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Lugoff 'ninja' murder trial underway

Posted: November 16, 2010 5:40 p.m.
Updated: November 17, 2010 5:00 a.m.

It’s been 464 days since Derick Lee was killed in his Cricket Hill Drive, Lugoff, mobile home, shot twice in the head.

A jury was picked and preliminary motions heard Monday in the trial of two of three men arrested and charged with Lee’s murder. Joshua Stapleton and Christopher Watson are accused of conspiring with Carl Mendez to steal a number of weapons Lee kept in his home. Prosecutors allege they also conspired to kill him because they believed he would be able to identify them as the thieves and because they feared he might kill them first.

In the days following his death, Lee was described as a “ninja” weapons master by Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) investigators. According to the KCSO, Lee was a third-degree black belt ninjitsu instructor from Staten Island, N.Y., who was a gun collector who would allow others to target practice in his back yard.

Stapleton, Watson and Mendez were arrested several days later and held pending charges of murder. According to testimony offered as part of the preliminary motions Monday afternoon, KCSO investigators Jamey Jones and George Marthers spoke with Mendez first.

That simple fact -- that Mendez was interviewed first -- was 5th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Ron Moak’s first step in having video recordings of Watson and Stapleton’s confessions.

Stapleton’s defense attorneys argued that while their client had been Mirandized and was properly in Marthers and Jones’ custody, his confession was not given voluntary.

Attorney Amy Zmroczek also claimed Stapleton was not allowed to call for an attorney.

“He was also deprived of food and water, there was verbal intimidation and tactics used to induce (fear),” said Zmroczek.

Public Defender Neil Riley, representing Watson, said while a verbal motion he had made earlier in the day did not speak directly to Zmroczek’s argument, he, too, felt any videotaped confession by his client should be suppressed as well.

With the jury excused for the afternoon, Marthers testified that Watson never asked for a lawyer and that he agreed to talk with him and Jones. That testimony appeared to be corroborated by the video itself, which Moak played for Circuit Court Judge G. Thomas Cooper’s benefit.

Near the beginning of the recording, Marthers and Jones enter the interrogation room occupied by Watson. Marthers immediately launches into reading Watson his Miranda rights; Watson, as each is explained, indicates he understands. Marthers then explains how Watson can waive his rights.

“You want to talk to us?” Marthers asks.

“Yes, sir,” Watson answers, and signs the waiver.

Immediately, Marthers starts to tell Watson that they will “take no bull----” from him.

“The questions we ask, we have answers to,” Marthers says, apparently referring to having already spoken to Mendez, “so be straightforward with us.”

He tells Watson to tell the “100 percent … full truth.”

“We’ve done our homework, we’ve been away from our families for three days,” says Marthers.

Jones jumps in at that point, explaining to Watson they had probable cause -- that they had gone to a judge who agreed they had that probable cause and issued a warrant charging him with murder.

“This is your time, because you’re charged with murder,” Jones tells Watson. “We’re not asking if you’re involved. We know you’re involved. What we want to determine is what your role was.”

Cooper ultimately allowed both videos of Watson and Stapleton’s confessions into evidence late Monday afternoon. Mendez was on the stand as of Tuesday afternoon testifying against his co-defendants, with prosecutors playing his videotaped statement to investigators as well.

Mendez’s testimony followed earlier statements from a forensic pathologist and KCSO Deputy Brian Morris, one of the first officers on the scene after Lee’s body was discovered.

The trial is expected to continue today.


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