NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - A 32-year-old Nacogdoches man pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of first-degree murder Monday in connection to the April 2012 beating death of Gilbert Thibodeaux Jr. 32, of Nacogdoches.
After Randy Lee Ellinwood's plea, the sentencing phase of the court proceedings got underway and continued Tuesday morning in Nacogdoches County's 420th Judicial District Court. Ellinwood, who was originally charged with capital murder, faces a sentence of up to life in prison for his part in Thibodeaux's murder.
Ellinwood is still being held in the Nacogdoches County Jail on a charge of first-degree murder. His bond has been set at $500,000.
Ellinwood's co-defendant, Erin Belz, 27, of Nacogdoches, avoided a life sentence by pleading guilty to first-degree murder in October 2012. She was sentenced to 39 years in prison. Like Ellinwood, she had originally been charged with capital murder. Had she been convicted of that, she could have faced a possible sentence of life in prison without parole or death.
Nacogdoches Police arrested the pair after finding the body of Thibodeaux in the back of a pickup at Walgreen's on April 9. Police connected them to the truck and arrested them at Belz's residence in the 300 block of Myrtle Street.
Officers were called the night of April 9 to a suspicious person call at Nacogdoches Floral Company on North Street. The caller said a man and woman were seen dumping something in a dumpster of the business and leaving in a pickup truck. Officers found items with blood on them and began searching for the suspect truck.
According to Sgt. Greg Sowell, it appears Thibodeaux knew the two and went to the Myrtle Street address, where he was assaulted.
Earlier court testimony revealed that Belz allegedly phoned Thibodeaux on the night of his murder to offer him a sexual encounter at her home. It turned out to be a set up for Ellinwood to ambush Thibodeaux. Ellinwood jumped from nearby bushes and beat Thibodeaux with a pipe.
According to Steve Gilcrease, a detective with the Nacogdoches Police Department, Ellinwood was annoyed that Thibodeaux had sex with Belz and another woman he knew. Gilcrease also said that Ellinwood told him that he never intended to kill Thibodeaux; he just wanted to beat him up.
NPD detectives also testified that Belz gave them a detailed account of how she helped Ellinwood move the body, steal evidence, and clean up the crime scene.
Tuesday's testimony began with several officers who investigated the murder. Prosecutors called Officer Joseph Pitts, a patrol officer with the Nacogdoches Police Department, to the stand as a witness. Pitts said he was called to Nacogdoches Floral around 11:25 p.m. after several witnesses said they had seen a blue 1990s Chevy model pickup truck drive to the cross street near the floral shop with its headlights off. Witnesses told Pitts they saw a white male and a white female get out of the car and approach a dumpster.
Pitts was joined at the scene by Officer Raymond Douglas Reed and Sgt. Roy Mobley. Pitts said he began investigating the contents of the dumpster.
"One thing that I noticed is that it is a floral dumpster and there are a lot of flowers and stuff like that. We found a long, silver pipe and some socks. The socks looked like they had blood on them. We pulled them out because they obviously don't belong in the dumpster," Pitts said.
Pitts said they also found a blue vehicle visor, which appeared as if it was ripped out of a car, inside the dumpster. The visor had a pay stub on it with Thibodeaux's name on it for Rex Perry Autoplex. At approximately 1:07 a.m. on April 10, Officer John Berry was patrolling the north side of Nacogdoches when he noticed a suspicious vehicle that fit the description of the Chevrolet parked outside of Walgreens.
Berry approached the vehicle and noticed the driver's side door was open and a pair of legs was sticking outside of the door.
"As I made my way around the truck I saw a pair of legs, not where you would normally see the legs…the legs were kind of facing outside of the door and he was sitting inside the truck almost like he was sitting sideways," Berry said.
Berry began shouting verbal commands at the person to lift his hands up. The person did not respond. As Berry made his way around the truck he noticed a white man lying down on the front seat. He said there was a significant amount of blood inside the truck and outside on the concrete. He performed a sternum rub on the male and when he did not respond he checked for a pulse. Berry said he believed at the time that he had felt a pulse.
He called for backup and EMS. Berry said he recognized the man as Thibodeaux because he had met the man a couple days before when a call had been made about a suspicious vehicle parked outside Rex Perry. Berry said Thibodeaux had been sleeping inside his car outside of the business because he had gotten in an altercation with his roommate and didn't want it to turn violent.
Shortly after, Mobley arrived at the scene. Mobley is a trained paramedic and when he arrived at the scene he determined Thibodeaux did not have a pulse. EMS declared Thibodeaux dead.
Around 3 a.m., Det. Adam Sparks showed up at Walgreens where he did an investigation of the car. He said he saw quite a bit of blood inside the truck and noticed there was more blood in the backseat of the car. He said he thought this was suspicious because Thibodeaux's body was lying in the front seat of the car. He said there was blood in between the driver and passenger's seat of the car. Sparks said he felt like someone had crawled from the backseat to the front seat.
Sparks and two other officers were able to link Thibodeaux to Felisha Doster, who was Thibodeaux's roommate. Doster said there had been a relationship quarrel between Thibodeaux and Ellinwood several weeks before and she believed Belz was involved. Doster told officers she heard Ellinwood say that he wanted to fight Thibodeaux. Police then went to Belz's house on Myrtle Street. He said Belz was sitting on her porch playing on her phone. Sparks said he investigated the outside of the house and noticed the concrete near the street was wet. He said this was suspicious because Nacogdoches was suffering from a drought at that time. He noticed some blood on the concrete.
They later went to a garage apartment where Ellinwood lived. Sparks was able to get Ellinwood to go to the police department for questions. He said Ellinwood's boots were wet just above the sole. Sparks said he felt like it might be related to the wet concrete outside Belz's home. Sparks, Reed and Ellinwood went to the juvenile interview room. Sparks said he noticed Ellinwood's left hand was significantly swollen more than his right handed. Sparks asked Ellinwood if he was left-handed, which he said he was and then covered his hand with his right hand.
Sparks said he believes Thibodeaux had gone over to Belz's house to have sex with her, based on evidence found through text messages on Belz's phone.
Det. Robert Killingsworth said he noticed that the driveway had been washed at Belz's home during his investigation.
"It was wet and it hadn't been raining," Killingsworth said.
While on the stand, Dr. John Stach, the forensic pathologist who did the autopsy on Thibodeaux's body testified that Thibodeaux had bruises, scrapes, and cuts all over his face, head, arms, legs, and body. He said that Thibodeaux had numerous fractured bones, including several ribs, and broken teeth, along with parallel pattern injuries to his head and back. The pathologist said many of the blunt force trauma injuries Thibodeaux suffered were consistent with being struck repeatedly with a cylindrical object.
Prosecutor Lauren Gaston showed the jurors photos from the autopsy and the crime scene.
During his cross examination, Bill Agnew, the defense attorney asked Stach to talk about the toxicology test performed during the autopsy of Thibodeaux's body. Stach testified that Thibodeaux's blood alcohol level was .91. Anyone with a blood alcohol level of .8 is considered to be legally intoxicated in the state of Texas. When Agnew asked what other substances showed up on the toxicology exam, the pathologist said they just found traces of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
After a brief recess, Gaston called Gilcrease back to the stand. On April 9, 2012, he and two other on-call NPD detectives arrived at Walgreen's, and they found a green Chevrolet pickup with a dead man in the front seat. Responding to questions about photos of the crime scene, Gilcrease said there was a blood stain on the passenger side of the front seat, on the head rest, and on the back seat. In addition, the driver's side door was open, and the pickup was still running.
Glicrease said once they established the victim's identity from a pay stub located over the visor, they started back-tracking to question his friends and acquaintances. They learned from Thibodeaux's roommate, Felisha Doster, that there had been some sort of relationship quarrel between Thibodeaux and Ellinwood several weeks before, and she believed Belz was involved.
Further investigation allowed the NPD detectives to track down Erin Belz and Randy Ellinwood. When they found Belz, she was sitting on the front porch of her house on Myrtle Street playing on a cell phone. Some of the acquaintances disobeyed orders from the police to not call anyone and called both Ellinwood and Belz, Gilcrease said.
At the time, he questioned Belz, they didn't know where the original crime scene was. While Gilcrease was talking to Belz, another NPD detective found a bloodstain on the driveway that looked as though someone had tried to wash it off with water.
Another NPD detective located Ellinwood at his apartment.
Gilcrease said he talked to both suspects at the Nacogdoches Police Department the night after Thibodeaux's body was found. He said Ellinwood wasn't honest with him at first. At first, Ellinwood told him that he and Thibodeaux had simply gotten into "a scrap." However, more details began to emerge as the interviews continued. The NPD detective said because Ellinwood arrived at the police station later, they already had some idea about what had happened.
Gilcrease said Belz and Ellinwood both admitted they had tampered with evidence by throwing the pipe into a dumpster, trying to wash the blood off the driveway, and putting identifying materials like his cap, cell phone, and wallet into a storm drain.
Under further questioning, Gilcrease said it was apparent that Thibodeaux had an extra set of keys in his truck.
"He was still alive when they left him there, and he apparently climbed over into the front seat of the truck and started it in an attempt to go get some help, and then he died," Gilcrease said.
NPD detectives checked out surveillance videos from Walgreen's, but were unable to determine anything from them. Acting on what Belz told them, the detectives found sound of the items - the wallet and the cell phone - in a storm drain on North Pecan Street. Gilcrease said that the suspects had taken out the cell phone's SIM card and destroyed it.
Gilcrease also testified that when Ellinwood was taken into custody, he was wearing the same boots he had been wearing when he assaulted Thibodeaux. He later told officers that he had tried to wash Thibodeaux's blood off of his shoes.
Gaston then showed the jurors the video of Gilcrease's interview with Ellinwood.
On the video, Ellinwood said he went to the AA meeting and left around 9 or 9:30 p.m. that evening. He said he had to rely on someone else for a ride because his bike was "messed up." He hung out with Belz, and during the interview, he appeared to have trouble remembering her last name.
Ellinwood said he, Belz, and another friend were supposed to meet at the AT&T store on North Street, but it didn't work out that way. They wound up meeting at a Chevron station near the AT&T store, he said.
They went back to Belz's house and hung out for about 15 minutes, Ellinwood said in the video. While there, he rolled himself a cigarette. Then, in the video, Ellinwood said he rode his bike home after that.
"All I know is that I hung out with my friend, and that's it," Ellinwood said on the video when Gilcrease asked him what happened.
Later on the video, he said, "All I know is that my ex called me and said her ex got beat up or something."
"In my understanding, he slaps (Doster) around and treats her like a prisoner, Ellinwood said.
Ellinwood said he got a text from Thibodeaux's wife saying that she wanted to break off the marriage. He said every time he would go over there, they would have sex, but despite that, he and Thibodeaux got along OK. He said Thibodeaux texted Belz because he wanted to have sex with her.
"You know what happened, and I know what happened," Gilcrease said on the video.
"All I know is that he came over, and we kinda scrapped, and then he went home," Ellinwood said at one point on the video. Detectives pointed out the swollen knuckles on his left hand and reminded him that they know what happened.
Ellinwood said after he and Thibodeaux fought, he and Belz took him over to "that pharmacy." Later, he said, he "just beat him up a little bit."
At one point in the video, Ellinwood said, "I didn't want to kill nobody. I know I got a temper like my dad, but I'm not a violent person."
Gilcrease testified that Ellinwood punched and kicked Thibodeaux during the assault. In addition, Ellinwood used a piece of aluminum pipe to beat the victim, the detective said.
Ellinwood said Thibodeaux was trying to get with Ellinwood's ex-wife while they were still trying to work things out. He said the first time they split up, his ex-wife had sex with Thibodeaux, but he was OK with it because she technically wasn't married to him at that point. He said he had spent the night with his ex-wife the night before.
"I found out Joey was trying to blackmail her or whatever," Ellinwood said in the video. "He would tell us that he didn't want to get back with her, but he would tell her she did."
In the video, Ellinwood said that Thibodeaux texted Erin the night of the murder, trying to convince her to have sex with him. Then, when Thibodeaux came over, Ellinwood tried to talk to him and the man raised a fist to him and threatened him.
"That was self defense," Ellinwood said in the video. "I learned in prison that if someone raises a fist to you, you have the right to defend yourself." Later, he told the detectives, "I learned in prison, that you don't let up until it's done."
When the fight was over, Thibodeaux could barely walk, Ellinwood said on the video. In the video, Ellinwood said they loaded Thibodeaux up in his truck and took him to the pharmacy. "I didn't mean to beat him up that bad," Ellinwood said in the video. "It just happened and things kinda went black for a while."
Later, Ellinwood told the detectives that Thibodeaux was sending Belz text messages with photos, including some where Ellinwood was "butt-naked" and added that he had never done anything sexual with Belz, even though it looked like he had.
In the video, Gilcrease told him that Belz had told them she had told him where to find the pipe.
"I just barely tapped him with it," Ellinwood said. "I just wanted to let him know if he had a weapon, I had one, too. I'd forgotten about the pipe. I tapped him a little with it because I knew he usually carried a knife."
Ellinwood told the detectives that he was also mad about Thibodeaux having sex with another of Ellinwood's female friends.
In the video, Ellinwood said they tried to leave Thibodeaux's truck at another location before they ultimately left it at Walgreen's, but a man there told them they couldn't park there. He also admitted to throwing the pipe in a dumpster.
"I don't know how much beer he'd had, but I could smell it on his breath" Ellinwood said in the video.
From Walgreen's Ellinwood and Belz walked back to her house on Myrtle. In the interview, he said they destroyed the SIM card on Thibodeaux's phone and got rid of his cap and wallet. He also said he threw away the blood-stained shirt he had been wearing the night he assaulted Thibodeaux.
Gaston asked if the NPD detectives had told Ellinwood and Belz that Thibodeaux was dead at that point. Gilcrease, replied, "No." However, he testified that they were pretty sure Ellinwood had already gotten a phone call that informed him Thibodeaux had died because he asked about the other man's condition.
"Now that would make me feel bad," Ellinwood said in the video after he told detectives he'd heard Thibodeaux was dead. "I didn't want fight him in the first place."
Ellinwood denied using the pipe to hit Thibodeaux in the head. In the video, he said that he gave the other man "a few pops on the side" with the pipe and then started to punch and kick him. "It wasn't anything serious," Ellinwood said.
Gilcrease also testified their investigation revealed Thibodeaux didn't have a weapon of any kind. He also said Ellinwood had told him that Thibodeaux hadn't ever landed a punch on him and that he wasn't much of a fighter. In addition, the NPD detective said Belz did not take part in the assault.
Gilcrease said that Thibodeaux knew Ellinwood was going to be at Belz's house, but that he didn't have any idea that he was walking into an ambush.
"She was sending him texts to lure him to her house under the pretense that they were going to have sex," Glicrease said.
Judge Ed Klein dismissed the jurors at about 4:48 p.m. and told them to be back in the morning at 9 a.m.