Footprint evidence leads to suspect in brutal attack at Lee Cleaners

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A St. George man has been identified by police as the individual responsible for the brutal beating and robbery that took place at Lee Cleaners in July.

Booking photo of Stephen Matthew Gardner, St. George, Utah, July 13, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News

Stephen Matthew Gardner, 43, of St. George, who was already in custody on an unrelated offense, now faces one first-degree felony count of aggravated robbery; one second-degree count of theft-$5,000, MV or firearm; two third-degree felony counts for theft $1,500 to $5,000 or priors, and one misdemeanor count of vehicle burglary.

Gardner has a criminal history dating back several years, including convictions for theft, robbery and burglary.

Police say he entered Lee Cleaners at 4 a.m. on July 4 and struck Ralph Lee Sr. multiple times in the head before ransacking the business. After severely injuring Lee during the attack, Gardner went through the business owner’s pockets as he lay unconscious on the floor of the shop.

The suspect then ransacked Lee’s pickup truck that was parked beside the building before taking items and fleeing the scene.

Read more: Business owner brutally beaten during early morning robbery

Officers responded to the shop, and Lee was transported to the hospital in critical condition. Detectives were called in and the investigation began.

Three days after the brutal attack, Lee’s family offered a reward for information leading to the identification and arrest of the man responsible for the attack.

Read more: Family offers reward for information on Lee’s Cleaners robbery that left owner seriously injured

When detectives arrived that morning to process the scene for evidence, they soon realized they had very little to work with, St. George Police Lt. Rich Triplett said Thursday, adding that the randomness of the crime left investigators with a lack of evidence.

Inside Lee Cleaners after early morning attack and robbery, St. George, Utah, July 4, 2018 | File photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

“I mean, we had nothing going into this, and that lack of evidence made it a very labor-intensive investigation, both by our detectives and the outside agencies that we reached out to for help,” he said.

St. George Police Capt. Mike Giles said Thursday that with most person-to-person crimes, the suspect is typically known to the victim or there is some type of connection between the two, “but to have a suspect that is completed disconnected, completely unknown to the victim is unusual.

“A completely random act of violence, which is what this was, is very rare in this community.”

After investigators collected and processed what little evidence was left at the scene, in the end it all came down to the footprint evidence, Tripplett said.

Detectives found a footprint expert at an agency up north who performed an analysis of the footprint impressions taken at the scene, which is what cracked the case open.

Lee is out of the hospital and back at the cleaners, “for three, maybe four hours a day right now,” he said, adding that a majority of the wounds he sustained continue to heal. However, the head injuries and the underlying damage caused by the trauma are taking more time to heal.

“I’m here, though, and at least I can work a few hours a day now,” Lee said.

Detectives say they are committed to investigating every case and work hundreds of hours to find justice for the victims, the families and the community as a whole, but the extreme violence in the attack on Lee, coupled with the extent of his injuries, made investigators even more determined to find the individual responsible.

“This case was particularly troubling for our detectives, due to the viciousness of the crime,” Tripplett said.

For the family, the tragic event was followed by “overwhelming gratitude for this community, where so many people came out of nowhere to help us, most who never even met my dad or the family,” Ralph Lee Jr. said.

“Mayor Pike even stopped by the hospital to check on my dad; how incredible is that?”

Ralph Lee Jr. said his family appreciates the work done by the detectives.

“Those guys worked countless hours on this, I mean countless hours, and they never gave up. We could never thank them enough for what they did.”

Giles said the detectives put their heart and effort into every case they work, and commended their efforts on this case.

“This was an incredible outcome considering what these detectives started with.”

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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  • Arcana September 20, 2018 at 10:59 pm

    Congratulations on catching the scumbag. Great work you guys. 🙂

  • 42214 September 20, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    Firing squads were invented for guys like this.

  • Striker4 September 21, 2018 at 8:15 am

    Here I am Trolling St George news at 8:15 am. Friday September 21……way to go coppers !

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