By Ari James
The jury trial regarding the May 2016 Ardmore slayings of Aaron Lavers and Anthony Rogers began yesterday in Carter County District Court.
Five felony charges were filed against Craig Russell Stanford by District Attorney Craig Ladd, including knowingly concealing stolen property, second degree burglary, possession of a firearm after former felony conviction, and two counts of first degree murder.
Stanford appeared in court Tuesday with attorneys Jason May and James English. While Stanford plead not guilty to both felony charges of first-degree murder, May confirmed Stanford’s confession to the burglary, concealing stolen property and firearm possession charges, which are filed under a separate case from the murder allegations.
Preliminary instructions were given to the jurors and alternate
jurors by Judge Dennis Morris. Prior to beginning opening statements, Ladd read the information filed as to all five charges in September 2016. Ladd then outlined the State’s case against the defendant, building a timeline where Stanford allegedly made several trips to Walmart to purchase black clothing, a bandana, a hat and gloves. Ladd further stated Stanford allegedly made other stops in the early morning hours on the day of the murders for an energy drink and cigarettes around 2 a.m., a repeat visit to the same gas station for a can of gasoline, and an unannounced 3 a.m. visit to a Dylan Lewis who reportedly did not open the door. Ladd said Stanford’s mother’s Toyota was allegedly left parked in front of Lewis’s home, less than a quarter mile away from the murder scene, with Stanford nowhere to be found.
Ladd’s timeline goes back to two days before the murders, when Stanford, who was reported to be a friend of the decedents, hung out and played video games at the apartment Lavers and Rogers shared. Ladd said Stanford was wearing a cast on his arm at that time due to punching a wall in an angry outburst. Ladd alleged that Stanford became angry because his “prized” iPhone 5 was missing and he blamed Lavers and Rogers. The following day, Lavers and Rogers discovered four items were stolen from their home, including a PlayStation 4, a big screen television, an iPad mini with a black and white Pistol Pete sticker on the back, and a 9mm semi-automatic pistol loaded with Radically Invasive Projectile, or RIP rounds. Lavers initially reported the theft to Ardmore Police listing $325 in cash in lieu of the pistol because he had previously been convicted of a felony and as his brother-in-law testified Tuesday, “didn’t want to go to jail because someone stole stuff from his house.”
Lavers and Rogers told Ardmore Police they suspected Stanford of the theft, but Stanford denied those allegations when interviewed by Ardmore Police officer Dustin Ragland. Ragland testified that Stanford was cooperative and allowed the officer to complete a walkthrough of his home. Ragland did not find any of the property stolen from Lavers and Rogers’ apartment. Ladd’s opening statement alleged Stanford boasted and implied on more than one occasion that he would silence those he felt ratted him out to the police.
Meanwhile, the decedent’s landlord installed a padlock, enabling the men to lock the apartment when they were not home, but provided no way to lock the door when they were inside. Sometime before 6:15 a.m. when Lavers’ sister and brother-in-law arrived as usual to pick him up for work, the two men were murdered in what Ladd described as a vengeful execution. The grisly scene, described by one witness, Ardmore Police Department Cpl. Stewart Hoffman, as “very bloody” was discovered by Lavers’ sister first, then her husband. Officers worked quickly to secure the scene, said Hoffman in his testimony.
Investigators questioned Stanford within a few hours of the discovery of the bodies. Stanford’s defense attorneys pointed out the gun residue test conducted at that time was negative and that officers present for the interview did not note blood traces on the cast Stanford still wore that morning. Ladd countered that gun residue tests can produce false negatives or residue can be washed off. The defense presented that there would be no scientific evidence of Stanford’s guilt, no DNA placing him at the scene. May said Stanford would also not be taking the stand to testify on his own behalf.
Ladd’s timeline concluded with a call from the fire department, where officers were notified that Stanford was detained and questioned about a fire set in the backyard of a vacant rental unit near the home he shared with his mother. In that fire, which reportedly reeked of gasoline, a set of black clothing was found, including a black shirt and black sweatpants similar to what Stanford purchased days prior.
As testimony continues, the burden of proof is on the state, represented by Ladd by way of the testimony of those who worked the case and those who knew Rogers and Lavers.
“I feel like we have a good, attentive jury,” said Jason May, attorney for the defense. “I am confident that a fair verdict will be reached.”
The trial will reconvene this morning at 9 a.m. at the Carter County Courthouse.