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Robbery scenario disputed as testimony closes

Posted: Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"A drug deal gone bad" led to the death of Kenneth Ike Thomas, jurors were told Monday on the last day of testimony in the trial of Ronald Smith, charged with killing Thomas during a robbery at his trailer home.

But Thomas' brother, Alfred Torres, returned to the stand to recall for a second time in the trial that he answered the door to a man wearing a ski mask and holding a shotgun. Smith is accused of assaulting Torres on the morning of the January 2000 killing.

"My brother came out to rescue me," Torres said.

Drugs were dealt out of the trailer, but there were no arrangements to sell drugs to the men who came to the door that day at around 4 a.m., he said.

According to the prosecution's case, Thomas was hit with a bat brought to the scene by Rey Soto, who showed up with Smith at Thomas' home. Soto, serving a 30-year sentence on charges including second-degree murder, testified against Smith last week. Alaska Senior Attorney Richard Svobodny told jurors the law holds all people committing a robbery responsible when a victim is killed.

Smith, now 39, is standing trial for the second time on a charge of second-degree murder in the fatal beating of 36-year-old Thomas. He also is charged with first-degree assault of Torres, now 32, and first-degree robbery. A Juneau jury found him guilty in December 2000, but the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed the conviction three years later, finding testimony about the shotgun Smith allegedly held was improperly admitted.

Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks told jurors they will begin deliberations after hearing closing arguments this morning.

Defense attorney Kirsten Swanson rested her case Monday after calling witnesses who said Torres had told him there was no robbery.

Former prison inmate Alexey Stepetin testified about 15 minutes after getting off a flight from Anchorage. In the fall of 2000 in the Lemon Creek Correctional Center "chow hall," he said, Torres told him the events of Jan. 25, 2000, sprang from a "drug deal gone bad." Torres also told him the bat came from his trailer, Stepetin said.

Torres testified Monday that at a time when he was incarcerated he talked to Stepetin in Juneau's state prison complex and said that one of the stories going around was that the robbery was a drug deal gone bad.

Someone overheard them at the prison, Stepetin said, identifying another inmate, Douglas A. Johnson. Torres told Stepetin to "take care of" Johnson, Stepetin said. That led to him being charged with attempted murder for putting a plastic bag over Johnson's head while he was sleeping, he added.

"You're just sitting at dinner, and someone asks you to kill a guy and you do it?" Svobodny said on cross examination.

Johnson, wearing an orange jail outfit, testified that he had heard the comments about the drug deal and the bat coming from the trailer. As a result, "my life was put in danger, and a plastic bag was put over my head," he said.

Johnson said he has 302 days left on his sentence before going on probation and was gaining nothing by testifying.

Svobodny pointed out he previously testified he didn't hear the whole conversation between Stepetin and Torres, as he said on Monday that he had.

During his rebuttal case Monday, Svobodny called Johnson to the stand again to ask him about what he said five years ago about waking up with a plastic bag over his face. He asked the witness if he recalled telling a state trooper that Stepetin told him, "This is for the 20 days you got me in the hole."

"Did you get him 20 days in the hole?" Svobodny asked.

"I don't remember," Johnson said.

Alaska State Trooper Chris Umbs testified that he looked into the incident and found Stepetin was disciplined after Johnson complained about him getting into his locker.

Over Svobodny's objection, Swanson introduced as an exhibit an envelope holding $242. Juneau police officer Robert Kolvig said an officer found the money in a wallet inside Thomas' pants after he was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Soto testified that he and Smith robbed the people at the trailer and left with about $30 and six grams - less than a quarter of an ounce - of marijuana.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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