Jury trial set for defendant accused of brutal attack at Lee Cleaners

5th District Courthouse, St. George, Utah, date not specified | File photo, St. George News

ST. GEORGE – The family of a man brutally beaten during an early morning robbery in July 2018 may finally get the chance to face his alleged attacker in court.

Stephen Matthew Gardner, 43, of St. George, appeared in 5th District Court Thursday for a resolution hearing before Judge John J. Walton, but instead of resolution the case was scheduled for a three-day jury trial Aug. 28-30.

The trial was scheduled after negotiations between the prosecutor and Gardner’s defense attorney failed.

“If a resolution in the case is not reached, then the case is scheduled for trial,” Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap told St. George News.

Gardner is charged with first-degree felony aggravated robbery, second-degree felony theft and a number of other charges arising from an incident July 4, 2018, when police say he entered Lee Cleaners at 4 a.m. and struck Ralph Lee Sr. multiple times in the head before ransacking the business. Lee is in his late 60s.

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

After severely injuring Lee during the attack, Gardner went through the business owner’s pockets as he lay unconscious on the floor.

Sitting in the galley was Lee, who has recovered from a majority of the wounds he sustained during the attack. Even so, the head injuries and underlying damage caused by the trauma are taking more time to heal, a process that is ongoing, he said.

“The head wounds left me with some problems, but at least I can still work.”

He said he wasn’t supposed to be at work on the morning of the attack, with the business closed for the Fourth of July, but decided to go in early and get some extra work done.

His wife, Carma Lee, who was also present in court, said the family struggled for some time after the attack because her husband’s injuries were such that the family feared he would not survive.

She also said that watching him endure “enormous pain” until doctors were able to safety administer pain-relieving medication was very hard and left them feeling helpless.

More than 10 months later, she said her husband is “more jumpy now, and surprises easily,” which she attributes to the ambush-like attack as he left the restroom that morning.

Still, Carma Lee said that “our family is so blessed” and the outpouring of support from the community is what helped them get through the initial days following the attack, and continues to help the family through the healing process.

She  spoke of the deep sense of gratitude she has for the detectives who worked so hard on the case, and for the St. George Police officers who conducted early morning patrols of the area for the first two weeks until Gardner was apprehended.

“These officers would be stationed across the street from the business to make sure we were safe, and would even call to let us know they were there,” Carma Lee said.

Ralph Lee Jr. added that detectives and officers would also stop by the business regularly to check on the family and to get updates on his father’s recovery, “which went so far above and beyond anything they had to do. It was amazing.”

Gardner has an extensive criminal history, including an offense allegedly committed three days prior to the attack on Ralph Lee Sr. In that case he is accused of breaking into a business on North Bluff Street wearing a black wig before he fled the area on a red bicycle, according to witness statements provided to police.

Gardner has remained in jail since his arrest July 13 on an unrelated charge.

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.


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