Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division
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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Buchanan County, Missouri. The Honorable Randall R. Jackson, Judge.
Amy Bartholow, Columbia, MO, for Appellant.
Karen Kramer, Jefferson City, MO, for Respondent.
Before Division Four: Alok Ahuja, C.J. Presiding, James Edward Welsh, J., and Patrick Campbell, Sp. J. All concur.
James Edward Welsh, Judge.
Tony Ray King appeals his convictions, following a jury trial, for murder in the first degree (§ 565.020), child abuse in the first degree (§ 568.060), and arson in the second degree (§ 569.050). We affirm the circuit court's judgment.
In January 2012, King was charged as a prior and persistent offender with first-degree murder, felony child abuse, and second-degree arson. The State alleged (1) that on January 10, 2012, King had caused the death of his seven-year-old son (herein referred to as " Son" ) by strangling or choking him, (2) that between November 16, 2011, and January 10, 2012, King had repeatedly physically abused Son, and (3) that on the morning of January 11, 2012, King had set fire to his mobile home in order to conceal Son's murder.
Viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, the evidence at trial showed that at the time of Son's death, he was living with King in a mobile home in rural Harrison County. Son attended school in Bethany and rode the school bus. King was involved in a custody battle with Son's mother, Mira Huffman, who lived in Bethany. Son began living with King in late August 2011 when King obtained an ex parte order of protection restricting Huffman's access to Son and granting King temporary custody.
After multiple postponements, a hearing was held on October 20th. The judge found a lack of evidence for a full order of protection and set aside the ex parte order. Following the hearing, Huffman picked Son up from school and took him to her home in Bethany. King traveled to neighboring Gentry County that same day and there obtained another ex parte child protection order. The next day, King came by and snatched Son out of Huffman's yard. When Huffman called King, he told her that she would never see her son again.
About a month later, just before the Thanksgiving break, Son's teacher, principal, and school counselor began noticing suspicious scrapes, bruises, and sores on Son. Based on these observations, and because Son was giving the educators differing explanations for the injuries, the school called the child abuse hotline. A caseworker and a deputy sheriff went to King's home to investigate. They observed Son's injuries, but the Children's Division ultimately concluded that his injuries were consistent with the stories that King gave them.
Son's teacher saw additional injuries on Son when he came back from the Thanksgiving break. From mid-November until the day of the fire, Son was in school only fifteen of the thirty-two school days, and he attended only four of the fourteen school days in December. Over Christmas break, Son was injured again and was taken to Children's Mercy Hospital. King told Children's Mercy personnel that a tree fell on Son. When school resumed on Tuesday, January 3rd, Son was absent. When he returned the next day, he had numerous bruises on his face and a tear in the crease behind his ear. Son attended school on Thursday and Friday, the 5th and 6th.
On the 6th, King was notified that Son had been suspended from riding the bus for three days due to misbehavior. King called the school on the 9th, the first day
of the bus suspension, and told them that Son would not be at school due to a counseling appointment. That evening, Son was with King when one of King's friends observed numerous bruises and injuries on Son. King told the friend that Son had gotten kicked off the bus and that he was going to take him home and " beat his butt" because of it.
The next day, January 10th, King called the school and stated that Son was going to be living with King's sister in Albany and that he would be going to school there. That same morning, King visited Robert Hunter at Hunter's apartment. Hunter looked into the cab of King's pickup as they talked and saw a small person lying on the passenger seat. The figure was entirely covered with a blanket except for his right hand and appeared to be about the same size as a seven-year-old child. Hunter asked King why he had his son with him. King said that Son was not feeling well and that he was going to take him to his (King's) sister's house. Hunter never saw the child move during the entire conversation.
On January 10th, King told another friend, Eric Bridger, that Son was staying with his sister. That evening, King's sister, Nicole Perry, called Bridger trying to find Son. Perry told Bridger that she had spoken with King and that King would not tell her where Son was.
On Wednesday, the 11th, between 6:30 and 6:45 a.m., David Baker and Tanner Henry arrived at the property where King's mobile home was located. They had been working at scrapping metal on the property since Monday. When they arrived on Wednesday, they saw King sitting in a pickup truck that had a trailer attached. King borrowed a log chain from the two men. Baker and Henry then drove down over the crest of a hill and started working about a quarter-mile away. Five or ten minutes later, King brought the chain back and told them that he was going to take his trailer to a tire shop a couple of miles away. During the two days that the two men had been there working, they had not seen Son, nor did King ever discuss him. This time, however, King told them that Son was in the house sleeping and asked them to tell Son where King had gone was if they should see him.
When King arrived at the tire shop at around 6:50 a.m., Brent Nible was there with his children waiting for the school bus. King told Nible that he was leaving his trailer at the shop. He also told Nible that Son had gotten kicked off the school bus and so he would have to take him to school. The school bus arrived at around 6:57 a.m., and Nible left.
Shortly before 7:00 a.m., Baker and Henry noticed smoke coming from the vicinity of King's mobile home. Baker drove up the hill and saw that the mobile home was on fire. He honked the horn to alert Henry, and Henry started up the hill on foot. Baker found King at the front door of the mobile home. King had a sweatshirt wrapped around his face and apparently was trying to get inside. King said that he had lost his phone, so Baker called 911. King then told Baker, " My son's in there." When Henry arrived, he and Baker repeatedly asked King where his son was located. King simply pointed in the general direction of the flames. While Baker and Henry tried to get into the home, first at one end and then the other, King calmly sat in his pickup. Henry broke out a window, and he and Baker shouted into the mobile home. They asked King for his son's name three or four times before King told them. Baker and Henry then shouted Son's name but received no response. At one point, King futilely rammed his truck into the frame of
the mobile home several times, but Baker and Henry observed that he did not speak or display any emotion.
Deputy Joe Hamilton arrived at the scene at approximately 7:15 a.m. and saw that flames and heavy smoke were coming from the center of the mobile home. Baker and Henry both observed that after Hamilton arrived, King then became emotional and began to cry. Hamilton asked King where his son might be in the mobile home. King said that he was in a bedroom in the southeast corner. King then went to the east end of the home and broke out a window. It was not possible to get in the window due to the smoke and fire coming out. King told Hamilton that Son had been awake and dressed that morning but that he did not want to go with King to the tire shop, so he left Son at home. King stated that he had filled his two wood stoves with wood before he left, and when he returned a short time later, the house was on fire.
When the fire crew arrived at approximately 7:33 a.m., the center portion of the mobile home was completely destroyed by fire and the remaining portions of it were fully involved. After putting out the fire, firefighters found Son's body in his bedroom at the east end of the mobile home. He was lying facedown on what remained of his bed.
In the midst of all this, Son's mother was driving by King's residence to show her brother where Son was living. As they drove near, Huffman saw smoke, and when they topped the hill, she saw that the smoke was coming from the mobile home. Huffman got out of her car and headed up the driveway asking for Son. A police officer stopped her and told her that Son was already gone.
After the fire that day, King went to the home of Eric Bridger and Bailey Hutchins to clean up. Hutchins overheard King say that he needed to get rid of two gas cans.
The fire investigator testified that he found no accidental causes for the fire. He was unable to determine a specific cause, but noted that the fire progressed faster than he would have expected. He did not find evidence of any accelerants, but, given the short time frame and the amount of damage from the fire, he suspected that accelerants had been used.
The toxicologist, Dr. Christopher Long, testified that the carbon monoxide levels in Son's blood were less than 10%, which is within the normal range. He stated that 40% is generally the minimum level of carbon monoxide saturation required to cause death.
Dr. Keith Norton performed the autopsy and found extensive burning of Son's body. Only portions of the right side of the body had not been burned. He found a number of bruises on Son's body and injuries to his organs, but he found no soot in Son's trachea or lungs. Dr. Norton determined that Son was dead before the fire started. Dr. Norton concluded that Son did not die from smoke ...