Lester pleads to second-degree murder
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shawn Thomas Lester, who was set to go on trial this week in the sniper-style killings of three people in 2003, pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree murder charges for his part in one of the slayings.
Prosecutors said Monday that the main evidence in the case linked Lester to the death of Jeanie Patton, who was killed by a bullet from a .22 caliber Magnum Marlin as she was pumping gas at a Speedway in Campbells Creek on Aug. 14, 2003.
Kanawha County assistant prosecutor Don Morris also revealed that two more men, Rodney Preston Shaffer and his son, Rodney Preston Shaffer II, were connected to the murders, although authorities have released few details of their exact involvement. The elder Shaffer died in 2008.
As part of Monday's plea deal, Lester did not admit to actually pulling the trigger and firing the bullet that killed Patton, only that he was involved in her death. Prosecutors agreed to drop all three first-degree murder charges Lester faced in the deaths of Patton, Okey Meadows Jr., and Gary Carrier Jr.
Meadows was killed by a bullet outside a Cedar Grove convenience store from the same model of gun about an hour and a half after Patton. Carrier died at a Charleston convenience store four days earlier, also by a bullet from a Magnum Marlin.
Lester faces up to 40 years in prison on the second-degree murder charge. Prosecutors told Kanawha County Chief Circuit Judge Duke Bloom that they plan to ask for a 30-year prison term when Lester is sentenced on Aug. 31.
Morris said that the younger Shaffer was prepared to testify that on Aug. 14, 2003, he was lying in the backseat of a green Ford Bronco at the Campbells Creek Speedway when Jeanie Patton was shot.
His father and Lester were in the front seats of the vehicle, with Lester allegedly behind the wheel, according to Morris. When they drove away, the .22 rifle was sitting between them, he said.
Prosecutors believe that the men were targeting Patton because her common law husband, Marty Walker, stole an engine block with methamphetamine hidden inside from Lester's garage on Rutledge Road.
Lester operated a drug enterprise out of the garage that was connected to the Mexican mafia, prosecutors said. The drugs hidden in the engine block belonged to a man named Gilberto "Tito" Lopez-Reyna, whom authorities have been unable to track down. Morris said that Lester asked the Shaffers for help tracking down the people responsible for stealing the engine block. It is not clear what part, if any, Patton, Meadows and Carrier had in the theft.
The rifle was destroyed sometime after the shootings, Morris said.
It's not clear what Walker did with the engine -- and the drugs inside -- after it was stolen. Morris said that the engine's intake ended up in the possession of a man named Brad Stevens, who threw it into a pond.
Kanawha County assistant prosecutor Maryclaire Akers said that Rodney Preston Shaffer II has signed a plea agreement connected to one charge of conspiracy in connection to the murder. Akers would not release the details of the plea.
Last July, a federal grand jury indicted the younger Shaffer on one count of making a false statement on an ATF form, two counts of being a drug user in possession of a firearm and one count of methamphetamine distribution.
According to the indictment, Shaffer had an arsenal that included several Winchester shotguns, revolvers and multiple .22 caliber rifles for a total of 23 weapons.
The indictment also states that authorities seized one Model 25 .22 caliber Marlin rifle.
In December, Shaffer pleaded guilty to being a drug user in possession of a firearm, admitted to possessing the weapons and that he fired some of them while he was under the influence of drugs. The charge carries a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Police arrested Lester in connection with the murder of Jeannie Patton in April 2011 after receiving a tip that evidence in the slayings, including the murder weapon, was buried under the Shaffer family's property in Sissonville.
Shaffer's mother, Sandra Shaffer, later sued the Kanawha County Sheriff's Department and the Charleston Police after investigators destroyed her property while they were searching for evidence. According to the original lawsuit, police directed an excavator operator to basically tear Shaffer's home apart.
Sandra Shaffer fired her lawyer shortly after the pictures were released to the public last year.
In 2003, federal investigators believed that the shootings were completely random, and according to Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants, disregarded theories that they were somehow connected.
"If standard operating procedure had been followed in this case, it would have been solved within months of the crime," Plants said.
The prosecutor said that because federal investigators were using the theory that the shooter may have been imitating the "Beltway Sniper" who had killed 10 people in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002.
During pretrial proceedings last month, retired U.S. Marshal John Perrine testified that Lester admitted that he was at the scene of Jeanie Patton's murder while he was being held on an unrelated federal charge shortly after the shootings in 2003.
According to Perrine, Lester told him "I was there, but I didn't shoot her."
Perrine said he relayed that information to the FBI, who told him to "let the professionals handle it."
Asked if the victims' families agreed with the plea, Plants said, "In the end, I have to move forward with the evidence I have."
Plants would not comment on the circumstances that spurred the parties to reach a plea agreement so soon before the trial was expected to start.
The lawyers have said that the case has yielded more than 75,000 pages of documents. It's still not clear how many of those documents involve Lester, or exactly how a shooter carried out the three apparently well-coordinated killings.
Kanawha County Chief Public Defender George Castelle, Lester's attorney, said he could not comment on the details of the plea or the reasons why the agreement was reached so soon before the trial was expected to start.
"All I can say at this stage is that the plea agreement was the result of complicated and difficult discussions," he said. "I'm reluctant to say more at this point."
Plants said his office might release more details after Lester's sentencing.
Reach Zac Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5189.