Suspect Sentenced to Life for Murder
Jose Miguel Ventura, of Sanford, will spend the rest of his life in prison for the December 2004 murder of Keith Wesley Ellis, who lived on Stanton Hill Road near the Moore-Lee county border.
Ellis, 45, managed to shoot Ventura, who went to Central Carolina Hospital in Sanford for treatment of the gunshot wound. Ellis was nearly decapitated.
The hospital notified law-enforcement officers. After being arrested and charged, Ventura claimed that he had acted in self-defense.
In Moore County Superior Court Monday, during a half-hour hearing before Judge Jack Hooks, District Attorney Maureen Krueger summarized the state's case, admitting that there could be a significant problem in securing a death sentence from a jury even with a conviction on first-degree murder.
"We have a big issue of self-defense," she said. "I was prepared to try this case as a death penalty case. In February of 2008, the defendant rejected my offer to plead guilty and be sentenced to life without parole. Ventura's attorneys contacted me in December and asked if I would still allow Ventura to plead to life without parole. After consulting with the victim's family, I agreed to accept the plea."
Ventura, 34, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and robbery. Hooks accepted his guilty plea and sentenced him to life without parole for first-degree murder and a consecutive sentence of 77 to 102 months for robbery.
Krueger laid out the basic contentions of the state's case. Evidence included the knife Ventura used to kill Ellis, which was taken from the scene, and the gun Ellis used to shoot his attacker. Lacerations on his neck appeared to have been inflicted from behind, according to Krueger.
"A review of the crime scene and the findings of the medical examiner largely negate the defendant's contention that he killed Keith in self-defense," Krueger said. "First, the defendant brought a brick with him to Keith's house. The brick was clearly used as a weapon. Keith had numerous contusions and abrasions on his face and head that are consistent with a beating with a blunt-force object. In fact, there was extensive damage to Keith's cornea, which was partially torn off by the blunt force.
"Keith was battered so badly that his nose was broken. According to the Medical Examiner, Keith was also strangled. Keith's hyoid bone was broken, and he had severe hemorrhages in his eyes -- both of which are classic signs of strangulation."
'All But Decapitated'
The ultimate cause of death was the knife wound to Keith's throat, according to the state medical examiner's examination.
"This wound was extremely deep and severed the neck almost completely -- originating at the right ear, and ending just below the left ear -- Keith was all but decapitated by this wound," Krueger said. "Based on the angle of the wound, and the final resting position (face down) of Keith's body, it is clear that this wound was inflicted from behind. The defendant stole Keith's money. The defendant didn't call the police, but he did call his girlfriend. The defendant told her he had gotten a lot of money. The defendant stole Keith's gun."
She said that some evidence could be seen as supporting Ventura's self-defense claim: His DNA was on a drink can, and he himself had been shot. However, the state strongly believed there was no mutual fighting, she said.
"Although the defendant's wound supports his contention that Keith was the aggressor, we believe that Keith only fired the weapon as a defensive measure -- after defendant began beating him," Krueger said. "Unfortunately, we have only the defendant's version of events to go on.
"We believe that the defendant knew that Keith would be coming home that night with a large sum of money that the defendant laid in wait for Keith and rushed him as soon as he made entry in the house and turned off the alarm then viciously assaulted Keith with the brick that he brought with him."
In an effort to defend himself, Ellis tried to get his gun from his pocket and did get off a shot that hit Ventura before the gun jammed, according to the state.
"It is also our belief that the defendant knew and believed he had fully incapacitated Keith by choking him," she said, adding other details. "All of these things strongly suggest that the defendant had completed the robbery and could have left the victim in his incapacitated condition.
"Instead, the defendant lingered in Keith's home and took liberties with his property. And, when Keith began to regain consciousness, the defendant knew he would have to kill him, and so he did."
Krueger introduced a number of family members who told Hooks how Ellis' murder had affected the whole family. His mother, Shirley Ellis, and his daughter, Theresa, both spoke to the court about the "big hole" his loss had left. Because of what he had done to her son, Shirley Ellis told the judge Ventura should never be free again.
Robbery Was Motive
Investigators at the time believed Ventura had gone to Ellis' home with the intention of robbing him. They had found signs of a struggle after Ellis's grandmother discovered his body in his home and someone called 911. Deputies were at the scene within minutes of the call, but there were no suspects at first.
There was no way to tell whether Ellis let Ventura in or Ventura forced his way into the house, Moore County Sheriff Lane Carter said. Ellis did have a security system installed, and family told police that he usually used it.
"A struggle ensued," Carter said. "He (Ventura) got shot during the struggle."
Investigators said that Ventura went to his girlfriend's home after being shot, leaving the victim's gun in the bathroom.
A previous Rule 24 hearing qualified the charges as a capital case. As a result, both Bruce Cunningham and Arthur Donadio were appointed to represent Ventura. Krueger was seconded by Assistant District Attorney Peter Strickland.
"This case was previously set for trial," Cunningham said. "After extensive discussions we (prosecution and defense) arrived at a resolution we think is appropriate."
Ventura made no statement.
Contact John Chappell at 783-5841 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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