Ellison's death ends probe into 1979 Martin killing

Tuesday, August 25, 2009
Max Ellison Jr. 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)

The death of Max A. Ellison over the weekend signals the end of the investigation into the 1979 murder of Deborah L. Martin, Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said Monday.

Ellison, who died Saturday of what authorities think were natural causes, had been awaiting trial for Martin's murder since his arrest in April.

Swingle filed paperwork Monday morning notifying the courts the case was dismissed, and said he was confident Martin's killer is now dead.

Though Swingle said he was glad that Cape Girardeau detective Jim Smith was able to bring the case to the point where charges could be filed against Ellison after an investigation that spanned nearly 30 years, he regretted the public was deprived of the chance to see Ellison's guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I feel like something has been snatched out of my hands," Swingle said.

Despite many investigators working on the murder case over the years, Ellison's 1985 taped confession for a former sheriff and a grand jury convening in 1989, an arrest in the case wasn't possible until this year because of Ross Alan Milburn.

Milburn's role

Milburn, Martin's boyfriend at the time of her death, had been the subject of a drug investigation at the time of the murder, and though his alibi ruled him out as a suspect in the killing, he had refused to cooperate with investigators until recently.

Milburn has been incarcerated for almost 30 years on federal drug conspiracy charges.

He received a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the drug conviction, partly due to a recommendation by a former prosecutor who cited Milburn's lack of cooperation in the murder investigation, Swingle said.

On Monday, Swingle sent a letter to assistant federal prosecutor James E. Crowe Jr. asking federal authorities to immediately begin the process of reducing Milburn's life sentence.

His statements served as the linchpin for the case against Ellison, which took three decades to build, Swingle said.

"Ross Alan Milburn kept his word to me and testified truthfully and candidly at the preliminary hearing," Swingle wrote in the letter.

Because Ellison's death occurred while he was incarcerated, though he died at an area hospital, the Missouri State Highway Patrol will conduct a formal investigation, though no foul play is suspected.

In a letter to the Southeast Missourian in June, Ellison said he did not expect to live through the trial process.

"This has not been an easy road for me," Ellison wrote.

Martin was found dead Sept. 16, 1979, at her home and business at 605 Broadway in Cape Girardeau. She had been strangled before falling about 14 feet from a residential balcony in the building.

Suspicion of Ellison

Ellison developed as a suspect early in the investigation, according to the investigative file. At first, that was based on statements from friends of Martin who said she had talked about meeting with Ellison to discuss a moneymaking scheme a few days before her death.

In addition, Ellison gave investigators four different accounts of what he did the night Martin was killed. The last story involved him helping someone else dispose of evidence at Martin's residence.

Former Stoddard County sheriff Ralph Mouser described Ellison, one of his former deputies, as violent and unpredictable, saying he once faked a firefight while on duty.

According to police reports, Ellison often bragged about beating prisoners while he was a deputy.


In 1985, Ellison, then incarcerated for kidnapping, confessed to Mouser that he'd killed Martin over money, during a conversation that was recorded and played at Ellison's preliminary hearing.

A grand jury convened in 1989, but after listening to several witnesses, declined to indict Ellison for the crime, though they also opted not to dismiss suspicion against him. Milburn was not one of the witnesses presented.

Milburn's testimony, which Swingle called essential to the case against Ellison, involved the disappearance of $93,000 in drug money he'd kept in his safe, to which only Martin had the combination.

Though a bank employee had given statements to police linking Ellison to a purchase of deposit certificates worth $80,000 shortly after Martin's death, they needed Milburn's testimony about the missing money to connect Ellison to Martin.

Swingle said he spent about 150 hours working on the case to get it to the point where charges could be filed, and another 150 hours preparing it for trial, a trial he said would have been expensive for Cape Girardeau County because of the number of witnesses who would have to be brought in from out of state.



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