Tashia Stuart murder trial: neighbor testifies about gunshots

Tri-City HeraldJune 12, 2013 

— A Pasco man recalled Wednesday how he was working on his car when he heard a gunshot from the house across the street.

Ryan Rhodes then heard a second shot, and a third rang out as he was crossing Salmon Drive to investigate.

He tried to look through his neighbor's windows, but only could see movement in the room. Then he heard what he believes was Judy Hebert's interior garage door open and close.

Rhodes -- who knew that Hebert wasn't feeling well because he had talked to her hours earlier -- ran back to his house and tried calling her.

Hebert's daughter, Tashia Stuart, answered the phone, Rhodes said, testifying in Stuart's Franklin County Superior Court murder trial.

"I told her that I heard a loud noise coming from the house and that I wanted to make sure everything was OK," he said. "She told me that something had exploded on the stove, that everything was all right (and) not to worry."

Rhodes said he asked to speak to Hebert, but Stuart said her mother was lying down, and again not to worry.

He thought Stuart "was acting weird," so he walked down the street and asked neighbor Tonya Amende to call Hebert. Amende also got Stuart.

Minutes later, the two watched as the first Pasco police car arrived.

Stuart, 40, claims she was defending herself and fired the gun after her mother came at her with a hatchet on March 3, 2011.

She had been living in Hebert's home since early 2011, along with her husband, Todd Stuart, and 7-year-old daughter.

Stuart is accused of killing Hebert just weeks after she allegedly tried to kill her by dropping a bin of books on her from the garage rafters.

Stuart is charged with first-degree murder with aggravating circumstances and attempted first-degree murder. Her trial is in its third week, though jurors have heard testimony only for four days.

A Franklin County jury last fall acquitted Todd Stuart of having a role in a conspiracy to kill his mother-in-law.

Rhodes will return to court todayThursday for questioning by the defense after spending only 10 minutes on the stand late Wednesday.

In that time, Rhodes told jurors about his relationship with Hebert and how they talked almost daily.

He said Hebert shared with him two days later what happened in the garage.

"I was told that she was led out into the garage by Todd and kind of positioned underneath a spot in the rafters where a bin full of books was pushed on her by Tashia," Rhodes said. "She felt that they were planning something and, if she wasn't at the house for any period of time, then they'd probably buried her out in the back yard."

Hebert also reportedly told him she was on painkillers and that she believed her medication was being replaced because the pills were larger and the names were scratched off the tablets.

Rhodes said he last saw Hebert a couple of days before she died. She was in her garage having a cigarette, and he walked over to talk to her.

"She looked pretty worse for wear, was shuffling around. She just kind of leaned into me, and I held her in my arms for minutes," he said. "She was pretty messed up, really weak. She was talking to me about some of the things that were going on."

He last spoke to her about 9 a.m. the day she died. Rhodes noticed her garbage can wasn't out and called to see if he should put it out for her.

"I knew she hadn't been feeling so hot ...," he said. Hebert told him she was OK and was "feeling sort of rundown from medication she'd taken and she was sleeping."

Also Wednesday, Judge Cameron Mitchell denied another request by Stuart's lawyers to let them call the Franklin County prosecutor as a witness based on new information in the case.

After listening to the recording of a 45-minute interview with neighbor Amende, the judge stuck with his earlier ruling that Pasco detectives can be used by the defense to question her statements. Mitchell said there is no need for the defense to call Prosecutor Shawn Sant to the stand.

Amende testified last week that Hebert had suspicions about her daughter and showed Amende what happened inside the garage in February, even mentioning dust trails on top of a truck and in the rafters.

The defense argued that the information was new to them and should have been turned over by the prosecutor. Lawyers Bob Thompson and Peter Connick want to put Sant on the stand as a witness, but Sant also said it was his first time hearing those details.

The attorneys all sat down behind closed doors with Amende on Tuesday morning and interviewed her about what Hebert told her.

Amende maintained that she believes she mentioned it to Sant during a meeting before Todd Stuart's trial. She said Detective Brad Gregory may have been in that interview.

Gregory told the court Wednesday that he was not in that meeting with Sant and Amende, after she was interviewed by Todd Stuart's lawyer last July.

"I don't remember having a conversation with her about it. Doesn't mean it didn't happen," Gregory said.

Judge Mitchell said Gregory can be used as a rebuttal witness for the defense. The judge earlier ruled that Detective Justin Greenhalgh also can be used by the defense to question Amende about another meeting the prosecutor had with the witness last month.

Amende, who last testified before the jury Thursday afternoon, was back on the stand Wednesday.

Thompson grilled Amende about her statements to police and lawyers throughout the investigation and to the jury last week. He accused Amende -- who went by Tonya Blankenship when her friend was killed -- of changing her story by adding new details through the years.

"See, what we're trying to do here is get to the truth," he said.

"That is the truth," Amende answered. She repeated a number of times during her testimony that her story didn't change.

Amende admitted that Todd Stuart's verdict was upsetting to her, adding that she is scared of the Stuarts for her family's safety. Amende said the Stuarts never threatened her.

Thompson said it's a problem that details such as the dust trails that Hebert reported seeing in her garage only are coming out in this trial, when Amende should have told Pasco police during her first interview the day Hebert was shot.

Amende said she already had explained that she thought she had told officers, yet Thompson continued to ask her the same question.

"OK, but you need to understand, if your best friend's just got shot and killed, are you going to remember every detail that you can think of that day within an hour or two of that person's being killed?" Amende asked.

"I agree with you on that," Thompson told her. "What I don't agree with you on that is over two years go by before anybody hears about this."

Thompson asked the court to strike Amende's comment as being nonresponsive, but Mitchell ruled it was an appropriate response to the lawyer's statement.

The trial continues today at the Franklin County Courthouse.

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