Jurors recommended a life sentence Thursday for a woman found guilty of murdering her boyfriend’s 19-year-old son at their Henrico County home in 2017.
The jury called for that life sentence, and a $100,000 fine, after convicting Denise Gay of first-degree murder at the end of a four-day trial.
This was the second murder trial for Gay, who is 49. Jurors in December convicted her and her 22-year-old daughter, LaToya, of conspiring to murder Martre Coles, but they deadlocked on whether those two actually killed him in March 2017.
LaToya Gay is set to be tried on first-degree murder in Coles’ death in May.
Coles was found stuffed in a storage container in an industrial area of eastern Henrico less than a month after he disappeared.
“He was found in this plastic storage bin, curled up and discarded like trash,” Stacey Davenport, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney for Henrico, said during her closing argument.
Prosecutors said Denise Gay carried out an elaborate, monthslong scheme to trick Coles into thinking he was attending a Florida art school, a fake application which included Coles creating a face mask. It was all a cover story she could use if questioned about the dead man’s whereabouts, Davenport said.
Prosecutors said that on March 12, 2017, Denise Gay drugged Coles before he was suffocated in his bedroom at the North Ivy Avenue home where Coles lived with the defendant and his father, Maurice Coles.
“Denise Gay killed Martre Coles,” Davenport said, pointing at the defendant. “She planned it. She did it, and she covered it up.”
But Samuel Simpson, Denise Gay’s attorney, said the prosecution’s case had weaknesses. Parts of the commonwealth’s case amounted to flat-out guesses, Simpson said. For example, the defense attorney said there was no evidence proving Coles’ body was ever at a Hanover County location where prosecutors said it was temporarily stashed by Denise and LaToya Gay before being moved to eastern Henrico.
Simpson also took aim at the version of events told by Denise Gay’s 13-year-old daughter, the only eyewitness to testify about what happened at the home the day that prosecutors say Coles was suffocated. The 13-year-old, who also lived at the home, has provided inconsistent statements to investigators about what happened that day, Simpson said. At one point she had to be played a recording of her initial interview in order to stay on script, Simpson said.
“She said, ‘Yeah, I lie when it suits me,’” Simpson said.
The teenage girl testified at the trial that she heard a scream from Coles’ room and that the victim twice said, “Get off me!”
The girl said she went to his room, peeked through the slightly opened doorway, and saw Denise and LaToya Gay on top of the victim. The 13-year-old said she saw a white object, which prosecutors believe was the mask on Coles’ face. The 13-year-old said Denise Gay shooed her away and she went back to her room, and then she heard the attic door opening and something being slid along the floor. She said she opened her door and saw LaToya Gay moving a plastic bin through the home.
Davenport said Denise Gay used her phone and computer to search the internet for information on macabre topics such as using lime on dead bodies, Davenport said. Lime was the granular substance found in the plastic storage bin, which was discovered April 2, 2017, by a worker heading back to his job in an industrial park off Gorman Road, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors said Gay set up an email account and pretended to be an official at Full Sail University in order to arrange for Coles to visit the Florida art school. Reply emails displayed in court showed Martre Coles was eager to visit the school.
Although the state medical examiner’s office said Coles suffocated to death, the office could not say how exactly that happened — such as whether the oxygen was cut off by having someone on top of him or if he suffocated in the container.
Simpson said some of his client’s actions after Coles’ disappearance looked bad, but he suggested perhaps his client was merely cleaning up the mess of someone else. Simpson tried to cast suspicion on the victim’s father, Maurice Coles, and the 13-year-old girl. Simpson noted that the teenage girl was once charged with malicious wounding for stabbing Martre Coles with scissors.
Prosecutors rejected the notion that either the victim’s father or Gay’s teenage daughter committed the crime.
Davenport said Gay feigned sickness in order to cover her tracks and washed the vehicle used to move Coles’ body. She also lied to Maurice, saying she was going on a work trip to North Carolina when she was taking other steps to hide the crime, Davenport said.
Prosecutors said police set up a motion-sensing camera where the storage bin was found, and that a blurry image caught by the camera was Denise Gay returning with a shovel. Her idea was to bury Coles’ body in the ground, prosecutors said. But by then, his body was gone because it had been removed by authorities days earlier.
Prosecutors said text messages showed LaToya Gay asking her mother, “Did you finish it?” to which Denise Gay replied, “Didn’t see it.”
It’s unclear exactly why she chose to kill the victim, but at some point the defendant decided she needed to get rid of Martre Coles, Davenport said, adding that the “overwhelming mountain of evidence” proved Gay’s guilt.
“It’s not a mystery. It’s a tragedy,” Davenport said.