Lape murder 'all about the money,' prosecutor says

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The trial of a second suspect in the 2002 slaying of Cape man began Monday.

WAYNESVILLE, Mo. -- The 2002 kidnapping and slaying of a Cape Girardeau County man was motivated by greed and led to an expensive night at strip clubs for the accused killers, prosecutors said Monday during the trial of one defendant.

The body of Ralph L. Lape Jr., 54, of Highway 177 near Jackson was found buried in a corn field in New Madrid County. He was found 25 days after his killing on July 7, 2002, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said during opening statements in the jury trial of Justin Brown.

Brown, 26, of Cape Girardeau, was charged with first-degree murder and kidnapping in the slaying of Lape. A co-defendant in the case, 35-year-old Mark Gill, was previously convicted on the same charges and sentenced to death.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tracy L. Storie is hearing the jury trial in Waynesville on a change of venue motion.

During his opening statements, Swingle described how Brown and Gill jumped Lape at the victim's home, beat him, bound him and drove to a corn field 79 miles away near Portageville, Mo. There the defendants dug a shallow grave into which they pushed Lape and shot him in the head, Swingle said.

After the slaying, the two men withdrew money from the victim's checking account, Swingle said. That night and the following morning, they spent the cash at an expensive hotel and strip clubs in and around St. Louis.

"It was done all about the money," Swingle said.

Gill had been living in a camper owned by Lape and learned the victim had been living off a 1997 settlement from his railroad job, according to Swingle.

Karen Schlosser, who worked at Lape's bank, testified Monday that on July 15, 2002, fifty thousand dollars was transferred from the victim's money market account to a checking account that previously held $1,145.34. Between the bank statements on July 4 and Aug. 4, more than $20,000 was withdrawn from the checking account, she said.

While Brown's defense attorney, Tom Marshall of the Missouri State Public Defender office, conceded that his client was present at the kidnapping and slaying, he stressed that Brown did not participate.

"Mark Gill is the one who came up with the plan to get some money," Marshall said.

Referring to Brown, he said: "If he backed out, he would have been in the grave with Ralph Lape."

Several of Lape's family testified to their concern for the victim during the time he was missing between July 7 and Aug. 1. Diane Miller, Lape's sister, said she received a telephone call July 22 from a woman who had not been able to get in touch with the victim. Lape was selling his house and was expected to close on July 26, Miller said.

She phoned Lape's daughter, Megan Lape, 22, who also had not heard from the victim. The daughter and Karen Lape, who is the victim's ex-wife and Megan's mother, went to the victim's home July 22 and found Gill and Brown in the house.

Gill opened the door wearing nothing but his boxers and Brown, who said little outside of "hello," sat on the couch drinking a beer in a shirt and pants, Lape said. She said it was very unusual for two men she did not know to be in her father's home if he was not there.

Gill told the daughter he was hired by Lape to pack up his things for the upcoming house sale. "The house was not packed," Karen Lape testified. "There was nothing packed."

Megan Lape said much of the home was filthy. Her father normally kept the house clean, she said. She said mud was on the sink, toilet and in the tub in the bathroom. During his opening statement, Swingle said Gill used the bathroom to wash himself after burying the body.

Mitch Miller, Ralph Lape's brother-in-law, visited the home the next day and found Brown and Gill at the victim's burn barrel, where Swingle said the defendants disposed of evidence of the homicide.

Miller also went into the home but found it cleaner than his niece had the day before. He added that one of the victim's guns was missing.

A few days later, Gill and his girlfriend went to Las Vegas to get married, taking their daughter along. He was arrested in New Mexico July 30 on a Missouri warrant for questioning in the homicide, according to New Mexico State Police officer Kurtis Ward.

Authorities tracked Gill down by monitoring the use of Lape's ATM card, Swingle said.

Once Brown learned Gill had been arrested, he came forward and showed authorities where the body was buried, the public defender said.

Based on Brown's statement to police that Lape was already dead when he helped in the burial, prosecutors promised the defendant he would only be charged with evidence tampering, Swingle said. But that deal was thrown out when he later told investigators he and Gill had planned the slaying -- Brown even bought duct tape for binding, Swingle said.

Marshall said in his opening statements that no one told Brown the deal was off the table when he continued to provide statements.

In addition to the relatives who testified, the victim's brother was also in court Monday. The defendant's mother and aunt also were present.

The trial was scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. today with additional testimony from prosecution witnesses. If found guilty of first-degree murder Brown could be sentenced to death.

kmorrison@semissourian.com 335-6611 extension 127

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