Jury in arson case hears police tapes interviewing Walker
BENTON, Ky. — Jurors spent the better half of the day listening to several police interviews done with Jerry Walker.
Walker, 36, is charged with arson and manslaughter for his role in a 1998 fire at Murray State. The fire, which broke out on the fourth floor of Hester Hall dormitory, killed one student and seriously injured another.
The tapes provide a unique look at the investigation as it unfolds. In the first interview, done just hours after the fire, Walker is looked at as more of a victim because the fire appears to have been intentionally set outside his door.
Walker plays along with that theory. He said he had refereed several ball games on campus and not everyone had liked the calls he made.
Studying to be a minister, police then are heard asking Walker if perhaps he tried to put someone on what he believed was the "right path" and instead angered them. But Walker shot down that possibility.
In later interviews, he is asked about an anonymous letter that clears him of the crime. At first, he denies it. But when police tell him that based on the handwriting, they are 90 percent confident he is the author, he concedes. He said he was simply setting the record straight.
He said John Eveland, a close friend of his girlfriend and fourth floor Hester Hall resident, told her he believed her boyfriend was acting "suspicious."
"I wrote the letter, not to get John in trouble for the fire, not to draw attention to myself, or draw attention to his self. I simply wrote the letter because John Eveland is telling people that from his aspect, what he believes who set the fire would have been two people, that would have motive. And that's myself and Kyle Lacefield, the RA on the 4th floor, and John said the reason I had a motive of setting the fire at, was because of the hero status, cause after the first fire, I went around knocking on people's doors. I went around knocking on people's doors."
In another interview Walker later changes his story. He said he only admitted to authoring the letter because he believed police would not let him leave the interview until he did. With a lawyer by his side, he said he believes whoever wrote the letter went through his trash to mimic his handwriting.
But, Walker never changes his story about the fire. When an officer asks if he was responsible, he responds quickly, "No. No, sir. No."
When that officer tells Walker he "better get used" to people asking him about his role, he says, "They can ask me that a hundred times."
Later, police ask Walker about his trip to the SuperAmerica gas station just 30 minutes before the fire.
A receipt shows Walker purchased a gallon of gas and a pack of Twizzlers. He said he went there often.
Police asked if he ever just got a gallon or two or gas. Walker says he always filled up.
More men initially charged in connection to the fire also testified.
The jury heard from Fred McGrath, who admitted making phone calls from the rugby house in the hours before the fire. While he worked at a gas station, he denied buying or having access to the gasoline that would later start the fire.
McGrath also said he left the rugby house and because of having some beers, he was followed home by a girl and was in bed by the time of the fire.
Teammate Brian Levine also took to the stand. He testified he, too, was making prank phone calls and even later admitted to driving to Hester Hall to check out the fire. He said he did not recall seeing Fred McGrath there but did remember what he thought almost immediately.
"We felt if they traced those prank phone calls, they would take it the wrong way and think we had something to do with it, of course. We didn't stay up real long or talk about it. We just went to sleep right away," he told Commonwealth's Attorney Mark Blankenship.
Fred McGrath said the calls, in which he and other teammates posed as a front desk clerk alleging complaints of sexual harassment and marijuana smoke, were the first of their kind. He said phone calls inviting other players over for a few beers eventually escalated into the pranks that night.
Brian Levine testified he had gone over to Hester Hall after learning of the fire. When he later learned others had accused him of playing a part in that fire, he said he became enraged, not, he argued, because of guilt but because of the mere suggestion.
Finally, jurors heard from Michael McDonough, who left the rugby house and returned to Hester Hall shortly before the fire. He said he not only played no role in the fire, but he was terrified by what he saw.
"It's horrifying," he testified. "You walk outside. There's black smoke rolling out of all the fourth floor windows. There's people hanging out of the windows, trying to breathe, scared. It was chaos. I can't even explain what I felt. Scared."
Michael McDonough also told the jury when he returned to Hester Hall, several public safety officers were in the lobby. He assumed they were there in connection to the several prank calls made to Hester Hall.
So, at 2:14 he called his friends back at the rugby house and told them to cut it out, testifying he didn't want to get anyone in trouble. But, they later did. Several players, including McGrath and Levine, received jail time for making those phone calls.
The prosecution will resume their case at 8:30 a.m. Friday. They are expected to call seven more witnesses, including firefighters, before resting their case. The trial is expected to wrap up next week.