• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Jury finds Woodford man guilty of manslaughter

A Woodford County jury recommended a 15-year prison sentence for a 59-year-old man who shot his younger brother to death and then dragged his body one-and-a-half miles down Troy Pike. Vernon Saunders was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter, tampering with physical evidence and abuse of a corpse by the jury, which returned its verdict after two-and-a-half hours of deliberation on Oct. 27. Saunders has served more than two years in jail while awaiting his trial, so he will be eligible for parole approximately seven months after being sentenced in Woodford Circuit Court on Dec. 7. In their closing arguments, public defender Scott Getsinger asked the jury to find Saunders guilty of reckless homicide while Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Keith Eardley argued that Saunders was guilty of murder for intentionally killing his 51-year-old brother, Timothy Saunders, during the early-morning hours of May 4, 2014. "When you point a gun at somebody," said Eardley, "and you pull that trigger not once, not twice, not three times . You shoot that person in the chest, and you shoot that person when they're on the floor ... That's intent. And that's intent to murder." "I told you at the beginning of the trial," said Getsinger, "that this was not a case of intentional murder. That we believe it's a case of reckless homicide. And that's what we're asking you to find." He said prosecutors proved no motive or intent with their evidence, which showed Saunders told police exactly where to look for his dead brother's wallet. "So he certainly was not intending to steal Tim's wallet," said Getsinger. Eardley argued that Saunders did not take his brother's wallet because he wanted the money inside. He took the wallet to get his brother's driver's license so police could not identify Timothy Saunders when they found his body alongside Troy Pike, Eardley said. If the tow strap tied around Timothy Saunders's body had not come undone from Vernon Saunders's pickup truck, Eardley said, Vernon Saunders would've kept driving down Troy Pike until he dumped the body in a remote area and returned home to clean up his house, including a trail of blood and DNA evidence from the kitchen through the utility room and garage. During an interview with Versailles Police Det. Keith Ford, Getsinger argued that Saunders wasn't evasive about what occurred on the morning of his younger brother's death - he just didn't remember. He pointed out that Saunders still had a blood alcohol level of .089 three hours after talking to Ford, and 12 to 15 hours after his brother was shot to death. "I think it's fair to say (based upon expert testimony on the elimination rate of alcohol from the human body) that Vernon's alcohol level at the time this happened was somewhere around the neighborhood of .27 to .30," which affects a person's ability to process long-term memory. "Vernon's in a stupor or whatever alcoholic stage you want to call it . reacts, panics and shoots him," said Getsinger. "A lot of this case . doesn't make a whole lot of sense," he continued. "The commonwealth's case of trying to prove an intentional murder does not make sense. There's no reason. It wasn't done for money. It wasn't done because of a fight. It was done because Vernon was too intoxicated. He thought he heard an intruder come into his house. He shot the intruder . Vernon didn't know who it was he had shot until after he shot him. And he panicked after he saw it was his brother's body." Eardley reminded jurors that Saunders did not tell Ford about confronting an intruder in his house until more than halfway through his interview with the police detective. "He was being evasive," said Eardley. He described Tony Hurst - a cousin, friend and frequent house guest - as the best witness to testify about Saunders's tolerance to alcohol. And he reminded jurors that both Hurst and Saunders's employer testified that Saunders was able to drink alcohol, get up the next morning and go to work. On the witness stand during last week's jury trial, Vernon Saunders acknowledged that he's an alcoholic who drank "nearly" every day. "I'm an experienced alcoholic. So I manage it to where I can drink up to a certain time in the evening - stop so I can sleep, get up and go to work, and function normally," Saunders said. And when he didn't have to get up the next morning for work, he said, "I tended to go overboard" with his drinking. Saunders, who was charged with driving under the influence and alcohol intoxication offenses before moving from his native Indiana to Kentucky several years ago, said he kept an extra bedroom in his home for whenever his younger brother needed a place to stay. Timothy Saunders lived in Florida, but traveled to New York and Kentucky for handyman and bartending jobs. He was staying at his brother's Troy Pike home in the spring of 2014 for bartending work during Keeneland's spring meet and the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 3. Vernon Saunders testified that he remembers being in his garage to refinish a rifle on the night of May 3 and does not have any other clear memory of what happened later that night or the next morning before being awoken by a police robot forcing its way through the front door of his home. As to why he told police to look in his bedroom closet for the 9mm handgun used to shoot his brother to death, Saunders said, "That's where I kept it." Instead of finding the handgun on a shelf in his bedroom closet, Versailles Police located Timothy Saunders's wallet with his driver's license inside. "Your intent," argued Pat Molloy, assistant commonwealth's attorney, "was to have a body with no identification on it, and get rid of that body . and to get rid of the weapon that fired the five or six shots into Tim Saunders' body." The handgun used to kill Timothy Saunders was found on the floorboard of Vernon Saunders's pickup truck by Versailles Police on the Sunday morning of his brother's death. During the sentencing phase of the four-day trial, Eardley urged the jury to impose a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison after finding Vernon Saunders guilty of second-degree manslaughter, tampering with physical evidence and abuse of a corpse. "No one's really here to speak on Timothy's behalf," said Eardley, after listening to family members speak in support of Vernon Saunders. "Vernon's going to see a parole board in seven months. Timothy's dead . (If Timothy Saunders was able to speak) maybe he would say, 'My life meant something. Not only did he kill me, but look how he treated me. And then he tried to get away with it.'"

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