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By Echo Menges
Edina, MO – Friday, February 4, 2022 – Knox County Prosecutor Andrew Boster and District Public Defender Kevin Locke went head-to-head in the Knox County Courtroom on Friday morning. The lawyers went to battle over whether there is enough evidence to bind over case no. 21KN-CR00085 against Wesley E. Ruggles, 40, of LaBelle, MO, from Associate Court to Circuit Court.
Ruggles is accused of the murder of Ray Virgil Tripp, Jr., 61, of rural Knox City. Ruggles is also facing a battery of charges surrounding Tripp’s death including arson for the fire that destroyed the Tripp residence on June 14, 2021, where Tripp’s body was discovered by firefighters.
The preliminary hearing was held Friday morning and lasted roughly three hours. During the hearing, testimony from four people was presented to Knox County Associate Circuit Judge Tom Redington.
Knox County Sheriff’s Deputy David Fagin, Missouri Fire Investigator Jonathan Pugh, Knox County Coroner Alan Rimer and Reagan Winter of rural Edina were called to stand to give testimony during the hearing.
As soon as the court went into session, defense attorney Locke invoked “the rule”, which excludes witnesses from court proceedings in the case – until they are called to testify. The witnesses were excused from the courtroom.
Locke also challenged an order allowing a camera into the courtroom obtained by this reporter, which the defense was not notified about ahead of the hearing.
“I object to cameras of any kind,” Locke told the Judge.
Locke argued the case had been sensationalized and had already been tried in the “court of public opinion”.
“I’m fearful it will prejudice the case,” Locke told the Judge.
“You’re endangering Mr. Ruggles’ right to have a fair trial,” said Locke.
Locke’s objections to allowing a camera in the courtroom were overruled and the proceeding went forward. Still photos were allowed to be taken during the proceeding.
Knox County Prosecutor Andrew Boster called his first witness, Deputy Fagin, to the stand.
The majority of the hearing included nearly two hours of testimony from investigator Fagin detailing information allegedly obtained from Ruggles and the timeline of the investigation.
Fagin testified about being at the scene first as a firefighter for the Edina Volunteer Fire Department before being called to come back to the scene after Tripp’s body was discovered.
“As soon as I got back to the base, we got called to come back,” Fagin told the Court.
Fagin testified Tripp was found face down in the center of the burned-out trailer.
“It was in the living room,” said Fagin.
“We didn’t touch anything. We called the Coroner and Fire Marshal in,” said Fagin.
Fagin also testified about what Ruggles allegedly told him during a series of interviews including a physical altercation between Tripp and Ruggles, and about the evidence he collected during the investigation.
Ruggles allegedly told the investigator about being allowed into the Tripp home before being told to leave by Tripp and the fight that ensued. Fagin also testified that Ruggles told the investigator he hit Tripp on the head with a gun breaking the stock, and broke a bottle over Tripp’s head – after Tripp allegedly tried to shoot and stab Ruggles.
Fagin testified Ruggles told him a final blow to Tripp’s head left the man lying face-down on the floor, and Tripp allegedly began making a “snoring” noise after being knocked down.
Fagin also testified Ruggles allegedly told him Ruggles washed Tripp’s blood off of himself at the Tripp home, took some of Tripp’s clothes, and further burglarized the Tripp residence taking items including a 9mm gun and case before leaving the scene in Tripp’s car.
Fagin also told the court that a former co-defendant, Bradley S. Wilkins, 53, of Kirksville, was not in Edina at the time of the incident, which was quickly and thoroughly challenged by the Defense during cross-examination.
During cross-examination, defense attorney Kevin Locke went to work on dismantling the prosecution’s case asking for more detail about a video allegedly showing Wilkins at his home on the night in question, the early morning hours between midnight and 6:00 a.m. on June 14, 2021.
Fagin testified he obtained Wilkins’ home surveillance video showing Wilkins at home, but that video was not a six-hour account of Wilkins’ whereabouts as the surveillance system was motion activated and only short video clips of Wilkins at his residence were obtained.
“So you have one clip that lasts one minute?” Locke asked Fagin.
“I have two clips, midnight and 6:00 a.m., showing Wilkins at home,” Fagin responded.
Fagin also testified that a search warrant on Wilkins’ phone did not place him near the scene on the night in question positioning technology) data from Wilkins’ cell phone provider.
Locke drove home that the two pieces of evidence eliminating Wilkins as a suspect were shaky at best, highlighting that when Wilkins was arrested as one of the original suspects in the case – Wilkins’ cell phone was at his house on a cell phone charger – not in Wilkins’ possession.
“The fact that Wilkins’ phone was not in Edina, does not mean Wilkins was not,” said Locke.
Cross-examination also delved further into the details of the investigation.
Fagin testified Ruggles went to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office of his own accord, and with his mother, to give information about the case four days after the fire at the Tripp residence and Tripp death on June 18, 2021. Ruggles was initially interrogated for approximately four-and-a-half hours. Fagin also testified Ruggles’ mother was excused from the interrogation once it seemed Ruggles would begin to incriminate himself.
Cross-examination also exposed that the Ruggles defense did not get crucial items of evidence including the recording of a telephone conversation between Fagin and Ruggles, while Ruggles was incarcerated at the Clark County Jail on June 21, 2021. And, there was not a recording or report about the conversation between Fagin and Ruggles during a transport of the defendant to the Macon County Jail. Also, Ruggles did not sign any paperwork about being given the Miranda Rights Warning before the transport to the Macon County Jail, or before talking on the phone with the investigator while at the Clark County Jail.
Fagin testified that the majority of Ruggles’ statements “checked out” except for the details about Wilkins’ involvement.
Locke asked Fagin if Fagin told Ruggles there was video surveillance from the Tripp home of the incident when there was not. Fagin replied that he used a “deceptive tactic” to obtain more information from Ruggles.
“Do you have any evidence that Wesley Ruggles started a fire?” Locke asked Fagin.
“No,” said Fagin.
“Do you have any evidence that Wesley Ruggles killed Mr. Tripp?” Locke asked Fagin.
“No,” responded Fagin.
On redirect, which is when Prosecutor Boster had the opportunity to redirect his witness by asking more questions, Fagin told the Court, “I seen Wesley Ruggles hand a gun box to Brad Wilkins.”
The second witness to take the stand for the prosecution was Missouri Division of Fire Safety Investigator Jonathan Pugh.
Pugh was questioned about the cause of the fire at the Tripp home from both sides. Pugh told the Court the fire damage was too extensive to determine the cause, the fire could have been caused by electricity, and it was unlikely the fire was caused by propane.
“Normally, if propane were the cause of a fire, there would be an explosion,” Pugh told the court.
Pugh testified that the center of the structure sustained the most fire damage, Tripp’s body was badly burned and found face down with his head pointing north, electrical wiring showed signs of arching, which could have been the cause of the fire or caused by the fire.
During cross-examination, the defense drove home that a short circuit “could” have caused the fire, and the investigator told the Court he could not rule it out.
Knox County Coroner Alan Rimer was the third to take the stand for the prosecution. Rimer testified about being called to the scene, calling in the Fire Marshal’s office, and attending the Tripp autopsy at the Medical Examiner’s office in Columbia.
He testified about the findings of the Medical Examiner Carl Stacy, that Tripp died of what he believed to be cardiovascular disease and an enlarged heart and thermal injuries could have contributed to Tripp’s death. And, the autopsy found that Tripp had soot in his throat and lungs.
On cross-examination, Rimer testified he did not discuss the autopsy with the Medical Examiner afterward.
The final witness to take the witness stand for the Prosecution was rural Edina resident Reagan Winter.
Winter was questioned about seeing Ruggles walking alone on the west side of Highway 15 north of Edina and that Ruggles crossed the highway at the Route AA junction. Winter was identified because she called 9-1-1 to report seeing him roughly between midnight and 1:00 a.m. on June 14, 2021.
Winter described Ruggles with a shorter beard wearing a white tank top and khaki shorts and identified the defendant as the man she saw.
During Defender Locke’s cross-examination, Winter told the Court she received a phone call from friend Austin Snelling who told her a person was walking toward her house. She got in her car and drove to see who it was.
The defense tried to highlight that it was too dark to be able to tell if it was Ruggles walking toward on Highway 15 then toward Tripp’s residence by crossing the highway near the Route AA junction, however, Winter testified she drove past the defendant, turned around and went back, and ended up on Route AA, and that she watched him walk past her vehicle with her headlights shining on him. Winter testified Ruggles was only about one car length, or about ten feet, from her.
Winter told the court she was alone in the car when she saw Ruggles, she went home and called 9-1-1 because she thought it was “weird” someone was walking that late at night, and she was worried about him stealing. Winter said she made the 9-1-1 call within five minutes of seeing Ruggles.
Locke told the court that the 9-1-1 call was made at 12:14 a.m. and highlighted that Winter was not asked to pick Ruggles out in a lineup ahead of the hearing and that she was not asked to submit a statement about seeing Ruggles until months after seeing him.
After Winter’s testimony, both sides rested their cases.
“There is nothing but speculation before you,” Locke told the court and argued counts one and two, the most serious charges against Ruggles should not be allowed to carry over.
“It’s all speculation on counts one and two,” said Locke.
Judge Redington ruled there was enough evidence to bind the case over to Circuit Court on ten of the 12 charges against Ruggles. The Defense asked that a misdemeanor charge also be bound over with the case, which Judge Redington agreed to.
Case no. 21KN-CR00085-01 bound over to Circuit Court includes the following charges against Wesley Ruggles: Murder Second Degree, Arson First Degree, Assault First Degree, Burglary First Degree, Stealing – Firearm, two counts of Unlawful Possession of a Firearm, Tampering with a Motor Vehicle First Degree, Armed Criminal Action, Tampering with Physical Evidence in a Felony Prosecution and one misdemeanor count of Stealing.
Ruggles is currently being held at the Adair County Jail without bond.
Editor’s Note: It is important to point out that a preliminary hearing is not a trial. Evidence presented during such a proceeding is to establish that there is or is not enough evidence to determine whether a criminal case can or cannot be bound over to the next phase of the court process. This was a procedural step in the process and should not be taken as evidence of guilt. The weight of proving any defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt rests solely on the shoulders of the prosecutor who is representing the State of Missouri. Wesley Ruggles is presumed innocent unless proven guilty in court, which was not done at this hearing. Should this case go to trial, a jury of Ruggles’ peers will be tasked with determining whether the defendant is guilty or not.