By GARY POPP
Two teenage murder suspects were released from jail Friday morning after spending nearly five months behind bars without bonds.
Following a hearing in Clark County Circuit Court Monday, Judge Vicki Carmichael ruled Tuesday to modify the bonds of Christopher Jared Sowders, 18, and Garreth Edward Stephens, 19, both of Borden, to $100,000 court-cash.
The men are charged in the murder of Steven Baldwin, 48, who was found shot to death in his Plum Woods Drive home in Clarksville on March 11.
Stephens’ mother, Jennifer Arnold, said it’s wonderful to have her son returning home, but that she is also saddened the Baldwin family is suffering from its loss.
“I just want the family to know our hearts go out to Steven Baldwin and his family,” she said. “We have been praying for them from the beginning of this process and we just hope they find who did this and that Garreth and Jared [Sowders] can continue with their lives.”
Arnold said she was overjoyed to have her son reunited with his sister, nephew and other family and friends.
“We are very happy to be able to bring him home safe with his family while we continue through this process,” she said. “I don’t know if I will be able to quit hugging him.”
Arnold said her family has never second-guessed the innocence of Stephens or Sowders.
“We have never stopped believing in the boys from the beginning,” she said. “We’ve known from the beginning there is no possible way they are connected to this crime.”
Arnold said her son has attended Indiana State University and began working on his pilot’s license when he was 16 years old, and is on his way to becoming a commercial airline pilot.
“He is smart. He is determined and [becoming a pilot] is what he has always wanted to do, which is why we knew he would never throw away his future and everything he has worked so hard for,” Arnold said.
With the new court-cash bonds, $10,000 postings allowed each man to be released from the Michael L. Becher Adult Correctional Complex. Conditions of their bonds include home incarceration, no communication on social networking websites or interaction with any of the more than 20 witnesses the state could call to testify in the upcoming trial. The men are also required to wear GPS tracking devices during their home-incarceration terms.
Sowders is being represented by Perry McCall, Jeffersonville, and Eric Weitzel, New Albany, is serving as Stephens’ counsel.
The trial was slated for Sept. 3, but following the bond modification hearing and the state’s request the trial be delayed, a new trial date was set for Jan 14.
The state is being represented by Clark County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jeremy Mull, who said the additional time will allow the Clarksville Police Department, the investigating agency, and the prosecutor’s office to continue investigation of the case.
“There are angles that we are working on and pieces of evidence that we are working and examining that are not going to be done by the [original] trial date,” Mull said, adding that he feels more comfortable with the new time frame. “At the end of the day, when I walk into court on a murder trial, I want to make sure every iota of evidence that is available has been collected, analyzed, evaluated, and every possible witness has been interviewed.”
Mull referred to Indiana statue “rule four” that dictates offenders can only be jailed for six months before a trial or bond modification takes place, unless the defense requests a continuance.
“They [the defendants] wanted their trial in six months, so, therefore, it was incumbent upon me, if I wanted more time, to agree to some sort of bond,” Mull said. “I do think that is in the interest of justice.”
He said not all DNA and ballistics evidence has been processed and returned to prosecutors and law enforcement for examination.
THE BACK STORY
Sowders’ and Stephens’ arrests came after Clarksville police investigators drafted a probable-cause affidavit that includes statements from an initial suspect who told police Sowders told him, “I did something crazy,” and “Yeah, dude. I shot him,” two days after Baldwin was murdered.
The same man told police Sowders sent him text messages the day before the murder listing items he had in his possession to commit a burglary at the Plum Woods Drive home, including a gun, ski masks and zip ties. Another alleged text read, “We are doing it Monday morning, and the money is there.”
During a following conversation with police, the man said he had deleted the incriminating text messages. At this time, those texts have not been located in the more than 4,000 pages of cell phone records that have been extracted from the phones of several possibly involved parties.
In fact, no text messages have linked Sowders or Stephens to Baldwin’s murder.
When Mull was asked Tuesday if the state has discovered any cell phone text messages implicating the teenagers of the crime, he directed media to the probable-cause affidavit.
“I am not allowed to comment on that under my ethic rules,” he said.
The men were incarcerated since March 21, 10 days after Baldwin’s remains were discovered. Despite requests made by McCall and Weitzel that their clients be tried separately, Carmichael has ruled that the men’s cases will be heard in the same trial. Mull said it benefits Clark County residents to combine Sowders’ and Stephens’ cases in a single trial, which is expected to take several weeks.
“There is a large financial cost to the county for doing a trial,” he said. “Not only is there a financial cost for paying for the trial, but there is a large financial cost to the jury, as far as having to take off work for weeks to sit on jury. That cost people a lot of money and time away from their families.”
Mull said the evidence in each case is the same and that there is no logical reason to present the evidence in one trial then do the same all over again for the second defendant.
Mull confirmed Friday that he does not intend on offering either suspect a plea agreement prior to the trial date.
“It has been my expectation from the very beginning that these cases would both go to a jury trial,” he said.
During the two days of court proceedings this week, the gallery area of the courtroom was full of Sowders’ and Stephens’ loved ones.
“The families have been behind both of these kids all along,” McCall said, referring to the large show of support as “unusual.”
Stephens’ mother said she and others will celebrate the release of her son by taking him to dinner at Texas Roadhouse. After that, she plans on catching up on the lost time by keeping her son close.
“Garreth told me when he comes home he doesn’t want the TV on. He just wants his family there and wants to sit and talk and just be with his family,” she said. “And, that is exactly what we are going to do.”