair-accessible van.

Heskett on Tuesday said, as other witnesses had testified over the past week, that Moulton yearned for a wheelchair-accessible van to ride in and gain more independence. Heskett said he’d gone to look for an accessible van at Moulton’s request, and told Moulton it would cost about $40,000 — an amount far greater than the $13,193.18 total received from his government checks.

Heskett said Moulton knew Heskett restored old cars as a hobby, and the two would regularly watch car auction shows on TV together. So, when thinking about how to get more money for Moulton to buy a van, Heskett said he and Moulton devised a plan to invest in a 1972 Chevelle to fix up and sell for $25,000.

Heskett said that he put in the work, the time and around $1,500 of his own money into the car, and that he and Moulton agreed to split profits, with Moulton receiving 75 percent and Heskett getting 25 percent.

“We had an agreement. We worked toward getting his van,” Heskett said. “It was the only way that Van and I knew to increase his money.”

When asked how much of the checks were spent, Heskett said, “All of it.”

In Heskett’s recorded police confession shown to jurors last week, Heskett denied taking any money from Moulton. He also suggested the last time he saw the $13,000 in cash, it was in a dresser drawer of Moulton’s apartment — which he admitted Tuesday was not the truth.

Heskett told jurors Tuesday that he was fearful to tell investigators about the car agreement because they were asking him whether Moulton had given him the money in exchange for killing him.

“All (police) were talking about was, ‘Did Van give you money?'” Heskett testified. “I thought they were going to charge me with murder for hire and give me the death penalty.”

Heskett said he and Moulton didn’t tell anyone else about the agreement.

On Monday, Moulton’s occupational therapist, Megan Roelofs, testified that she remembered a time when Moulton mentioned saving cash in a lockbox at his apartment. Roelofs said she told Moulton that was a “bad idea” and it might be considered Medicaid fraud because Moulton received government benefits and was “only supposed to have a certain amount of money” to be eligible.

Roelofs said that after her comment Moulton stopped talking about the money. Heskett said Tuesday that Moulton hid the money because Moulton was on a voucher system through his apartment, and if someone were to find out about extra income, it could affect his rent.

The state rested its case Tuesday following Heskett’s testimony, deciding not to present any rebuttal witnesses. Jurors were sent home as the attorneys argued about proposed jury instructions before Douglas County District Judge Peggy Kittel.

Heskett’s attorney, Mike Warner, argued that Kittel should let jurors decide between not only the first- or second-degree murder charges facing his client, but also have the option to convict Heskett of lesser charges of assisted suicide or voluntary manslaughter.

Warner argued that the defense “has the constitutional right to present a theory of defense” (i.e. assisted suicide) and that the defendant is also “entitled to instructions in coordination with the defendant’s defense theory.”

Warner said that because Heskett admitted to killing Moulton at Moulton’s request, it would “confuse” the jurors if they were only to have the options of first-degree murder, second-degree murder or acquittal.

“This jury is sitting here today wondering if it’s an assisted suicide or not,” Warner said. Because Heskett confessed to helping Moulton die, “we don’t expect Mr. Heskett to walk out the door here, unless he’s acquitted based on the charges, which would be ironic.”

Prosecutors Eve Kemple and David Melton argued that assisted suicide and voluntary manslaughter are not lesser included charges of first-degree murder and hence are not appropriate based on Kansas statute and case law. Kittel agreed with them, denying Warner’s request to include the lesser charges on the jury’s instructions.

The trial will continue Wednesday with closing arguments, then the case will be submitted to the jury. Heskett remains in the Douglas County Jail on a $500,000 bond.