ST. GEORGE — After more than a year of delays, continuances, resolution hearings, failed jail transports and deadlock on both sides, the Lee Cleaner’s case made it to trial Monday with the jury hearing opening arguments before Ralph Lee himself took the stand.
The trial of Stephen Matthew Gardner, 44, began with jury selection and then opening statements in 5th District Court, presided over by District Judge John J. Walton. Gardner faces first-degree felony aggravated robbery, second-degree felony theft and other charges arising from an incident reported in July.
On July 4, 2018, Gardner allegedly entered Lee Cleaners at 4 a.m. and struck Ralph Lee, Sr. multiple times in the head before ransacking the business.
After severely injuring Lee, who is now 70, Gardner went through the business owner’s pockets as he lay unconscious on the floor, according to police. Gardner has remained in jail since he was arrested for an unrelated case on July 13.
On Monday, Walton discussed the “exclusionary rule” that was set in place beforehand, where trial witnesses are excluded from the courtroom until it is their time to testify to prevent them from hearing other witnesses’ testimony.
Washington County prosecutor Eric Gentry opened by talking about how Lee has lived in the community for years and that he has also worked and raised his family here. He said Lee went to work early that morning, “which was not unusual,” and then opened the large sliding door toward the rear of the shop when it became hot and stuffy — which is when “the attack took place.”
Gentry went on to say it took several months for Lee to recover from his injuries, adding that he has not fully recovered from some of them. He also said that after Lee was struck and beaten, the defendant “left Mr. Lee on the floor fighting for his life.”
The prosecutor said that police would testify of the footprint evidence found in the case, “most of them made in Mr. Lee’s blood.”
During defense attorney Caleb Cottam’s opening statement, he told the jury there is no dispute that Lee was seriously injured.
“There is no discrepancy about that.”
He said that jurors have to “really consider the evidence” in the case, and using that evidence, they have to find Gardner guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as opposed to an act or “something that likely happened.”
St. George Police Officer James Schafer, who was the first officer on scene in 2018, took the stand Monday and described what he witnessed that morning when Lee opened the door. He said the shop owner appeared at the door holding a towel to his head “covered in blood” from a large laceration to the side of his head.
Lee took the stand next and testified that after only being in the shop for several minutes, he said he felt as though he was being watched. Seconds later, he saw the “flash of a man” and was struck in the head.
During the incident, Lee said the suspect “kept screaming ‘Where’s the money? Where’s the money?’ I mean he was just screaming. So apparently I must have told him where it was because he went and got it.”
When lead prosecutor Jerry Jaeger asked Lee what he did after Gardner allegedly left the shop, Lee said he must have dragged himself to the front of the business to call 911 and then opened the door for responding officers with a key that was still left in the door when detectives got there.
Lee got choked up when he said the next thing he remembered was “looking at my wife standing over my bed at the hospital.”
St. George Police Lt. Rich Tripplett also took the stand and outlined the evidence collected at the scene, adding that he “followed the blood trail basically” and that the footprint evidence was critical to the case.
Detectives also found a shotgun taken during the incident, along with other evidence relating to the alleged attack on Lee and the subsequent burglary of the business and Lee’s pickup truck as well.
Regarding the multiple charges against Gardner, Jaeger previously told St. George that months before trial, the state was willing to offer Gardner five years to life in prison as part of a global resolution, , meaning the defendant would have served one sentence for all of the charges he faces in multiple cases.
However, any chance of a resolution disappeared during a hearing in November when Gardner’s defense attorney told the court, “it is my understanding that my client wants a jury trial.”
With both the state and the defense deadlocked, Walton said that the state’s offer was off the table, and the case proceeded to trial.
The trial continues Tuesday as a number of witnesses, including a footwear impression expert, are scheduled to testify for the state.
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