A jury on Friday convicted a mother and a daughter of conspiring to kill a 19-year-old Highland Springs man who was found stuffed in a storage bin in April, but jurors could not agree on whether the women were guilty of murder.
Denise Gay, 49, and LaToya Gay, 22, both went into this week’s trial facing charges of first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the death of Martre Coles. Jurors recommended a 10-year sentence for each woman on the conspiracy charges.
Henrico Circuit Court Judge Lee A. Harris Jr. declared a mistrial on the murder charges. Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor said outside the court that prosecutors plan to retry the defendants on the murder charges.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for about two hours on Thursday and returned on Friday around 9:30 a.m. to continue efforts to reach a verdict. Their final decision came in around 5 p.m. Attorneys outside the court tried to make sense of why the jury found the defendants guilty of conspiracy to commit murder but deadlocked on whether they were guilty of the actual killing.
Samuel Simpson, Denise Gay’s attorney, said one possibility is the verdict was a compromise among jurors who were struggling to come to a unanimous decision.
Prosecutors said during the weeklong trial that a plan had long been in the works to get rid of Coles, who was living at a North Ivy Avenue home with his father; his father’s girlfriend, Denise Gay; as well as Gay’s then-12-year-old daughter.
Prosecutors said the victim believed he was putting together a face mask with Denise Gay as part of his application to Full Sail University, a Florida-based art school. Prosecutors said Denise Gay used an email address pretending to be a school official arranging a tour of Full Sail for Coles. It was all a ruse, prosecutors allege, so the defendants could present a story when people started asking about why Coles had gone missing.
“They planned his death for over a year and suffocated him after drugging him,” Henrico Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport said of the two defendants.
The gray storage bin containing Coles was discovered by a man cutting through the woods in the 6200 block of Gorman Road on April 2. Prosecutors said the man was killed on March 12 and that the bin took a circuitous route to the spot where it was found. The defendants initially dropped the bin to a spot in Hanover County before returning and taking it to the Gorman Road spot, prosecutors said.
Gay’s young daughter, now 13, testified she heard the victim scream for help before she went to Coles’ room at the North Ivy Avenue home and saw her mother and LaToya Gay pinning the man to the floor as his feet struggled and that she saw a plaster mask on his head.
Defense attorneys took aim at the 13-year-old’s testimony, noting her story, told multiple times to investigators, has been filled with inconsistencies. The girl has a history of lying, Simpson said. But Simpson said prosecutors “like what she says, because it makes a murder case.”
Simpson noted she had previously said she did not recall seeing a mask during the incident, a contention that ran counter to her testimony this week.
Jeffery Gofton, a forensic pathologist with the state medical examiner, testified that Coles died from asphyxia — a lack of oxygen. But Gofton could not say exactly how Coles’ ability to breathe was cut off.
Taylor said it’s unclear if the mask cutting off his air supply, the pressure of the defendants pushing down on Coles or his being placed in a storage bin without oxygen caused his death. Whichever way it happened, Taylor said, the defendants were the ones responsible.
Simpson and James Bullard Jr., LaToya Gay’s attorney, pushed back on that assertion. The defense attorneys said the 13-year-old had previously tried to stab and poison Coles, and they suggested perhaps she killed Coles and that efforts were made to cover up the girl’s crime.
“It is not far-fetched,” Bullard said.
Prosecutors scoffed at that theory and offered additional evidence to pin the crime on Denise and LaToya Gay.
Henrico police Detective Stuart VonCanon said Denise Gay’s laptop had been used for an internet search that queried the phrase “what is lyme used for on dead bodies,” and a forensic geologist with the FBI testified lyme was found inside the bin that contained Coles. Simpson suggested someone other than his client could have accessed her computer.
Prosecutors also said Denise Gay had been searching the internet for information about chloroform, and about GHB — known as a date rape drug — as well as about details on how to suffocate someone. Forensic experts testified that an anti-depressant drug was found in Coles’ system as well as an “elevated” level of GHB.
Cellphone location records for both defendants’ phones as well as data from Google that tracked Denise Gay’s cellphone was presented by prosecutors to map out various spots in the Richmond area where prosecutors said the defendants traveled in an effort to cover up the crime.
Davenport noted that during an interview with police, Denise Gay had told Michelle Coles that her brother had left his house to retrieve his wallet at Michelle’s house. But the prosecutor noted that did not make sense because Michelle Coles had already told her brother that she would bring him his wallet.
Davenport said one key question remained unanswered: the motive for the man’s killing.
“Why dump his body in a plastic coffin in the woods?” she asked. “We all desperately want to know that, but we can never know.”