Many onlookers on both sides of the courtroom wept silently as Senior Judge J. Max Price of Dent County read the guilty verdict of second-degree murder and arson against Michael Edward Amick, 34, of rural Myrtle.
The five-woman, seven-man jury found Amick guilty of shooting his grandmother-in-law, Leona Maxine Vaughan, 67, six times in the head and burning her house to cover the crime. Amick will be sentenced next month.
Vaughan, who was known simply as "Maxine," was remembered as a sweet and good woman.
Amick's conviction came as little comfort to Vaughan's family, especially Vaughan's daughter, Jackie Risner, who now faces accepting that her son-in-law killed her mother and burned her house to the ground. Risner's three younger daughters lost all their belongings in the fire, set by their half-sister Sara's husband.
Denying a request by Amick's defense attorneys, Dee Wampler and Andy Woody of Springfield, for a bond reduction, Price ruled to maintain the $1 million bond, half of which is cash or surety bond, the other half is property.
Since his Dec. 5, 2008, arrest, Amick has been in the third-floor jail in the Oregon County Courthouse. As Price read the verdict, Amick, who appeared pale after more than two years in jail, tottered slightly and sat down.
Amick was initially charged with first-degree murder and second-degree arson, facing life in prison without parole. During jury instructions, the jury was given the option of finding Amick guilty of second-degree murder, which carries a lesser penalty.
Four hours after the jury began deliberating, an elderly diabetic male juror became ill and was replaced by an alternate woman juror who sat through the trial, but was dismissed before deliberations began. About two hours after the woman juror was called to return to the courthouse, the jury reached its verdict.
Throughout the four-day trial, more than 50 family members or friends of Amick or Vaughan attended the entire hearing, which ran from at least 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Many of those in the courtroom had ties to both families, as Amick's wife, Sara Amick, is Vaughan's granddaughter.
Vaughan's body was burned in daughter Jackie Risner's home on County Road 278, about five miles east of Myrtle. Vaughan had been staying at Risner's house, along with Risner's three teenage daughters and an older son, for about a month, after Vaughan moved from a trailer on Michael and Sara Amick's Highway 142 property.
The jury was told to disregard a statement by Jackie Risner that Vaughan moved in with her because "she felt intimidated by" Amick.
During the three full days of testimony, the jury heard from more than a dozen witnesses on both sides of the case, mostly in favor of the defendant, placing him at several locations in the Myrtle area at the time of the Risner home fire.
One witness, Risner's neighbor, Jake Mayberry, who was 19 at the time of the murder, testified he saw Amick's pickup truck at the Risner home about 15 minutes before seeing smoke coming from the house. Mayberry's description of Amick's truck as a silver extended-cab rather than a pewter crew-cab pickup was a critical point of contention for Amick's defense team.
Mayberry admitted smoking marijuana sometime in the month before Vaughan's death, although not that morning. Several times during the trial and during closing arguments, Wampler said Mayberry was "too high on pot" to identify Amick's truck.
"This guy's brain deserves to be in the Smithsonian when he dies," Wampler said of Mayberry.
Prosecutor alleges fraud
Missouri Assistant Attorney General Kevin Zoellner of Jefferson City, who served as prosecutor alongside Oregon County Prosecutor Fred O'Neill, accused the defense of fraud for producing a photo of a similar pickup truck, presumably to trick Mayberry into identifying it as Amick's truck. The photo depicted Amick's license plates on the similar truck.
Zoellner said Wampler and Woody may not even have been "in on the fraud, but I know the Amick family is."
Lead investigator Oregon County Chief Deputy Eric King testified he was unable to get a search warrant for the Amick family to produce the truck because he did not know where the truck was parked.
Amick's older brother, Chris Amick, testified the truck was parked at Michael Amick's house for five months after the crime and then for a year at their mother Linda Amick's house for a year before being moved to Arkansas.
A key piece of evidence for the prosecution was a taped telephone call to Michael Amick in jail from his sister, Deanna, who told Amick that law enforcement officers came to her house looking for the truck. "Imagine that," Amick is heard to say, laughing, on the tape.
Deanna said she has done many things in life she regrets, but does not regret that she is "the one who said that truck needs to disappear."
They (law enforcement) didn't do their jobs, and now it's come back to bite them in the ass," Michael Amick said on the tape.
Deanna did not take the stand to testify.
Immediately after Zoellner played the tape and, for the second time during the trial, Wampler asked Judge Price to declare a mistrial. Price denied the request.
Chief deputy King also testified he drove the route that Amick wrote out as his alibi for the 30 or so minutes of time surrounding Vaughan's death. Amick said he checked his email, picked up a chain saw at his mother's house, went to the post office, talked with his brother for 10 minutes on County Road 277 and had lunch at Janie's Cafe in Myrtle.
A string of witnesses said they saw Amick in those places that morning, although none could pinpoint the time. All of the locations are near Myrtle. The county road where Amick claims to have met his brother is less than two miles from the murder scene.
Two days after Vaughan's murder, then-Oregon County Sheriff Tim Ward found burn marks near a pond on Amick's 150-acre property. A subsequent search by three deputies revealed three cut-up gun parts in the pond.
Ward participated in the investigation a total of five hours, turning over the task to King, as Ward was on his way out of office, having been defeated in the November 2008 election by current Sheriff George Underwood. Ward reported seeing an oxy-acetylene torch in the back of Amick's truck.
A forensics expert testified the cylinder retrieved from the pond is from a .22-caliber pistol, the same caliber of weapon used to shoot Vaughan. The other two pieces (a grip and half of a barrel sliced lengthwise) are "consistent with" a .22, the expert testified.
Besides being shot six times in the head, Vaughan also had a broken femur bone in her leg and three broken vertebra, although her body was too badly charred for experts to determine when the fractures happened.
Family says Amick framed
Amick's brother, Chris Amick, said he doubted deputies found gun parts, so he went to look at each of the five ponds on his brother's property. He said he did not see any burn marks that would indicate a gun was cut up beside a pond.
"Are you saying the police didn't find a gun in the pond?" Zoellner asked Chris Amick.
"I'm having a hard time believing they found a gun at the pond," Chris Amick said, later adding that he knows Michael did not kill Vaughan.
Zoellner asked Chris Amick when he went to look for the burn marks, whether it was the day Michael Amick was arrested, a week later or a month later. Chris Amick said he could not remember.
"So, you're saying you love your brother and you would do anything to clear his name," Zoellner said, "but, on that very night (you heard of them finding a gun), you didn't go look."
Nine months before her death, Vaughan took out a loan at the Bank of Thayer, part of which was to consolidate some smaller loans. About $15,000 of the $21,000 loan was for cash that she gave to Michael Amick.
For the next six months, Amick repaid the 60-month loan at about $412 per month. No payment was made in November or December 2008.
A loan agent testified he called Vaughan to remind her of the late payment. The agent also testified that Michael Amick called him, the same day he learned of Vaughan's death, and asked if Vaughan had a credit life insurance policy on the loan. Since she did, no more payments were due after her death.
Linda Amick testified that her son did not benefit from Vaughan's death. She named several people in the community that she said did benefit by Vaughan's death, saying they were dealing in large quantities of drugs from California, and Vaughan likely confronted them about the drugs.
__Judge shocked by
Judge Price asked why no one notified law enforcement. Price called the testimony "shocking," and said that, if he lived in Oregon County, he would be calling for a grand jury investigation of Linda Amick's accusations.
Besides working to discredit Mayberry, the defense also called witness Wayne Seelye, an eight-time convicted DWI offender, "a con," after his testimony.
Seelye said he was in the Oregon County jail in 2008 when Amick came in and said Vaughan "should have been dealt with a long time ago." Seelye said Amick called Vaughan "an old bitch" who owed him money.
During closing arguments, Zoellner said the Amick family knows Michael Amick is guilty and is trying to cover up the crime. He agreed with the defense that the "police work was sloppy," but disagreed with the Amick family's assertion of police corruption.
At the conclusion of the trial, Price thanked the jurors for serving their duty and ordered that no one is to intimidate the jurors for their conviction.
Amick's prison terms for murder and arson will run concurrently. Sentencing will be at 1 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15.