3 Houston County murder cases may go to trial in April

bpurser@macon.comMarch 11, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- Three separate murder cases may go to trial in April in Houston County.

District Attorney George Hartwig said he is ready to go to trial in the 2012 beating and strangulation of 25-year-old Justin Arthur Klaffka, of Centerville, whose body was discovered in the Ocmulgee River in south Houston County. However, Hartwig expects to file a motion to sever the trial of one of the defendants and try him at a later date.

Hartwig said he also is ready to go to trial in the 2008 killing of 25-year-old Mario Smith inside a rented storage bay for his car. However, a psychological evaluation has been ordered for the defendant, and whether that case will move forward depends on when the evaluation is completed, Hartwig said. He said this case is a priority because of its age.

The Klaffka and Smith cases are on the April trial calendar before Houston County Superior Court Judge Katherine K. Lumsden. The trial calendar includes the weeks of April 8 and April 15.

Also, the trial of a former state probation officer charged with the August fatal shooting of his girlfriend, 27-year-old Jessica Nicole Wolfe, has been set for April 29 in Houston County before Macon Judicial Circuit Judge Tripp Self. Houston County judges recused themselves, as did county prosecutors, because Wolfe was a legal assistant for the Houston County District Attorney’s Office.

Dumped in the river

Investigators say that April 10, 2012, Justin Arthur Klaffka got into an argument with Daniel Lee Slaton, 36; Slaton’s brother William Allen Slaton, 30; and Matthew Jacob Pike, 28, at a Dixie Trail home about whether Klaffka had ratted them out about an armed robbery two days earlier.

Klaffka’s body was discovered in the Ocmulgee River several days later by people swimming near a popular fishing hole at the Knowles Landing boat ramp off Ga. 96.

The three were indicted on charges of malice murder, felony murder, kidnapping with bodily injury, aggravated assault and tampering with evidence. The indictment alleges the three choked Klaffka to death, removed blood from the crime scene at 119 Dixie Trail, and took off and burned Klaffka’s clothing before dumping his body in the river.

Accused of the beating, Pike and William Allen Slaton are more culpable in Klaffka’s death than Daniel Lee Slaton, whose alleged participation in the crime was driving the Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, Hartwig said. As a result, Hartwig said he expects to try Daniel Lee Slaton separately at a later date.

But Jeff Grube, a Warner Robins attorney representing Pike, said that sounds to him as if a plea offer may be in play for Daniel Lee Slaton.

Grube said he has filed a motion to sever the trial of Pike from the other men. He said that’s his customary practice when more than one person is accused in a crime.

“Juries tend to think birds of a feather stick together,” Grube said.

Grube has filed other motions in the case, including one that challenges the legality of a search of the Dixie Trail residence and seizure of Pike’s cellphone, court records show. Another motion was filed to suppress DNA evidence taken from Pike.

Pike and the Slaton brothers also were charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and possession of a crime in connection with an April 8, 2012, robbery in the 400 block of Pleasant Hill Road in Warner Robins in which a PlayStation and Xbox were stolen at gunpoint, according to the indictment. This is the incident in which the Slaton brothers and Pike believed Klaffka ratted them out, investigators say.

The Slaton brothers and Pike pleaded not guilty to all the charges against them in both the Klaffka slaying and the earlier armed robbery.

Neither David Daniell nor Russell Walker, attorneys representing Daniel Lee Slaton and William Allen Slaton, respectively, could be reached for comment.

State probation officer accused in girlfriend’s slaying

Police say Jessica Nicole Wolfe sent fearful text messages from 1:23-1:37 a.m. March 18, 2012, saying that her boyfriend, Russell Holt, 29, wanted to choke her and had pushed her into a wall inside his Ledford Way home.

Within an hour of the last text message, a neighbor found a sobbing Holt in the front yard and discovered Wolfe lying on the kitchen floor where she’d been shot in the chest with what police believe was Holt’s service revolver, a .40 caliber Glock pistol, according to testimony in a 2012 court hearing. Holt was a state probation officer who was fired after he was charged with murder in Wolfe’s death.

Holt told police he and Wolfe had come in through the garage after drinking at bars with friends and that he was struck in the head and knocked unconscious by an intruder, according to court testimony. Holt next awoke in the front lawn of the residence.

Holt, who is free on bond, pleaded not guilty to charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during a crime.

Franklin J. Hogue, a Macon attorney representing Holt, said among the motions he filed is one to suppress a statement Holt made to police while in custody. Although Holt requested an attorney several times, police ignored the requests and continued to interview him, Hogue said.

Hogue also has filed a motion to have the trial moved to another location because of pre-trial publicity. Another motion challenges the constitutionality of malice murder based on what Hogue characterized as a vague phrase defining such a killing as one done with an “abandoned and malignant heart.”

Only three other states -- Idaho, Nevada and California -- still use the terminology, Hogue argued, while most states use terms such as pre-meditated and first-degree and second-degree murder with provable acts, he said.

Hogue said he could not comment on the defense strategy and “what we say happened in that house.”

Coweta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Peter J. Skandalkis, who is prosecuting the case, was not reached for comment.

Alleged lookout faces charges

On Aug. 24, 2008, Mario Smith, a maintenance worker for the Houston County Board of Education, was found slumped against the wall of a storage bay in Warner Robins where he died the previous day from a gunshot wound to the head. His red 1987 Chevrolet Monte Carlo that he had advertised for sale was missing.

Stewart Calvert Brannon, 23, of Eatonton, the alleged lookout, and Joshua Dupree Rounsoville, the convicted shooter, had faced the death penalty in Smith’s death. Rounsoville, who struck a deal for his sentence, is now serving life in prison without the possibility of parole in Smith’s death.

In May 2012, Brannon also reached an agreement with prosecutors for the death penalty to come off the table. If convicted at trial, Brannon agreed for a sentence consideration of life with the possibility of parole or a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Brannon pleaded not guilty.

Wednesday, Lumsden ordered a mental evaluation in response to a motion from Brannon’s attorney to determine whether Brannon is mentally competent to stand trial.

“That’s a very complicated case and a very complicated set of facts,” said Grube, who is representing Brannon. He declined to elaborate.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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