Three men accused of participating in a murder for hire plot appeared before McCreary District Judge Fred White Thursday morning for a preliminary hearing which determined that their case will be heard by the local grand jury.
Timothy Prater, 30; Joseph R. Denning, 19; and Antonio A. Turner, 21, are each facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder and first-degree unlawful imprisonment in connection to the February 7 attack of a Pine Knot woman.
Prater is additionally charged with impersonating a peace officer and first-degree robbery, while Denning and Turner (who are reportedly brothers), are additionally charged with complicity to commit first-degree robbery.
The three men allegedly accosted Debbie Taylor as she walked from her home to her vehicle on her way to work around 5:30 a.m. on the morning of February 7. Taylor was handcuffed and stunned with a taser device prior to the intervention of neighbors, who had noticed a strange gold Honda in the area.
With all wearing dark clothing, Prater was masked and identified himself as an FBI agent but refused to show any identification. Turner and Denning wore coats with hoods drawn tight around their faces. The men left in the Honda when the neighbors refused to leave and prepared to call authorities.
More details emerged Thursday as the lead investigator, Kentucky State Police Detective Billy Correll, testified as to the evidence authorities have found thus far.
When he first arrived at the scene of Taylor’s Richard Stephens Road home, Det. Correll could not interview her because she had already been transported to Baptist Medical Center for treatment of injuries, including multiple taser burns. When he did speak with her, Taylor reported that her attackers had attempted to stifle her screams using her own hand. She was ultimately handcuffed and escorted back to the porch where attempts were made to get her to reveal the code to the home’s security system. It was at that point the neighbors arrived.
The suspicious vehicle was traced to Prater, whom Det. Correll met as he examined the vehicle outside Prater’s apartment complex. At first, Prater told him that he had not driven the vehicle but a third cousin from Boston may have. The following day, Prater called him to confess that there was no such man. He initially told the detective that a female patron whom he didn't know approached him at Guthrie's River House, where he worked as a bartender, about Debbie Taylor.
The woman — whom Prater eventually disclosed was co-worker, Regina Stephens — paid Prater $1,500 to "take care" of Taylor. Prater told authorities that he made three trips to the county and on February 6 was "contacted to do the job" although he maintained that he only planned to "confront and warn" Taylor.
Prater, who also expressed an interest in vigilantism, showed the detective a drawer in his apartment filled with “tactical support items” such as a SWAT mask, two handguns, and an 800-kilovolt stun gun. That item, as well as DNA from the victim as well as the suspects, were sent away for crime lab analysis.
Det. Correll testified that Stephens agreed to pay Prater an additional $2,500 for a total of $4,000. Prater enlisted the assistance of Denning, whom he would pay $100 to serve as lookout, and Turner, who would receive $250 to rob and beat Taylor up. Neither brother seems to have been aware of the murder contract.
While Prater claims it was his co-horts who were bent on harm, Det. Correll testified that the victim identified the white assailant as the most violent and the one who handcuffed her — although all were involved in the attack. The others reportedly apologized to her as they left — saying “God bless you” as they returned her car keys.
The detective also testified that the robbery amounted to $7 or $8 taken from Taylor’s purse.
On cross-examination, Prater’s attorney — Mark Stanziano — sought more information on Stephens’ role in the plan. She had been found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound the night of February 8 in her Pine Knot home as officers attempted to serve an arrest warrant.
Det. Correll testified that Stephens had a two-year relationship with Taylor’s husband, Larry.
In his interview with authorities, Turner indicated that Prater may have been hoping to scare Mrs. Taylor enough to induce a fatal heart attack.
Stanziano — joined by Turner’s attorney Tim Despotes and Denning’s attorney Carolyn Cox — acknowledged that there was enough probable cause to present the case to a grand jury, but argued to reduce the defendants’ $100,000 cash bonds. Judge White denied each bond motion.
Serving the prosecution was Assistant McCreary County Attorney Austin Price.
Prater, Denning and Turner remain lodged in the Laurel County Correctional Center.