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First preliminary hearing in 1999 Qulin, Mo., murder case put on hold
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Testimony began Monday afternoon in the case of a Qulin, Mo., woman accused of conspiring with other family members to kill her stepmother, whose remains were found scattered in a secluded area near Qulin more than 12 years ago.
Accompanied by her attorney, Danny Moore, Melissa Jo "Missy" Austin Baggett, 38, appeared before Associate Circuit Judge John Bloodworth for a preliminary hearing.
Before Baggett's case was called, Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour filed a new complaint with the court charging Baggett with second-degree murder or in the alternative first-degree murder.
Baggett is one of four charged in connection with the August 1999 death of Carla Ann Austin. Authorities believe the 33-year-old was killed in retaliation by members of her late husband's family, who held her responsible for his death.
After hearing testimony from three witnesses, Bloodworth did not rule on whether Baggett should stand trial on the charges.
Instead, the judge left the "record open" in Baggett's case, allowing Moore time to file a show-cause order with the court for Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center's custodian of records.
Moore provided the court with a returned subpoena, issued by the court, which, he said, was "duly served" for the hospital's record custodian instructing him or her to appear in court for a hearing Monday.
Hospital personnel, Moore said, indicated no one was going to show up as they didn't know who the custodian was; however, they were "looking for the person."
Moore asked Bloodworth to keep the record open to see if the hospital would comply with a court order to produce the requested medical records.
Depending on what the records show, Moore said, the defense may need to call witnesses to testify on Baggett's behalf or recall witnesses who have already testified.
Barbour said he had no objection to the record remaining open and the issuance of a show cause order for the hospital to produce the records or show cause why it shouldn't be held in contempt of court for not doing so.
During Monday's hearing, Lisa Gulledge, formerly of Poplar Bluff testified she was friends and neighbors with Carla Ann Austin and had accompanied her to the then Three Sisters Tavern in Qulin on Aug. 7, 1999.
Also at the bar that night, Gulledge said, were Carla Ann Austin's stepdaughters, Baggett and Tracy Lynn Austin Rea, and their first cousin, Johnny Austin.
Gulledge said there were "some things" said back and forth between her friend and the Austins.
"When we got outside, she [Baggett] tried to jump on Carla," said Gulledge, who answered affirmatively when asked whether Baggett made any threats against her stepmother.
Baggett, Gulledge said, accused Carla Ann Austin of killing her father, Mike Austin, and told her to "dry your eyes up, bitch, you weren't crying when you pulled the trigger on my dad."
Gulledge confirmed the Austin sisters were at the bar, but was unsure whether Henry "Marlin" Rice Jr. was there.
"There were so many people; I think he was there," Gulledge said. " … I had never met any of them before that night in my life."
Gulledge said she and Carla Ann Austin tried to leave with someone, but "Johnny Austin wouldn't let him take us."
At one point, Gulledge said, the Austin sisters were arguing.
Gulledge said she and Carla Ann Austin left the bar with Rea, who "ran across the street" to her vehicle and was saying "come on, come on."
Rea, Gulledge said, indicated she would get her and Carla Ann Austin out of there.
Gulledge said she was dropped off at a nearby Qulin home, where her daughter was at.
Gulledge, who confirmed she never saw Carla Ann Austin again, testified she searched for a few hours that night, as well as the next day for her friend. She said she subsequently contacted Carla Ann Austin's aunt, who reported her niece missing.
Gulledge said she didn't know what had happened to her friend until her remains later were found.
When Barbour asked whether Baggett had made any threats against her stepmother, Gulledge said, Baggett "just wanted to jump on her in the parking lot."
Carla Ann Austin, she said, was with Rea the last time she saw her.
On cross-examination, Gulledge said, she and Carla Ann Austin arrived at the Qulin bar at about 11 p.m. and left around closing at midnight or 12:30 a.m.
When asked how much she had had to drink, Gulledge said, she wasn't drunk. "I had about five beers," she said.
Gulledge said she and her friend, who had been together since about 11 a.m., had arrived in Qulin between 9 and 10 p.m.
She said they stopped at another Qulin bar, where she had one beer, during the five or 10 minutes they were there before arriving at the Three Sisters.
When asked if her 1999 statements, which were provided by the prosecuting attorney's office for review before court, contained the words said by Baggett, Gulledge confirmed it did.
Gulledge said she did not remember anything more than what she reported in 1999.
In her original statement, Gulledge confirmed she did not mention drinking six beers or being in a bar as she was on probation at the time on an attempting to manufacture methamphetamine conviction. A second statement, written about two weeks later, she said, contained the information about being at the bar.
Gulledge said she has not seen Baggett or Rea since that August 1999 night, nor did she recall how they dressed; however, she did describe Baggett as having "dirty blond hair," not "bleach blond like it is now."
Gulledge confirmed she did not witness any "physical contact" between Carla Ann Austin and Baggett and that everyone ended up in the bar's parking lot.
"We were trying to get away … they [the Austins] all followed us and tried to gang up on us," Gulledge said.
According to Gulledge, a friend had left her and Carla Ann Austin at the bar and was supposed to come back and get them; however, she did not.
When Gulledge subsequently got out at the Qulin home, she said, Rea was "begging [Carla Ann Austin] to go" with her.
"No one forced her to stay in the vehicle," Moore asked.
Gulledge said "no."
When asked about her criminal history, Gulledge said, "there are a lot of them [convictions]."
Gulledge, who is "off parole" now, said she served time in prison on convictions for unlawful use of a weapon, first-degree burglary and attempting to manufacture a controlled substance. She said she also has convictions for peace disturbance and driving while intoxicated offenses.
Richard Randall, now a resident of Kennett, Mo., testified he was with Baggett, who he was dating at that time, at the Three Sisters bar on Aug. 7, 1999. Johnny Austin, Rea and Rice, he said, also were there.
According to Randall, there was a "heated argument" between the Austins and Carla Ann Austin.
Randall said he left the bar with Rice and followed Baggett to a location off of County Road 663.
Also there, he said, was Johnny Austin and his wife, Carla Denise Austin. He said he did not see Carla Ann Austin.
Randall confirmed he heard a scuffle, as well as yelling and screaming.
At one point, Randall said, Johnny Austin approached him and asked him to take his wife, Carla Denise Austin, away from the location.
Randall described Carla Denise Austin as seeming to be upset, incoherent and crying.
He said he took the woman home, then went to his mother and stepfather's Qulin home, where he was living at the time.
Baggett, he said, later picked him up. He described his then girlfriend as "upset, also."
When Barbour asked whether Baggett made any comments about what had happened, Randall said, he was told Rice had hit Carla Ann Austin's legs with a chain and then slit her throat.
Randall, who described himself as being "extremely drunk" that night, testified he recently was contacted by authorities in regards to what he might know about Carla Ann Austin's death.
Barbour asked whether Baggett ever explained to him why there was "bad blood" between her family and Carla Ann Austin.
"She and her family believe Carla [Ann] Austin was responsible for the death of her father," he said
Randall also confirmed Baggett could have left the county road location with him when he took Carla Denise Austin home.
On cross-examination, Randall said, he had "quite a bit" to drink and possibly may have been drinking all day that day.
Randall also confirmed he didn't tell the authorities what he knew in 1999, 2000 or any time during the past 13 years until approached by officers.
"You never told your story to law enforcement … you never confided in anyone else," Moore asked.
Randall answered no.
Further, Randall confirmed he did not see Carla Ann Austin at the location or see Baggett do anything to her stepmother.
"You have no idea what happened out there," Moore asked.
"No," Randall replied.
Randall also confirmed he couldn't understand anything Carla Denise Austin, who he assumed had been drinking and who exhibited signs of intoxication, said.
Bruce Goin, who was Butler County deputy coroner in August 1999, confirmed Carla Ann Austin's remains were found on Nov. 23, 1999, near the intersection of County Road 680 and County Road 663.
Goin described it as a small, remote wooded area, surrounded with farm fields.
Dr. Mike Price, he said, used dental records to identify the remains as those of Carla Ann Austin, whose manner of death was homicide. A cause of death, he said, could not be determined.
On cross-examination, Goin confirmed no autopsy was done as there were insufficient remains to do one.
At the conclusion of the state's initial evidence, the parties agreed to reset Baggett's case for June 21, at which time additional testimony will be presented to the court.
Also charged with felony second-degree murder for their alleged roles in Carla Ann Austin's death are Rea, 43, of Neosho, Mo., Johnny Austin, 44, and Rice Jr., 41, both of Qulin.
Rea and Johnny Austin are scheduled to appear at 1 p.m. June 7 before Bloodworth for preliminary hearings in the cases; however, Johnny Austin's attorney, Jasper Edmundson, recently filed a motion for a change of judge.
Rice is to appear July 16 before Associate Circuit Judge Thomas Swindle for a preliminary hearing in his case.
The four suspects remain free on bond.