Four murder cases to fill court docket in 2012

By Katherine Wartell

The Riley County court roster will be full this coming year with the cases of four murder suspects, three of the murders having been committed in 2011 alone.

In July, Luis Aguirre, 24, will stand trial for the 2009 murder of his ex-girlfriend Tanya Maldonado, 18, and their 15-month-old son, Juan, whose bodies were found by a hunter in a shallow grave in Ogden.

The state, represented by County Attorney Barry Wilkerson and Assistant County Attorney Barry Disney, has argued in hearings to date that Aguirre murdered Tanya and Juan Maldonado, both of Chicago, because he viewed them as an albatross upon his life. It is expected that prosecutors will try to use email exchanges between Maldonado and Aguirre as evidence to illustrate a discordant relationship between the two and a possible motive for murder.

If convicted, Aguirre could face the death penalty, which has not been sought in Riley County since its reinstatement in 1994. Aguirre, who is confined to the Riley County Jail on $2.5 million bond, is represented by Jeffrey Wicks, an attorney with the Kansas Death Penalty Defense Unit.

One of the most widely publicized murder cases of 2011, the shooting of 14-year-old Tyler Dowling allegedly by then 14-year-old Cole Drake, will also continue to progress through the courts in the new year.

During a two-day court hearing in February, it will be determined whether Drake, accused of first degree murder, should be tried as a juvenile or an adult. The hearing has already been postponed twice, Wilkerson saying those delays were to enable completion of the report of the evaluation conducted on Drake.

In April, Dowling’s body was found in a field near Eisenhower Middle School. Police first hypothesized that Drake and Dowling, both eighth-grade students at Eisenhower, were caught up in a “car-hopping,” or theft, gone bad, and that Dowling had been shot while the two were trying to get away. In previous hearings, officials indicated that Drake was not treated as a suspect originally, but was interviewed because he was reputed to have been the last person to see Dowling.

Police arrested Drake following a police interview a day after Dowling’s body was found. In Drake’s trial, the date of which has yet to be determined, the state will be able to use as evidence the statements Drake made to police in the interviews prior to his arrest.

Two other murder suspects from 2011 cases will also go to court in the new year.

Justin Taylor, 24, charged with the second-degree murder of Kevin Cockrum, 31, a former combat medic, will stand trial at the end of January. Cockrum was found with extensive head trauma in an Aggieville alley on Aug. 11. He died a day later from his injuries.

Prosecutors allege that Taylor, a Kansas State University student, killed Cockrum with two hard blows to the head with Cockrum’s own flashlight while Cockrum lie unconscious from a previous blow inflicted by Levertis Horne, another Manhattan man and K-State student, who was with Taylor the night Cockrum was killed. In a previous hearing, Horne said the two men had gotten into an altercation with Cockrum after Horne called the woman Cockrum was with an expletive. Horne said that after he knocked Cockrum unconscious with his initial blow, Taylor started hitting Cockrum. He said that he told Taylor to stop because he would kill him.

Horne was initially charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder, but the charges were dropped due to what officials called insufficient evidence.

Larry McRell, Taylor’s attorney, has alleged that Horne is continuing to misrepresent the facts.

In a recent hearing, Judge Paul Miller ruled that statements Taylor made to police during an August interview can be used as evidence in his trial.

And, in what was perhaps the most convoluted murder case of 2011, Michael Layne, 19, accused of killing Steve Freel, 31, will appear before Judge Meryl Wilson in February for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence against him to bind him over for trial.

Police arrested Layne on Dec. 7, following the discovery of Freel’s body on a dirt road off of Tuttle Creek Boulevard. They alleged that Layne and Freel were associates who committed armed robberies together before their relationship soured due to what they called a “broken confidence.”

According to police, on Dec. 6, Layne took Freel on a drive, during which they began to argue. Authorities contend that near the 5200 block of N. 48th St., Layne forced Freel from the car, shot him and drove away. Freel’s body was found on Dec. 7 by a property owner in the area.

Layne, confined to the Riley County Jail on $1 million bond, is charged with first degree murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, conspiracy to commit aggravated robbery, kidnapping and misdemeanor theft committed against Freel.

During the course of the homicide investigation, police also arrested five others: Domingo Soto, 41, Devin Bruce, 19, Tevin Bruce, 19, Reyna Youdath, 18, and Areale Hanks, 25.

According to police, Soto provided Layne with the murder weapon. He is charged with conspiracy to commit first degree murder and is confined to the Riley County Jail on $500,000 bond.

Police said they arrested the Bruce brothers, alleged associates of Layne, after witnessing the two trying to steal firearms related to past crimes from Layne’s residence in the early morning of Dec. 7.

Youdath and Hanks, police said, were arrested for a Dec. 6 aggravated robbery against a Manhattan woman that they allegedly committed with Layne.

All five will face their own preliminary hearings in the coming months.

As the numbers indicate, law enforcement officials were kept busy in 2011 with a general rise in major crime. According to statistics from the RCPD, there was a slight increase in the number of reported rapes, aggravated assaults, robberies and burglaries. Most notably however, was the increase in murders, with only one reported in 2010, and four in 2011.

Along with the previously mentioned murders, there was also the October murder of Ronald Evans Taylor, 28, a Fort Riley soldier, who was shot in Ogden by a suspect who is still at large.

Sgt. Greg Steere said the suspect is an approximately 180-pound black man, about 5 feet, 8 inches to 6 feet tall, and 25 to 35 years of age. The police composite image of him can now be seen on a billboard on Fort Riley Boulevard and Taylor’s family is offering a $10,000 reward for any information leading to the conviction of him. 

Also notable this year was a string of robberies that began in October. In November police arrested Mark Wyche, 23, Manhattan, for the Oct. 4 Community First National Bank armed robbery, the Nov. 17 Kansas State Bank robbery and the Nov. 22 Dara’s Fast Lane armed robbery.

Wyche is being held without bond in the Shawnee County Jail in Topeka. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000 on the first bank robbery count, and a maximum penalty of 20 years and a fine up to $250,000 on each of the other counts. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Warner is prosecuting the case.

Police said Wyche is not a suspect in the Nov. 21 Walgreens robbery, which is still under investigation. In that incident, police described the suspect as a white male, about 6 feet, 190 pounds, wearing faded jeans, a black beanie, black jacket and black gloves.

They also said Wyche, who lived down the street from the Strasser Village Apartments construction site, is not a suspect in the devastating arson on Nov. 6 that destroyed the complex. ATF officials ruled it to be an incendiary fire after a week of investigation.

The fire caused an estimated $2.7 million in damage to the Strasser Village Apartments and officials estimated damage to nearby businesses could exceed $2 million, resulting in the biggest dollar loss from arson in Manhattan’s history, Manhattan Fire Chief Jerry Snyder said.

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