Prosecutor alleges cold-blooded killing in trial of woman accused of shooting, burning man; defense says she was victim of domestic abuse
photo by: Mike Yoder
Story updated 7:12 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019:
Whoever killed Joel Wales left a trail nearly every step of the way — text messages, a GPS device, bullets, gasoline, an anonymous note. And that person, according to prosecutors, was his angry and jealous ex-girlfriend, Tria L. Evans.
Prosecutor Nicole Southall told jurors during opening arguments in Evans’ murder trial Tuesday in Douglas County District Court that evidence would “come together” to prove Evans and her cousin conspired to kill Wales and that they went to the house where he was staying about 9:30 p.m. Nov. 3, 2017, to carry out their plan.
“It took them only about 3 minutes to shoot Joel Wales six times, douse him in gasoline and set him on fire before returning back home,” Southall said.
photo by: Mike Yoder
Evans will share her own story with the jury, her defense team said. They said Evans’ story includes suffering “terror” and abuse from Wales — whom she did not consider her ex.
“Her story is a story of domestic violence and fear, but she did not shoot Joel Wales,” defense attorney Carol Cline said.
“She’s going to tell you her story, and she’s going to ask you to listen to both sides before you make up your mind.”
photo by: Mike Yoder
Cline emphasized that, while the state may have a stack of evidence, there are two ways of looking at the same evidence.
Evans, 39, of Lawrence — who had a child with Wales and a tumultuous relationship — is charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, arson and aggravated burglary.
Her alleged co-conspirator, Christina L. Towell, 38, of Leavenworth, is charged with the same crimes. Towell’s trial is scheduled for March.
Wales, 34, of Eudora, died inside his mother’s house at 1104 East 1200 Road, just south of Lawrence, where he was housesitting.
Gunshots, fire, a body
Neighbors called 911 after hearing a spurt of gunshots from the house.
Those neighbors testified Tuesday that they saw, through a window, the silhouette of a woman moving around inside the house, running onto the front porch and making a motion as if throwing something.
Then “a massive wall of fire” swept over the front of the house, one of the neighbors, Monique Jaimez, said.
The neighbors said the female figure then ran to a car waiting in the driveway, which flipped on its lights and drove away.
Both neighbors said the woman appeared to be wearing baggy clothes and had shoulder-length hair, but couldn’t see more detail because it was dark outside and she was a distance away.
Douglas County Sheriff’s Office deputies got to the scene before firefighters.
Hearing yelling from inside, they forced their way in, but heavy smoke forced them to retreat.
“From about the waist up, it looked like a black curtain,” Deputy Mike Steele testified Tuesday.
After firefighters got to the scene and doused the flames, deputies realized the voices they’d heard were actually coming from the TV — the only person in the house was already dead on the living room floor.
After firefighters pulled Wales’ badly burned body to the front porch, deputies immediately recognized him from previous dealings.
A patrol sergeant at that time, Lt. Robert Berryman testified Tuesday that he and another deputy with him knew Wales from child custody disputes. Wales scheduled times to pick up his daughter at the law enforcement center, and when Evans didn’t show up, Wales called the sheriff’s office to report it.
“This happened for months, so basically everybody on my shift … got to know Mr. Wales,” Berryman said.
In investigating the scene, Berryman said they found a cellphone charger but not Wales’ phone. Berryman knew the number, contacted the cellphone company to track the phone and learned that its final ping was at 10:51 p.m. that night in the area of Perry Lake in Jefferson County.
photo by: Mike Yoder
A letter from the jail
Wales’ mother, traveling out of state with relatives, got a call from law enforcement in the middle of the night. Her first thought upon hearing there was a fire at her house and someone found dead inside?
“Tria killed Joel,” Debbie Wales testified Tuesday.
Debbie Wales described her son’s relationship with Evans, which seemed normal at the beginning but began to deteriorate after their daughter was born in 2014.
“She just started getting more controlling and just constantly wanting to know where Joel was all the time, what he was doing,” Wales said. “If he wasn’t with her, then she had to know where he was at.”
Wales said her son tried to end the relationship while continuing to spend time with his daughter, which made Evans even more jealous.
After Evans was arrested and charged in early 2018, Debbie Wales got a letter in the mail from her.
“I am writing you this letter because I must ask for your forgiveness,” began the letter, which Debbie Wales read aloud. “I ask for your forgiveness for causing you much pain and hurt and sorrow and grief and the loss of your son. I am the one who asked for someone to help protect me and my children from Joel out of fear and desperation.”
In the letter, Evans said Joel Wales “terrorized” her and her family and that she was trapped in a cycle of abuse.
“I know the choice that I made was wrong,” Evans’ letter went on. “I have caused grief and pain to so many, including myself and my children. I am truly and sincerely so sorry, Debbie. Please forgive me.”
In response to questions from attorneys, Debbie Wales said she interpreted the letter as a confession to killing her son.
Bullets and GPS tracking
In her opening arguments, Southall chronicled other evidence jurors would hear in coming days.
When Joel Wales went to answer the door, he was shot three times through the storm door, then three more times inside the house, she said. That storm door — with shattered glass and bullet holes through the screen — was later dragged into the courtroom for jurors to see for themselves.
Six bullets from the same gun and six shell casings were collected from the scene, Southall said. Three bullets went through Wales’ body, two lodged in his torso and one lodged in his brain.
The coroner determined Wales died from the gunshots before being set on fire, Southall said. Testing confirmed there was gasoline poured on Wales’ clothing, the living room floor and the front porch.
A GPS device retrieved from the alleged getaway car, Towell’s cherry red Ford Mustang, showed the vehicle leaving Towell’s house in Leavenworth, driving to Evans’ house in Lawrence, driving to the scene of the crime, parking there at the time of the crime, then returning to Evans’ house and, ultimately back to Leavenworth, Southall said.
“Tria Evans was quickly identified as a suspect in this case,” Southall said.
Investigators searched Evans’ home and collected multiple cellphones containing tens of thousands of text messages — including one inquiring about “a tasteless, untraceable poison” plus incriminating exchanges with Towell, Southall said. She said Evans called Wales 69 times on the day of the homicide, using *67 to block the caller ID each time.
Southall described other stalking behavior, saying multiple witnesses would testify that Evans frequently followed Wales to job sites, texted and called him all day, and parked nearby to watch him at work.
“Eventually, Tria started taking things further,” Southall said. “It went from just watching him and wanting to know everything he was doing to wanting him dead.”
Southall said Wales’ friends had heard voicemails of Evans threatening to kill him.
A former friend of Evans had said that Evans wanted someone to kill Wales for her, and even once asked her to do it for $500, Southall said. She said Evans described to that friend how she would do it: Go to the door at Wales’ mother’s house; if she was home, kill her first; then kill Wales, burn the house down and leave.
At Towell’s house in Leavenworth, detectives said they found an envelope with no return address containing photos of Wales and a handwritten note describing him, his address, his car and his relatives. Southall said a handwriting expert determined the note and envelope were penned by Evans.
photo by: Mike Yoder
‘The system never protected her’
Evans’ defense team said there’s another way to interpret the same evidence.
“Police are trained that you always at least look at the girlfriend or the spouse as a possible suspect,” Cline said. “Tria doesn’t dispute that they had a volatile relationship … she thought they were a couple.”
Cline said that would explain why Evans called Wales, texted him and met him at his job sites to go to lunch. Cline said they spent the night together sometimes, went to couples counseling and enjoyed some time together with their daughter.
However, Cline said, Wales was verbally and physically abusive to Evans, who at one point made a plan to leave him with help from counselors at the Willow Domestic Violence Center.
Evans tried to take her own life, once by overdosing on Xanax, Cline said. She said Evans also investigated the possibility of killing herself with poison.
Evans bought a gun and sought help from others she thought could protect her from Wales because she was becoming “increasingly afraid,” Cline said.
“Tria felt like the system never protected her from Joel,” Cline said. “Sometimes they would get back together again because Tria wanted to be a family, and when they got back together the cycle of abuse would begin again.”
Addressing another key point, what neighbors saw at the scene, Cline noted their description could match that of Evans’ co-defendant, Towell, a heavier woman who had shorter hair.
Evans’ trial is scheduled to last a week and a half.
Judge Kay Huff is presiding.
Evans’ appointed attorneys are Cline and Kenzie Singleton. Southall and Amy McGowan are trying the case for the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office.
photo by: Sara Shepherd
• Feb. 4, 2019 — Woman guilty of murder in slaying, burning of Eudora man
• Feb. 14, 2018 — Affidavit: Two women plotted to kill Eudora man and cover it up