Ex-deputy charged in 1979 Cape homicide

Saturday, April 11, 2009

For the past 20 years, Cape Girardeau police felt they had a good idea who was responsible for the 1979 unsolved murder of Deborah L. Martin but lacked sufficient evidence to make an arrest in the case.

That changed late Friday afternoon when Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle announced that Max Allen Ellison Jr., 61, had been arrested at his Nixa, Mo., home on charges of first-degree murder and robbery.

Ellison, a former Stoddard County sheriff's deputy, is accused of beating Martin, a 24-year-old Sikeston, Mo., native, and pushing her to her death over the balcony of her Cape Girardeau residence.

One of the employees of Martin's Mother Earth plant and antique store discovered her bruised, nude body Sept. 17, 1979, lying on top of a plastic display case near the stairway at the first floor of her building at 605 Broadway.

Martin had left Southeast Missouri State University to pursue her lifelong love of botany and opened the store below her residence in the same building.

Her plants and her cat, Arlo, who helped her by patrolling the shop for bothersome insects, were her best friends, she told the Southeast Missourian shortly before her death.

Cape Girardeau County Coroner Harold Cobb ruled the death a homicide after an autopsy revealed that Martin sustained injuries that could not have been caused by her 14-foot fall. A forensic pathologist concluded Martin died from a "lethal attack that included mechanical asphyxiation," causing her fall, according to a probable-cause statement filed Wednesday.

Police found men's clothing on the second floor of the building. Martin's boyfriend, Ross Alan Milburn, had been in Texas at the time of her death.

Because of his alibi, Milburn was not considered a suspect in Martin's death but was later convicted of federal drug charges in connection with a large-scale drug ring in Southeast Missouri.

Police were able to whittle leads down to a handful of suspects in the killing, considering the crime one of passion where the culprit didn't intend for Martin to die, according to archived articles.

In 1986, a grand jury was asked to review the case, then a common practice in unsolved homicides.

After the grand jury rested, then-Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Ferrell announced they had determined how Martin was killed and who had committed the murder, but Ferrell declined to release any details or file charges.

Key evidence

The grand jury helped authorities to recover two key pieces of evidence, using subpoena powers and the testimony of a witness who had previously been uncooperative with police, Ferrell said.

In 1989, lead detective John Brown told the Southeast Missourian police were convinced they knew who committed the murder and that the person was in a federal penitentiary but that charges wouldn't be filed.

None of the information available could be used in prosecution, Brown said.

A trail of money, a disproven alibi and a confession to a former sheriff helped Swingle gather enough evidence to file the charges against Ellison, he said.

Ellison's arrest was different from that of Timothy W. Kracjir, convicted last spring for five unsolved homicides of women in Cape Girardeau in 1977 and 1982, because most of the evidence against Ellison was not new to investigators, said police chief Carl Kinnison.

Detective Jim Smith, who handles the department's unsolved cases, followed up some new leads in the case, but the majority of the work had already been done, Kinnsion said.

Ellison's name had been brought up in the past for a "number of years," Kinnison said.

Cooked up a scheme

Martin's "best friend," whose name has not been released, told police Ellison had cooked up a scheme with Martin where he intended to "double" a large sum of money she would provide for him, the statement said. The two planned to meet and exchange the money, the friend told police.

One of Martin's associates, a drug dealer in Southeast Missouri, reported about $93,000 missing from a safe he kept in his basement, and his sister told Smith that the day before her murder she saw Martin leave the basement of the house with something in her hands.

A banker in Sikeston provided police with documentation showing that Ellison brought $80,000 in cash to buy certificates of deposit Sept. 27, 1979, less than two weeks after the murder.

Then in 1985, Ellison called former Stoddard County sheriff Ralph Mouser and admitted to killing Martin because she "got greedy."

He said he was confessing to Mouser because he wanted to "bare his soul," the statement said.

Police had interviewed Ellison the day Martin's body was discovered, and he claimed to not have seen Martin all week. He denied the killing and said the night of the murder, he'd been with a woman with whom he was having an affair.

At the time, the woman corroborated Ellison's alibi, but on March 21 of this year, she admitted to police she'd lied about seeing him Sept. 16, 1979.

Swingle and Kinnison both declined to release any further information about the nature of the evidence that allowed them to file charges in the case.

"This case is very likely to go to trial," Swingle said.

Ellison was arrested by the U.S. Marshals Fugitive Task Force in Christian County, Mo., and will be transported to Cape Girardeau County. Bond is set at $10 million cash only.

bdicosmo@semissourian.com

388-3635

pertinent addresses:

605 Broadway

Nixa, Mo.

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