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Jury finds man guilty of second degree murder in 2014 Ardmore cold case trial

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com
Stephen Tanner Vineyard

After five days in court and four hours deliberating on Friday, Feb. 7, a Carter County jury found Stephen Tanner Vineyard guilty of second degree murder for the 2014 death of Ella Loftis.

Stephen Vineyard, 28, of Ada was on trial for the charge of first degree murder, which requires there to be deliberate intent to kill.

However, the jury returned with the verdict of guilty on the lesser included offense of second degree murder, finding him guilty of causing Loftis’s death while in the commission of the felony offense of shooting at a dwelling.

The jury recommended a sentence of 27 years, 85% of which Vineyard will be required to serve before he is eligible for parole. Formal sentencing is set for March 18.

Loftis was found deceased on the front porch of her Ardmore residence, located off of A St. NE, at around 3 a.m. on June 30, 2014. The exact circumstances of her death remained unclear for four years until new information came to light in 2018 when the case was reassigned to two Ardmore Police Department investigators.

Vineyard was represented by Oklahoma City attorney Richard Anderson, with assistance from Oklahoma City attorney Beau Williams. District Attorney Craig Ladd and Assistant District Attorney Aaron Taber represented the state of Oklahoma.

In his closing statement on Friday, Ladd told the jury many homicide trials are about finding out who committed the murder. However, this was not the case for this trial. “This is not a case of ‘who dun it’. In this case, we know who pulled the trigger that killed Ellla Loftis,” Ladd said.

Rather, the jury had to decide whether Vineyard deliberately killed Loftis— and in the end, the jury found enough reasonable doubt in the state‘s argument to determine that Loftis’s death was not intentional.

The court spent the first day of the trial on Monday, Feb. 3 selecting the jury and the next three days were dedicated to witness testimony.

The events leading up to Loftis’s death and what happened afterwards unfurled as witnesses recalled various aspects of the case and photo and video evidence was provided by the state and defense.

In 2014, the city of Ardmore was experiencing gang-related problems, according to former Ardmore Police Department investigator Matt Miller, who testified in court on Tuesday, Feb. 4. Miller was assigned to the Loftis case in 2018, along with his partner Landon Gary.

Almost 24 hours prior to Loftis’s slaying, Miller said another shooting death had occurred in the parking lot of a local nightclub. The victim in the parking lot shooting was not involved in a gang, but got caught in the cross fire of gang-related violence.

An investigation into this incident revealed that there were growing tensions between the Rolling 90’s gang members and members of the Hoover Crips.

As a form of retaliation for the parking lot shooting, a distant relative of Loftis, who took the stand in court on Thursday, Feb. 6, said members of the Hoover Crips had been driving around looking for Loftis’s grandson in what was described as a “hunt”.

Loftis was warned of the hunt for her grandson and went to visit her son and his girlfriend at their home. Loftis’s son and his girlfriend testified in court on separate days and both appeared visibly distressed by having to testify, telling a similar story of the last time they spoke to Loftis only a few hours before her death.

Loftis told the couple that gang members had threatened to kill her grandson and warned them not to open the door for him out of fear that they would be harmed. Loftis’s son also said that his mother appeared to be frightened.

Loftis then returned home and told her son not to come with her. Melanie Taylor, an APD employee who maintains police records and 911 calls, said police received a call concerning five shots heard at around 3:28 a.m. on June 30, 2014, according to dispatch records.

The call came from one of Loftis’s neighbors, who only lived about a half a block from her. In her testimony on Thursday, Loftis’s neighbor identified herself as a “night owl,” saying that she had been awake and looking out her window when she heard a series of loud noises that sounded like five gunshots.

Loftis’s neighbor described a scene where she saw three individuals standing outside of Loftis’s residence. Two of the individuals appeared to be standing “extremely close” to each other and she said the one in front was holding a shotgun.

Loftis’s neighbor said she observed a patrol car pass by the house and shine a spotlight towards the area. However, the patrol car kept driving, possibly indicating low visibility, according to the defense.

Carter County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Billy Mitchell was on patrol the morning of the incident and said he responded to a call regarding a deceased woman at the residence in the 900 block of A St. NE.

During his testimony, Mitchell confirmed that Loftis was pronounced dead on scene and photos of the crime scene were presented to the jury. APD crime scene investigator Sherri Wallace testified that she documented and analyzed the crime scene.

Through her investigation, Wallace said she was able to determine that at least three or more shots had been fired from a shotgun. Eric Duvall, a medical examiner from Oklahoma City, told the jury that he performed an autopsy on Loftis’s body after she was killed.

Duvall said one of the most significant findings from the autopsy was around 28 gunshot wounds located across her body, on her chest, right shoulder, right arm, right thigh, right wrist, back and head. The wounds caused damage to several of her internal organs, including her heart and brain, he said.

Following the incident in 2014, Miller said alleged Hoover Crips gang members Issac Lee and Juaren McGee were named as the primary suspects in Loftis’s death. However, during his closing statement, Ladd said that there had not been enough evidence presented at the time to prosecute Lee or McGee.

The case went unsolved for four years until APD investigators Miller and Gary decided to release more information to the press in hope that someone would come forward with additional information — and it worked.

An individual came forward and told police that Vineyard had made a confession to her after the incident in 2014. On Wednesday, Feb. 5, she testified in court, explaining what Vineyard had allegedly told her. However, there were minor inconsistencies in her story, such as what had happened earlier that day and slight differences in statements that she made to the police.

The witness said she and a friend who had been romantically interested in Vineyard were all hanging out and decided to get a hotel room together. While her friend had passed out from drinking, the witness said she and Vineyard were watching television.

The channel landed on a local news station’s coverage of Ella Loftis’s death, displaying a picture of her face, and the witness said Vineyard immediately became visibly disturbed. The witness described his alleged reaction as “frantic,” with his hands shaking and sweating.

Vineyard then allegedly told her that he had been driving around with three alleged gang members, later identified as Marquis Walters, Issac Lee and Juaren McGee. One of them got into a fight with Loftis’s grandson over the phone and the group pulled up to Loftis’s residence thinking that her grandson was there.

The group then allegedly dropped Vineyard off around the block and he went in through the side gate of the residence and started shooting. According to the witness‘s testimony, Vineyard told her that he had deliberately killed Loftis after noticing that she had seen his face. However, the jury could not find enough evidence to substantiate this claim.

On Wednesday, Feb. 5, Vineyard’s ex-girlfriend told the jury that Vineyard had woken her up late at night prior to the shooting and told her that he had to go right away because one of his friends had been shot.

However, her motives for testifying were called into question by the defense, with Anderson alleging that she made aspects of her story up to get back at Vineyard for breaking her heart.

Vineyard’s ex-girlfriend said he was gone for two days afterwards and when he came back his demeanor was “dead” and withdrawn, lacking any emotion. She questioned where he had been and Vineyard allegedly pulled up a news article on Loftis’s slaying, telling her, “This is where I’ve been”.

By the end of 2014, Vineyard had started seeing another woman, who is now his wife. Vineyard’s mother-in-law told the jury that she would go over to clean their house and noticed that the dining room chairs would be propped up against the doors as if to barricade them.

Vineyard’s wife also testified, confirming this behavior and stating that it was an extra safety precaution, which the defense argued was out of fear that the gang members Vineyard had been with would harm him.

APD investigators Miller and Gary brought Vineyard to Ardmore for questioning after the witness came forward with more information in 2018. The interview lasted around two and a half hours and was recorded and played for the jury.

Vineyard’s story was consistent with the witness‘s regarding several facts, such as the type of car he was driving and how he joined up with the three alleged gang members that night.

However, Vineyard told police he had gone to Ardmore to buy marijuana and, in his initial version of the story, Vineyard told the investigators that Issac Lee had gotten out of the vehicle and he heard gunshots shortly after.

After more than an hour of Vineyard denying he had pulled the trigger, Miller said he decided to use a common interviewing tactic in which the individual being questioned is given a slightly altered set of facts to minimize their guilt. In this case, Miller suggested that Vineyard was forced into pulling the trigger.

Shortly after, Vineyard confessed to shooting at Loftis’s residence, telling the investigators “I had no choice, I literally had a revolver to my head”. However, Vineyard said he did not know anyone was on the porch at the time and did not know he had killed anyone until the investigators told him.

Following the jury’s verdict, Ladd commended the jury for the manner in which they performed their civic duty and thanked the Ardmore Police Department, including Sherri Wallace, Landon Gary and Matt Miller for their roles in the investigation.

“On behalf of the Loftis family and my office, I want to publicly thank the jury for their service,” Ladd said. “It was a five day trial, and they were obviously expected to pay very close attention to every piece of evidence admitted, including a substantial amount of testimony. It is an exhausting endeavor yet I didn’t see any one of them at any time during the course of the trial being anything other than absolutely attentive.”