Murder Suspect Charged; Used Pepper Grinder, Skillet
(Aurora, Ind.) – After weeks of speculation, Dearborn County authorities have charged Charles Stephenson with the gruesome murder and robbery of Aurora resident Leigh Jennings.
Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard held a press conference Thursday to announce that Stephenson is suspected in the March 29 murder of Jennings in her apartment at 107B Aspen Ridge Road. The evidence, he said, is compelling.
Stephenson, 58, of Walton, Kentucky, allegedly attacked Jennings in her kitchen using two odd murder weapons: a pepper grinder and an iron skillet.
“It was a very violent death. It’s very unfortunate,” Negangard said.
Investigators say Jennings, 67, died of a fractured skull caused by blunt force trauma.
In a court affidavit, detectives say Jennings met Stephenson through her work as a barber at Young’s Barber Shop in Florence, her hometown. Jennings’ family members said they had learned Jennings made an investment of several thousand dollars with a man they only knew as “Steve,” Stephenson’s nickname.
Jennings had spent her last day alive taking her elderly mother, who lived in the apartment next door, to the doctor. She went home that evening for coffee with Stephenson, telling her mother she planned to return to her afterwards.
Investigators believe money and avoiding jail was Stephenson’s motive. He needed money to pay off a court-ordered debt to his aunt Faye Sparks. The judgement demanding he pay Sparks $500 each month had been made in a Boone County court in December.
Stephenson got behind on his payments. Sparks’ attorney told Stephenson on Monday, March 26 he needed to pay $1,000 he owed by Friday, March 30. Stephenson admitted to investigators that he was desperate to get the money.
“The investigation determined he did not have that money on Wednesday,” Negangard said.
He purchased a pizza and turned off his cell phone on his way to Jennings’ apartment on Thursday. The pizza box was left empty at the apartment, detectives later discovered.
Detectives determined Stephenson took an undetermined amount of cash from a safe in Jennings’ home following the murder.
“He knew she had cash in the safe,” Negangard said. “He’s borrowed money from her on two separate occasions. $3,000 on one time and $2,000 on another – a statement which initially he denied to the police.”
On Friday, the morning after Jennings was murdered, Stephenson went to Steele’s law office to turn in a $1,000 money order. Steele told police Stephenson appeared disheveled and as though he had been on an “all night bender.”
Jennings was found dead in the apartment by neighbors a week later on April 5.
It was a disturbing murder scene. In the affidavit, police noted a large amount of blood splattered about the kitchen and dining room. The bloody pepper grinder had been left on a kitchen table. The iron skillet was hung on the wall with blood running down the wall to the floor.
DNA tests indicated both Jennings blood and Stephenson’s DNA on the murder weapons. Jennings’ blood was also present in the bedroom safe where she kept her money.
Negangard said Stephenson is eligible for the death penalty because the murder occurred as part of a robbery. He said that punishment “is certainly on the table.”
If not death, Stephenson faces a maximum prison sentence of 115 years in Indiana.
The prosecutor commended the Aurora Police Department, Indiana State Police, and Dearborn County Sheriff’s Department for their tireless work in the investigation.
Aurora Chief of Police Bryan Fields said the case may have gone unsolved without the tireless work and dedication of those involved with the investigation.
“I can tell you this. After watching this investigation I would not want to be someone that had this group of detectives after me. They were tenacious. They were nonstop,” Fields said.
Ryan Siebe thanked the police agencies for their work and the community for its support for his family. He said while the family is comforted in the arrest, they still miss Leigh dearly.
“At this time we’re comfortable in allowing the legal process to begin and we’ll see what the results are,” he said.
Stephenson remains held in Boone County, Kentucky on tampering with evidence and drug charges he faces there. The tampering with evidence charge stems from Stephenson admitting that he had cleaned out his car sometime after the murder occurred.
Negangard was not sure on how soon Stephenson may be extradited from Kentucky to answer to the murder and robbery charges in Indiana.
Stephenson is also the nephew of Bill and Peggy Stephenson. The couple was found dead in their Florence home in May of 2011. Their murders remain unsolved without any suspects identified.
Negangard said Indiana investigators did not question Stephenson in connection with his aunt and uncle’s deaths. Stephenson did not volunteer any information about that case during the investigation either.