Deputies suspected wife early on, don’t believe self-defense claim of her lover
Authorities say they have no reason to believe accused murderer James Ray Maggard’s claim that he was acting in self-defense when he killed his lover’s husband either by beating him with a baseball bat or by setting him afire, a Letcher County Sheriff ’s Department deputy has testified.
In testimony before Letcher District Judge Kevin R. Mullins, Operations Lt. Brian Damron also said he and other officers suspected from early in their investigation that Stephanie Yvonn Jones Fleming might have been involved in the disappearance and subsequent death of her 34-year-old husband Dradrick “Drad” Fleming, whose badly burned body was found June 23 on Black Mountain near Eolia.
Damron, who was testifying in a preliminary hearing for Mrs. Fleming, 30, and Maggard, 33, said that when he first talked with Mrs. Fleming informally on Friday, June 22, the day after her husband was reported missing by another family member, she appeared to be “borderline under the influence” of narcotics and didn’t seem very concerned about her husband’s whereabouts. Damron added that when Mrs. Fleming was told her husband had been found dead inside his truck she “looked emotionless.”
“Her body language was just cold,” Damron said under questioning by Letcher Commonwealth’s Attorney Edison G. Banks II. “She never showed one sign of being upset. She never shed a tear.”
In Kentucky, a preliminary hearing is an early court proceeding held to determine whether there is enough evidence to continue with charges against a defendant. In this case, Judge Mullins ruled there is “probable cause” to believe Mrs. Fleming and Maggard murdered Drad Fleming. Before Mullins referred the charges against the two defendants to a Letcher County grand jury for further action, Damron gave a detailed and at times graphic account of much of the evidence the sheriff ’s department has gathered so far.
Damron testified that Drad Fleming was last seen alive by family members in downtown Neon between 9:15 and 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 20 while trying to find a space to park his red 2011 Chevrolet Silverado pickup so he could attend the funeral visitation for his uncle, Larry Chandis “Chand” Fleming, a disabled coal miner from Jackhorn who had suffered a heart attack while riding an all-terrain vehicle on June 17. Drad Fleming was reported missing June 21 to Deputy Sheriff Jerry Hipps by Chand Fleming’s daughter, Tomeka Fleming Brashear.
Damron said that on Friday, June 22, he and Deputy Sheriff Bert Slone began conducting interviews with potential witnesses and “brought in the Pine Mountain Search and Rescue” team to help try to find Drad Fleming even though there was “no location on where to start a search” for the missing man or his truck.
After attempts to locate Mr. Fleming’s whereabouts by getting a “ping” from his cellular phone through provider Appalachian Wireless or to trace Fleming’s truck through the vehicle’s OnStar navigation module proved fruitless, Damron said he and other sheriff ’s deputies and members of the search and rescue team searched several areas of the county, still to no avail. Meanwhile, said Damron, members of Drad Fleming’s family were “working throughout the county with multiple people on four-wheelers” hoping to find their missing relative.
Someone who did not seem very interested in helping with the search, said Damron, was Stephanie Fleming.
“She had a very minimal part in it,” he said.
Damron said that after the sheriff ’s office got an anonymous tip concerning the case early on Saturday, June 23, he “thought it would be in the best interest of the family” if he conducted a formal interview with Mrs. Fleming, who at one point tried to mislead officials by showing them a text message she hoped would convince them her husband may have committed suicide after becoming distraught over the death of the uncle who helped to raise him.
Damron said Mrs. Fleming was a little more forthcoming when he talked with her after the sheriff ’s office received the tip from someone who works at the McDonald’s restaurant in Whitesburg. The witness told investigators about a romantic relationship Mrs. Fleming and Maggard developed while they both worked at McDonald’s and said the two had asked another McDonald’s employee to provide an alibi that would clear them as suspects in Mr. Fleming’s disappearance.
After being confronted with the information provided by the witness, Mrs. Fleming then told police that she had driven to a strip mine at Franks Creek at Eolia to pick Maggard up about 1 a.m. on June 21, and that Maggard had told her repeatedly that “he was sorry” about what had happened to her husband and that Drad Fleming would “never hurt you again.”
“The more the interview went on the more I didn’t believe her story,” Damron said.
Damron said that Mrs. Fleming then agreed to make a telephone call to Maggard in the presence of Damron and other investigators. Damron said he cut the phone call short because he “found her asking him (Maggard) leading questions.”
Damron testified that based on the information Mrs. Fleming revealed during the early June 23 interview he became convinced her husband was the victim of foul play. He said he then secured the services of a helicopter from Jenkins based Wings Air Rescue and was in the air helping to search for Mr. Fleming later that Saturday when he was notified that James Maggard had just walked into the sheriff ’s department and confessed to killing Mr. Fleming.
Damron said that as soon as the helicopter was able to land he returned to the sheriff ’s office to interview Maggard, who then agreed to take him and other deputies to Little Fork of Franks Creek to show where he had left Mr. Fleming’s body.
“He gave me a story about what had happened,” Damron testified. “He stated he was walking up Pine Mountain” when Fleming drove up and yelled something at him and got out of his truck armed with a baseball bat.
“He said he tackled Mr. Fleming and took the bat away from him and beat him until he was unconscious and passed out himself,” Damron continued. “He said he woke up and put the body of Mr. Fleming into the pickup (and drove to the Black Mountain area). He said he felt he was going to puke, exited the vehicle, and the vehicle plummeted over the hillside.”
Damron indicated that Maggard’s story seems unbelievable in part because Mr. Fleming’s truck would have had to have rolled over “a large berm” before it could have rolled down the mountainside. He also testified that Maggard claimed that Mr. Fleming’s truck was not on fire when it went over Black Mountain even though it appears an accelerant was used to help spread the flames and make them burn hotter.
Damron testified that an informant who was in a Letcher County Jail cell with Maggard after his arrest told police that Maggard told him he knew Mr. Fleming was still alive when the truck was set on fire because “he could hear Mr. Fleming screaming” when the truck plunged over the hill in flames.
Damron’s testimony concerning the alleged jail cell conversation brought a number of loud gasps and cries from a crowd of about 40 friends and family members of Drad Fleming who attended the hearing, many of whom were wearing black ribbons as a show of solidarity.
“What I just heard in there a minute ago just took the cake,” relative Archie Noble said in disgust of Mrs. Fleming and Maggard as Drad Fleming’s mother, Kathy Bentley, sat outside the courtroom sobbing inconsolably.
Authorities say Mrs. Fleming claims that she and her husband had “an open relationship.” She said the last time she spoke with Fleming she had asked him to bring soft drinks and cigarettes to their home, but that he told her he couldn’t because he was going to drive up Pine Mountain near Whitesburg to meet another woman. Police instead believe that Mr. Fleming did in fact deliver the soft drinks and cigarettes and was lured into an ambush from Maggard when he did so.
Damron said during testimony that witnesses have told authorities that Maggard beat Drad Fleming unconscious with the baseball bat near the Flemings’ double-wide mobile home near Millstone, then wrapped him in a blanket and a quilt provided by Mrs. Fleming and drove him across Pine Mountain, through Eolia and on up Black Mountain, the top of which marks the highest point in Kentucky.
Video surveillance footage taken outside Hubble Mining Co.’s No. 8 deep mine near Little Fork of Franks Creek at about 10:15 p.m. on June 20 shows Fleming’s pickup passing by the mine at what Damron termed “a high rate of speed.” He said footage from the same video camera, which is located about three miles from where Fleming’s remains were found inside the truck, shows Maggard walking back down the same road one hour and 37 minutes after Fleming’s truck initially drove by.
Maggard’s cousin, Jonathan Maggard, told police that James Maggard showed up to his place of work at Hubble Mining’s No. 12 mine site, located near the No. 8 mine, and went inside a guard shack to clean himself up and change into clothes Mrs. Fleming brought to him while driving a new orange Mitsubishi Eclipse automobile her husband bought for her at the same time he bought his truck, Damron testified.
“She brought stuff to clean himself up with and clothes to change into,” Damron told Mrs. Fleming’s attorney, Traci Snyder Hancock, who directs the Pikeville office of the Kentucky Department for Public Advocacy. “What he was wearing was placed into the trunk of the car by Mrs. Fleming.”
Damron testified that the motive for killing Dradrick Fleming was “either money and/or the relationship between Mr. Maggard and Mrs. Fleming.” Mr. Fleming worked as a roof bolter at Cumberland River Coal Co.’s Trace Fork 1 mine, which is also located near Eolia. The company, which is owned by St. Louis-based Arch Coal Inc., provides term life insurance for its employees.
Damron told prosecutor Banks that after James Maggard was arrested Maggard placed a “promise ring” on the desk of Letcher County Sheriff Danny Webb and said, “I don’t guess I’ll need this anymore.”
“Both of them (Maggard and Mrs. Fleming) worked at McDonald’s, where Mr. Maggard was fired or left on his own,” Damron testifi ed, adding that letters were found in Maggard’s wallet regarding their “romantic relationship.”
Damron also told Banks that Mr. Fleming’s body “was burned to the point where we have to get DNA analyses to confirm the I.D.” The burned remains of two bicycles believed to have belonged to the Flemings’ young sons, Cadence, 3, and Tallon, 2, were found in the same location where the truck came to a stop. Mr. Fleming also had a 17-year-old daughter, Selena, from a previous marriage.
Under questioning from public advocacy attorney Richard Counts, who was representing Mr. Maggard at last week’s hearing, Damron said police have seized a computer used by Mrs. Fleming and that another witness in the case, Austin Ison, had surrendered his computer to the sheriff ’s department “to see if any research” had been done pertaining to the crime.
Ison, who voluntarily submitted to a polygraph examination at Kentucky State Police headquarters in Frankfort last week, told police he befriended Mrs. Fleming in April and had heard Mrs. Fleming and Maggard discuss ways to kill Mr. Fleming and get away with it.
Damron said Ison was “privy to a conversation” in which he heard Maggard and Mrs. Fleming discuss killing Mr. Fleming with a baseball bat and making his death look like an accident. Ison told police he thought the lovers were joking, however, investigators believe that Ison, who Damron said has worked “in and around the funeral business,” may have told Mrs. Fleming and Maggard that a body would have to be burned at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit to reach the cremation stage that would keep the cause of death from being known.
Damron also told attorney Counts that a piece of denim found in the remains of the truck, which has been towed in for examination by a Kentucky State Police arson investigator, appears to match the denim on the quilt in which Mr. Fleming was believed to wrapped after he was attacked with the bat.
According to Damron, witnesses told Deputy Sheriff Slone that Mr. Fleming “came to” on a few occasions during the ride to Black Mountain, and that Maggard knocked him back out each time “by hitting him in the head or about the head with his elbow” as he drove the Fleming truck.
Tomeka Brashear said the brutal nature of the killing of her cousin coming on the heels of the death of her father has been especially tough on her family.
“It feels like we’re in a horror movie,” she said. “We didn’t even have time to grieve before we were out looking for Drad.”
Mrs. Brashear said she and other family members are “willing to wear” the black ribbons in honor of Mr. Fleming “every day until justice is served.”
Damron told the attorneys at last Thursday’s hearing that the investigation into Drad Fleming’s death will take “probably several weeks” to complete. In addition to the state police arson investigator, a state police crime scene reconstructionist will also assist.
Damron testified that police have not recovered the bat believed used in the attack on Mr. Fleming. He also said testing remains underway to determine what accelerant might have been used to burn Mr. Fleming’s truck.
The grand jury will consider charges of murder, complicity to murder, theft, and hindering prosecution against both Mrs. Fleming and James Maggard. Maggard is also charged with firstdegree arson, while Mrs. Fleming faces additional charges of being a persistent felony offender (first and second degrees).
The persistent felony charges are the result of Mrs. Fleming’s Nov. 2011 guilty plea to charges that she committed welfare and food stamp fraud between January 1 and October 31, 2010. Just one month before her husband was killed, Mrs. Fleming was charged with fourth-degree assault after she allegedly punched Kathy Bentley, Drad Fleming’s mother, in the mouth during a domestic dispute.