Breckenridge Texan

Texas Ranger testifies for the prosecution in Blair murder trial
September 28
19:44 2017

Texas Ranger Toby Catlin took the witness stand in Breckenridge Thursday afternoon, Sept. 28, and testified that he thinks the evidence points to E.C. Blair as definitely being involved in the murder of Leah Martin in May 2015.

The prosecution called Catlin as a witness after defense attorney David Wimberley wrapped up his cross-examination of Graham police investigator Lt. Jeff Smith. Catlin joined the case in 2015 at the request of Smith.

Blair is on trial at the Stephens County Courthouse on a change of venue, charged in Martin’s murder. Also charged with the crime is Ross Hellams, one of Blair’s employees at E.C.’s Auto Repair. Billy Ray Minkley Jr., a friend of Hellams’ and an acquaintance of Blair’s, pleaded guilty last week to the murder charge; he was sentenced to life in prison for the plea and offered a plea deal in a Fort Worth case in which he has confessed to killing three people.

According to David Alex, special prosecutor assisting District Attorney Dee Peavy, Catlin has expertise in the area of electronically stored information. The Texas Ranger analyzed all of the phone calls and text messaging records that were available, as well as two computers and a laptop. He created a timeline detailing who talked and texted to whom in the days leading up to and following the death of the 22-year-old single mother.

At the beginning of his testimony, Catlin explained how, depending on the phone service company and the length of time involved, not all records were available in this case. In some of the situations, the actual text messages were available, and in other cases, only basic call logs could be obtained.

Alex confirmed with Catlin that he used the electronic information to corroborate things the investigators already knew to be true.

“So, if we eliminate everything Minkley said, could this electronically stored information prove that E.C. Blair was involved in (Leah’s death)?” Alex asked.

“Yes, it could,” Catlin replied.

Then, Alex and Catlin proceeded to go through the timelines that showed a flurry of text messages and phone calls between the people involved in the situation the day before Martin died. There were many communications between Blair and Martin, who not only worked for Blair but also was reportedly having an affair with him. Additionally, a pattern seems to emerge that shows Blair calling Hellams, then Hellams calling Minkley and then Hellams calling Blair back.

Alex characterizes those phone calls as the planning of Martin’s killing. “If they’re not talking about the demise of Leah, they are at least talking a lot, aren’t they?” Alex asks Catlin, who agrees with him.

On May 29, 2015, the day Martin disappeared, mixed into the phone calls and texts between Martin and Blair and between Blair, Hellams and Minkley are calls and texts between Martin and a car salesperson, as well as between Blair and the salesperson. Those communications are considered significant by the prosecution because they allege Blair used the promise of co-signing for a car loan for Martin that night to lure her to the auto shop and, ultimately, to her death.

Using data from cell phone towers to pinpoint where a particular phone was at specific times – and sometimes a lack of such data – is another technique Catlin used to create the scenario the prosecution has presented as the events leading up to Martin’s death.

For example, both Minkley and Hellams left their cell phones at home that night, meaning their movements couldn’t be tracked via their phone data. Minkley said he buried Martin on the property where Hellams lived the day after he killed her. Martin was considered a missing person until her remains were found in August 2015.

Also, according to Minkley’s confession and description of the murder, he killed Martin between about 9:30 and 10 p.m. The cell phone records show that Blair started texting Martin a few minutes after 10 p.m. but Martin never replies.

“Based on all the text messages they exchanged that day, it’s a pretty good assumption, isn’t it, if she could have – and wasn’t in the throes of being killed – she would have texted him back?” Alex asked Catlin, who agreed. Alex goes on to describe those texts from Blair as a cover in case he was ever implicated in the murder.

Additionally, the fact that 8:36 p.m. May 29, 2015, is the last time that night the cell phone records can definitely place Blair – or at least his phone – at his house. The fact that for the rest of the night, he only uses texting, means his whereabouts cannot be confirmed by his cell phone. Verizon doesn’t maintain cell tower data for text messages, Catlin said.

Alex used that information to suggest Blair could have gone to the shop after Martin was killed to make sure Hellams and Minkley had cleaned up the scene. The scenario is bolstered by a security video from a business across the street from auto repair shop.

Although Minkley says he and Hellams did not return to the shop after they killed Martin and removed her body from the scene, the surveillance video shows an SUV (sport utility vehicle) arrived at the shop after it shows Minkley and Hellams leaving in Hellams’ SUV. Alex and Catlin acknowledged that, at first, investigators thought the vehicle in the video was Minkley and Hellams returning to the scene. However, once they discovered Blair’s wife also owned an SUV, they began to consider the option that it was Blair in the video.

“Would it be reasonable to think that he might have gone up there to make sure the place was cleaned up correctly?” Alex asked.

“That would be reasonable,” Catlin said.

The prosecution also used text messages between Blair and his wife, Lisa, to show that the two experienced strife in their relationship in the days leading up to Martin’s disappearance and then had what Alex described as “marital bliss” afterward.

Alex also implies that Lisa Blair could have known about the murder, based on text messages between the husband and wife. He said that shortly after Martin’s disappearance, Lisa texted E.C. to tell him investigator Jeff Smith wanted to talk to her. According to the prosecution, E.C. texted in reply, “It’s OK. Just stay cool.”

The District Attorney’s Office will continue with Catlin’s testimony on Friday, Sept. 29.

 

Story by Carla McKeown/Breckenridge Texan

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