Ellison ordered to stand trial in 30-year-old Cape Girardeau murder

Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Max Ellison enters the courtroom at the Cape Girardeau County courthouse in Jackson for a preliminary hearing before Cape Girardeau County Associate Circuit Judge Gary A. Kamp Monday morning. Ellison is charged with first-degree murder and robbery in connection with the 1979 killing of Deborah Martin. (Fred Lynch)

A few weeks after the death of his girlfriend, Deborah L. Martin, in September 1979, Ross Alan Milburn said he checked the safe in his sister's house where he stowed money garnered from drug deals.

When he discovered $93,000 missing from the safe, he said he thought he had found the motive behind the killing.

Milburn was one of 10 witnesses who testified for the state Monday during a three-hour preliminary hearing in the case against Max Ellison Jr. for Martin's murder.

Ellison, 61, was charged in April with first-degree murder in the 30-year-old homicide.

Cape Girardeau County Associate Circuit Judge Gary Kamp ordered Ellison to stand trial Monday after finding there was enough evidence to support the charges against him.

Elizabeth Martin, sister of Deborah, said she traveled from Idaho to see the case against her sister's accused killer laid out, hoping it will help bring her closure in understanding what happened.

"Hopefully, we're coming to an end," she said.

Kamp scheduled the case for arraignment at 9 a.m. Monday, where Ellison will be expected to enter a plea. The case is expected to go to trial, authorities have said.

During questioning by Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle, Milburn testified that the last time he saw Martin was Sept. 15, 1979, when he drove away from the residence they shared at 605 Broadway, also the address of Martin's Mother Earth plant and antique business.

Milburn testified he had gone to Texas that weekend to conduct a cocaine deal.

"She seemed ready to get me on my way," he said of his last interaction with Martin.

Two days later, Martin's bruised and nude body was found on the first floor of the three-story building by one of her employees when she arrived to open the store, according to testimony.

Dr. Michael A. Graham, a forensic pathologist, testified that Martin died as a result of being strangled then falling from a balcony at the


Graham said Martin's injuries indicated she had been alive before she fell from the balcony, sustaining several serious injuries from the fall.

Milburn testified he'd rushed home from Texas when he learned about Martin's death and had forgotten about the safe until a fellow drug dealer reminded him.

Paula Throop, Milburn's sister, said when her brother checked the safe he'd stored in her basement, she heard his shout even though she'd been at the house next door.

"I heard him scream -- he hollered that he knew why she was killed," Throop testified.

Martin was the only person other than Milburn who knew the combination to the safe, Milburn said.

Milburn, who has several drug convictions, including one that has him currently incarcerated for federal drug conspiracy, denied any involvement in the killing.

During cross examination by Ellison's attorney, District Defender Chris Davis, Milburn admitted he has a motion pending in federal court for a reduced sentence in exchange for his cooperation in this case.

Ellison had used $80,000 in cash shortly after the murder to purchase certificates of deposit at a Sikeston Bank, testified Harold G. Beaird, a former bank employee who handled the transaction.

Beaird said he knew Ellison from high school in Sikeston, and that it was the largest cash transaction he'd ever seen during his tenure.

Martin had talked about meeting with someone who she said had a plan to help her out financially, said Linda Smitten, a friend of Martin.

Smitten said Martin turned down plans with her Sept. 15 because she planned on meeting with this person.

"She was a great deal in debt," Smitten said.

Donna Gottman, one of the original investigators, said she'd heard Ellison, a former Stoddard County Sheriff's Deputy, had been seeing Martin, and called to tell him of her death.

"I told him I had some bad news for him, that Debbie Martin was dead and probably murdered," Gottman testified.

Ellison provided an alibi, at first saying he'd gone to dinner with his wife and friends, then gone to bed, but when Gottman pressed him for details, he'd become "defensive and evasive," she said.

During the course of the phone conversation, Ellison went from a witness to a potential suspect, Gottman said.

The following day, he called her back and gave her the name of a woman he said he'd been with the night of Martin's murder, who later corroborated his story, Gottman said.

That woman, Mary Lou Taylor, testified Monday that she'd lied at Ellison's request, and that she hadn't seen him at all that night.

Last to testify in the hearing was former Stoddard County Sheriff Ralph Mouser, who described an hour-long conversation he had with Ellison in December of 1985, when Ellison called him from a federal correctional center.

At the time, Ellison was serving federal time for kidnapping and called Mouser because he wanted to confess to an unsolved homicide in Stoddard County, Mouser


Mouser testified he knew that Ellison knew nothing about that murder.

"You weren't there on that one, Max, you wanna cop to one, call Cape County and cop to the one you did," Mouser said during the recorded conversation, which was played for the court.

Ellison finally admitted to killing Martin, describing their arrangement with the money and saying she got "greedy."

"You're my witness there, partner, I did that," Ellison said during the recording.

Mouser testified that he thought Ellison's motivation may have been an attempt to have the prison transport him so he could attempt escape.

"He wanted to be home for Christmas. He was angling to be released by then," Mouser said.



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