POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- Two Qulin, Mo., men have been ordered to stand trial for their alleged roles in the 1999 murder of a woman whose remains were found scattered in a secluded area near Qulin.
Johnny Austin, 44, and Henry "Marlin" Rice Jr., 41, appeared before Associate Circuit Judge David Swindle on Monday for preliminary hearings on a charge of second-degree murder or in the alternative charge of first-degree murder after Butler County Prosecuting Attorney Kevin Barbour filed new complaints with the court.
The men are among 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 earlier death.
After hearing from five witnesses, including co-defendant Tracy Lynn Austin Rea, Swindle ordered the men to stand trial on the charges and to appear at 9 a.m. July 31 for arraignment before Presiding Circuit Judge Michael Pritchett.
Lisa Gulledge Woodham testified she was with Carla Ann Austin at the then Three Sisters Tavern in Qulin on Aug. 7, 1999.
Woodham said Carla Ann Austin's stepdaughters, Rea and Melissa Jo "Missy" Austin Baggett, their first cousin, Johnny Austin, and his wife, Carla Denise Austin, also were there; however, she was unsure whether Rice was present.
While in the bar, "they all ganged up on her and were threatening her," Woodham said. Johnny Austin, she said, had accused her friend of killing his uncle, Mike.
A man, she said, had agreed to give them a ride, but "Johnny wouldn't let him take us, and we were begging please, just let him take us out of there."
Rea, she said, took the keys out of the man's vehicle, and then ran to her truck.
Woodham said Rea told her stepmother, "‘I'll get you all out of here,' … we got in the truck with her."
Upon leaving the bar with Rea, Woodham said, she was dropped off at a Qulin home.
"I begged Carla please get out of the truck because she even said … something didn't feel right; she didn't trust Tracy … she would not," Woodham said. "That's the last time I seen Carla Austin alive."
Woodham said she searched for her friend later that night, as well as the next day, but didn't know what had happened to her until her remains were found.
On cross-examination, Woodham told Rice's attorney, Scott Dale, she had four to five beers, but wasn't drunk.
Dale asked Woodham about the statements she made to law enforcement in August 1999.
Woodham said she gave two statements, which, in the first, she omitted being in a bar with her friend because she was on probation at the time on a drug charge and didn't want to go to prison.
Johnny Austin's attorney, Jasper Edmundson, asked about his client's alleged actions, which prevented Woodham and her friend from leaving the bar.
"He was going to beat the man up if he took us out of the bar," said Woodham, who accused Johnny Austin of pushing the man.
"What, if anything, did Mr. Austin say" to the man? Edmundson asked.
"He just said ‘You're not taking this ------- ----- nowhere,' " Woodham said. "She killed my family …"
The Austin sisters and their cousin, she said, were "mouthing stuff" at Carla Ann Austin.
Johnny Austin, she said, called Carla Ann Austin a ---- and told her "you are going to get yours. … She was crying, begging him, saying ‘Johnny, I didn't kill Mike. I promise; please just let us go …'"
When asked whether Rea and Carla Ann Austin were "arguing or fussing" after leaving the bar, Woodham said, they were crying.
Rea, she said, told her stepmother she would never hurt her … .
After begging Carla Ann Austin to stay with her, Woodham said, her friend "looked at Tracy and said ‘Tracy Lynn, I'll go with you, but if you have me killed, I'll come back and haunt you…'"
Richard Randal said he was at the bar with Baggett, whom he was dating, as well as Johnny Austin and Rea, when Carla Ann Austin arrived.
"There was words exchanged as soon as she came in," Randal said. " … Just verbal threats back and forth."
Randal said he left the bar with Rice, and is unsure of where they went as he was "following another vehicle," but they arrived at an area outside of Qulin.
Also present, he said, were Baggett, Johnny Austin and his wife.
Randal said he did not see Rea or Carla Ann Austin, but he did hear loud voices, as well as yelling.
"Did it sound like it was directed at anyone in particular?" Barbour asked.
Randal answered yes.
At one point, Randal said, Johnny Austin approached him and asked him to take his wife home, which he would do.
Johnny Austin, he said, also asked whether he had gun.
When asked what Johnny Austin's intentions were with the gun, Randal testified: "He said ‘This ----- ain't leaving here tonight.'"
While Randal didn't hear any slapping or hitting, he said, he heard the same question being asked over and over.
"Did they ask if she killed anyone?" Barbour asked.
Someone did, Randal said.
When Randal took Carla Denise Austin home, he described her as "just blubbering," being incoherent and extremely upset.
After seeing her home, Randal said, he went to his parents' Qulin home, where Baggett later picked him up.
When Barbour asked whether Baggett, who faces the same charges as her cousin, made any comments about what had happened, Randal said, he was told "Marlin Rice had struck Carla Ann with a chain … then later had slit her throat."
Randal, who described himself as drinking "heavily" that night, answered yes when he was asked whether Johnny Austin had threatened him.
" … he told me he didn't know me from Adam, but that none of this happened," Randal said.
On cross-examination, Randal told Dale he did not speak to authorities in 1999 and only recently made a statement after Sheriff Mark Dobbs came to him.
Randal confirmed his first statement did not indicate he had driven Rice to the field road.
Agreeing his "recollection of that evening's events" is muddy, Randal confirmed he did not see Carla Ann Austin or Rea on the field road nor did he see or hear Rice do or say anything to anyone that night.
Edmundson asked whether Randal had told anyone about "suggestions" having been made regarding his testimony.
"The only thing I've been unsure about in my statements is who rode out there with me," Randal said. "When I was first questioned about it, I thought that Melissa had rode out there with me.
"Upon conversations with law enforcement, it might have been Marlin. I'm not sure."
When asked how much he had had to drink, Randal said, "a lot."
Carla Denise Austin, who has since divorced Johnny Austin, testified she was at the bar with her then husband, Rea, Baggett and Marlin on Aug. 7, 1999, as was Carla Ann Austin and her friend.
The witness confirmed threats and arguments occurred between her husband's family and Carla Ann Austin, who attempted to leave the bar with a man; however, she was not allowed to do so.
Instead, she said, Carla Ann Austin left with Rea and Gulledge.
The witness said she, her husband, the Austin sisters, Rice and Carla Ann Austin ended up on what she described as a gravel road.
When she arrived, the witness said, Carla Ann Austin was sitting on the tailgate of Rea's truck.
"Tracy Lynn was out with her, and I believe Marlin Rice was sitting … or standing on the left side of the truck," she said.
The witness testified she and her husband "didn't get real close, but Missy" did.
The sisters, she said, had been arguing earlier about "Tracy running with Carla, but then … Tracy was yelling at Carla and slapping her, and Missy was yelling."
When asked what Johnny Austin was doing, Carla Denise Austin said, he was "just standing back off to the side. … (Rice) was standing to the left side of the truck."
The men, she said, did not make any threats toward Carla Ann Austin..
"(The sisters) was saying that she killed their father, and she didn't deserve to live," said Carla Denise Austin, who described the scene as chaotic.
"Were those two women trying to get her to admit to something," Barbour asked.
Carla Denise Austin answered affirmatively, indicating they were trying to get their stepmother to admit to killing their father.
Describing herself as very emotional at the time, Carla Denise Austin said, she was afraid for her friend's life.
At the time, Carla Denise Austin said, she didn't call the authorities as she was "scared something could happen to me."
When Barbour asked whether Carla Ann Austin had said anything to her that night, the witness indicated she had.
"We was both crying; she was like help me and I couldn't," said Carla Denise Austin, who indicated her friend also asked her to not "let them" hurt or kill her.
It was at that point, she said, her husband had Randal take her home.
On cross-examination, Dale asked the witness about her 1999 statements in which she "left some things out."
The witness indicated she had because "I was scared."
Carla Denise Austin said she was contacted by officers in January and subsequently hospitalized for psychiatric issues because she was "worried about everything."
Carla Denise Austin said she had been drinking that night and agreed she was probably extremely drunk.
The witness said she and her husband rode to the gravel road area with Baggett in Baggett's car. Randal, she said, pulled up behind them, but she doesn't know how or when Rice arrived at the site.
"When you left Carla Austin was alive?" Dale asked.
The witness said yes.
The men, she said, had not done anything to Carla Ann Austin or made any threats against her while she was there.
When Edmundson asked the witness how drunk Randal was that night, she said, she didn't recall seeing him drinking.
"I couldn't tell you if he was drunk or not," she said. Everyone, she said, was drinking.
On redirect, Barbour asked Carla Denise Austin whether someone was holding her back.
The witness said no; it was "just everybody around; I was just scared to. It was just chaotic. … I didn't want to get up in the middle of it."
"Were you afraid she was going to be killed that night?" Barbour asked.
The witness said she didn't know what to think, but she confirmed she was scared for her friend.
The state's final witness was Rea, who testified she was at the bar with Rice, her cousin, her sister and cousin's wife, as well as her stepmother.
While at the bar, Rea confirmed words were exchanged between them and her stepmother.
After leaving the bar and dropping Woodham off, Rea said, she headed out of town toward the cemetery, but they didn't make it because "we got cut off."
"I'm not sure who was driving, but Johnny was the one that come to my truck window," Rea said. " … He jumped in the truck, shoved me to the side, and we drove somewhere that I did not know … ."
After stopping, "me and Carla Ann had a fight," Rea said. "Johnny said either we fought, me and her fought, or he would whip my ---."
While she and her stepmother were fighting, the others were "just hollering. … Whip her," Rea said.
While at the bar, Rea said, "they did want me to fight, and I told them I would meet them at the tram (road). I had no intentions to."
When Johnny Austin got in the truck, Rea said, Carla Ann Austin "was screaming and hollering and trying to get out" of the back of the two-door, extended-cab pickup.
Rea said she wanted to call the authorities that night because "she admitted to killing my dad, and I told her I would call Butler County and she could go to jail for murder, and I would go to jail for assault."
When asked whether Johnny Austin had said anything about Carla Ann Austin, Rea testified "he said: ‘That ----- ain't leaving here alive.'"
Rea said her cousin had his wife, who she described as crying and screaming, taken away. "He told somebody to take that ----- out of here," she said.
"Did he tell anyone else to do anything to Mrs. (Carla Ann) Austin," Barbour asked.
Rea said yes. "I heard him tell Marlin to kill that -----," she said.
At one point, she said, Johnny Austin "pushed me in my truck, and he drove me back to his house."
During the drive, Rea said, her cousin told her she "was to keep my mouth shut."
Johnny Austin, Rea said, also told her "Marlin would kill that old -----, and he would probably rape her, and I would go to jail for murder, and he had cop friends that would make sure of it."
After leaving Johnny Austin's home, Rea said, she went back to the field road, where she found Rice walking. "He told me that she was gone," she said.
On cross-examination, Rea told Dale she had to stop her truck at one point because Carla Ann Austin "went crazy" and was hitting and kicking the dash, as well as her.
"She just started hollering my dad's name," said Rea, who reported not having done anything to her stepmother, but believing "she was on drugs."
Rea said she was able to calm her stepmother and resumed driving for a "little bit" before her cousin stopped her.
While at the bar, Rea said, she didn't want any trouble. "Me and my sister got into it there," she said. " … She didn't like it because I was talking to Carla."
Rea confirmed she had no plans to harm Carla Ann Austin when she left the bar.
At that time, she said, she didn't believe her stepmother was involved in her father's death and wasn't angry with her.
During the fight, Rea said, Carla Ann Austin, who fought back, was free to go as "there wasn't nobody holding her."
Rea said no one else fought with Carla Ann Austin, had physical contact with her or made threats against her, with the exception of Carla Denise Austin, who poured beer on her.
"Did you ever see Marlin Rice strike her … cuss her … threaten her in any manner whatsoever?" Dale said.
Rea answered no to each question, but indicated she was positive Rice told her "she's gone," which she took to mean her stepmother was dead.
In exchange for her testimony, Rea said, no promises of leniency or immunity have been made to her or plea bargains.
"So you are prepared for all this testimony to be used against you and to go to prison for the rest of your life?" Dale asked.
"If that's what it takes," she replied.
Rea described Edmundson's client as being mad at her while at the bar "because I wouldn't fight with her there. … He was just hollering to whip her ---."
While in the truck, Rea said, her stepmother "reached up and hit me and was kicking and hitting the dash," windshield and doors.
"I did hit her back and hold her down to find out what was going on … She didn't really say," said Rea.
"Did Johnny hit her or do anything to her in that vehicle?" Edmundson asked.
Rea answered no, just as she did when asked whether her cousin had hit Carla Ann Austin while at the field road or made any threats.
When asked what caused her to "come forward" now, Rea said, it was "just time."
"And it had nothing to do with anyone saying you are not going to be prosecuted?" Edmundson asked.
Rea said no, just as she did when asked whether her attorney had "suggested" she consider trying to bargain for leniency.
Both Edmundson and Dale questioned Rea in regards to the timing of her decision to testify and her bond being reduced to $50,000.
On redirect, Rea answered "yes" when Barbour asked whether Johnny Austin had threatened her life and family.
Bruce Goin, who was Butler County deputy coroner in August 1999, said skeletal remains were found on Nov. 23, 1999, in an area near the intersection of County Road 680 and 663.
Using dental records, Goin said, Dr. Mike Price identified the remains as Carla Ann Austin, whose manner of death was homicide. A cause of death, he said, could not be determined.