Home Depot for Light Bulbs
Winston Milling and Alex Hall picked up Ross at the Treehouse on June 18th. The three men went to Publix (a restaurant on Cumberland Parkway) for lunch, and then stopped at the Home Depot box store across the street so that Ross could purchase light bulbs. Alex and Winston dropped Ross off by his vehicle at 12:40 p.m., so he could put the lightbulbs in his car. He then walked back to his office.
Ross was asked to recount his day in an interview that evening. He told Stoddard who he had gone to lunch with and where they ate, but he had forgotten the side-trip to buy lightbulbs. It’s obvious, from the probable cause hearing, that Stoddard believed Ross had deliberately withheld that information from him.
Boring: Did you eventually find out where he’d gone during lunch, that he’d left out?
Stoddard: Yes, sir. He’d gone to Publix and then went to Home Depot for two boxes of light bulbs.
Kilgore: You would certainly agree that it’s possible he forgot going to Home Depot and getting those light bulbs?
Kilgore: You don’t think it’s possible?
Stoddard: I don’t think it’s possible at all.
Stoddard and Murphy had questioned Winston Milling on June 19th, less than 24 hours after Cooper died. He testified at trial that he, too, had forgotten about stopping for light bulbs.
Kilgore: Do you remember that you neglected to tell detectives that y’all had stopped at a Home Depot store for lightbulbs after you went to Publix?
Milling: Correct, I didn’t recall it at that time.
Kilgore: You weren’t under arrest.
Kilgore: You had not lost a child.
Kilgore: You weren’t facing the prospect of having to tell you wife what you had done?
Kilgore: But you forgot to tell the detectives about stopping by the Home Depot store. And you didn’t just stop. You actually got out of the car and went into the Home Depot store while Ross bought light bulbs.
Kilgore: Were you trying to mislead the officer?
Milling: I was not. I just forgot until he reminded me.
Light Bulb Toss
The lead detective became even more suspicious when he viewed the June 18th parking lot surveillance videos, which showed Ross returning to his car after lunch to put the lightbulbs in his vehicle. Stoddard believed that Ross had deliberately failed to disclose this in his interview. But why would he? Ross had worked at the Treehouse for two years. He was well aware of the surveillance cameras all over that parking lot and in the Treehouse lobby. You couldn’t miss them. In addition, he’d actually told Stoddard the names of the two friends with whom he had lunch, and that they ate at Publix. Those aren’t the kinds of details you share with law enforcement if you’re trying to hide something.
The following exchange is from the probable cause hearing.
Boring: So when he comes back to the car, what does he do?
Stoddard: First of all, a car pulls up and from interviewing the two friends he went to lunch with, they pull up, he gets out of the car and they immediately take off. You can see him walk up to the car. He approaches the car from the driver’s side, opens the door and he kind of tosses the bulbs inside. He’s all the way inside the frame, but he just kind of tosses the light bulbs inside the car.
Boring: How does it appear that he reaches in and where his head is?
Stoddard: He opens up the door and, as he’s reaching in, he kind of turns his head a little bit. He’s in there. He has a clear view, and he kind of turns his head and then just tosses the light bulbs into the car.
He’s in there. Stoddard is implying that Ross is actually inside the car. He has a clear view. The implication, again, is that Ross must have seen Cooper.
These assertions were proven untrue at trial by two unlikely sources: the prosecution’s own witnesses, Greg Sanders and Walter Pineda. Very early in the investigation, Greg Sanders provided detectives with the June 18 security videos shot from various angles in the parking lot. Boring was in a difficult position. He had to present evidence of Ross returning to his car after lunch, but he didn’t want to draw the jury’s attention to details that would damage the state’s case. So he kept it simple.
Boring: Is there anything between him and the car door?
Sanders: Just him and the car door.
Ross’s actual position in relation to the car, and what he could see, became evident on cross-exam. The defense showed the video shot from the left camera.
Rodriguez: Did you notice that Ross doesn’t get in the car?
Sanders: He’s not in the car.
Rodriguez: Did you see sort of a blur go across the windshield there?
Sanders: It looks like one arm goes in. He leans down a little bit and the head is out.
Rodriguez: The head is out, above the roof line, correct?
Sanders: Well, it doesn’t appear to be going in the vehicle.
The defense then showed the same video, from the middle angle, that Greg Sanders was questioned about on direct.
Rodriguez: This camera angle still shows the head above the door frame, correct?
Ross opens the car door, tosses the light bulbs onto the seat, and closes the door within 3-4 seconds.
The prosecution hired Walter Pineda to enhance still shots from the parking lot videos. On direct, Boring clicked through the photos in rapid succession, but did not ask his witness a single question about them. He did display a middle camera shot of Ross returning to the car, but it’s very blurry due to the suns’s glare on the windshield.
Pineda’s cross-exam echoed Greg Sanders’ when the defense showed a still shot from the left camera.
Rodriguez: Do you see kind of a dark color here (i.e., Ross’s hair). Does that appear to be a head?
Rodriguez: You’d agree it’s above this roof line here?
Stoddard testified about this as well. I encourage readers to watch this portion of the trial, and to note the extreme emphasis he gives to certain words.
Boring: How do you describe what he’s doing at this point?
Stoddard: He steps into the frame of the door. He is IN the frame. He is IN THERE. He has a clear view and by that I mean there’s NOTHING between the defendant and a view of the interior of that car.
Stoddard may not have remembered exactly what he said at the probable cause hearing, but the defense did.
Kilgore: So you agree that in July 2014 when specifically asked “Can he see the carseat?” you responded “He’s in there, he has a clear view.”
Stoddard: Yes sir.
Kilgore: So you’re suggesting that when he put the bulbs in the car he could see the carseat?
Stoddard: I’m suggesting that when he walks up to the car and opens the door, he has a clear view. As he continues forward into the door frame he has a clear view. I’m not stating where his eyes are. I’m just stating he has a clear view.
A clear view. Of what…the parking lot? That’s all Ross could see with his eyes above the roof line. He certainly couldn’t see the car seat.
Stop. Step Away from that Vehicle
Ross tossed the bulbs in his car, and proceeded to walk back to his office. Along the way, another person passed him going in the direction of Ross’s vehicle. At approximately the same time, Ross paused for a few seconds and then walked on. The prosecution contended that Ross was so concerned about this other individual discovering Cooper that he turned around to look. Their theory makes no sense at all, considering Ross’s choice of a parking spot and the many people who walked right by his car throughout the day.
Boring: As that person passes him, what does the defendant do?
Stoddard: He pauses.
Boring: Can we tell with any certainty, if at all, he turns back or not to look at him?
Stoddard: The video is what it is. You can’t really tell. All we know is he stops, or pauses.
Boring: Based upon your view of this and enhancements, is it possible that he was looking back?
Stoddard: After looking at many, many pictures of this up close, it is possible that the defendant is turning his head as that person walks by him.
Kilgore: So if Ross was going to look at somebody walking toward that car, one of two things has got to happen. He’s either got to rotate his head to look at whoever is walking past him, right? Or he’s got to somehow rotate his shoulders and his torso to look.
Stoddard: He could use his peripheral vision? Just turn a little bit. Kind of catch a glimpse of him?
Kilgore: Well, once the person’s all the way behind him, that’s not going to work, is it?
Stoddard: Are you talking about directly behind him? Then no.
Kilgore: You would agree that from the video it certainly looks – and it’s much clearer the second time he stops – it looks pretty clear he’s messing with his phone, doesn’t it.
Stoddard: I don’t know where his eyes are.
Greg Sanders, a prosecution witness, wouldn’t say definitively what Ross was looking at, but he reluctantly conceded that Ross did not turn around to look at the passer-by.
Rodriguez: You had testified about an individual that was walking past him toward the direction of Ross’s vehicle, correct?
Rodriguez: And now we’re playing (starts at 51:35 and ends 51:53)… you’d agree that he stopped?
Rodriguez: It appears that he’s looking down.
Sanders: Uh, you can’t tell what he’s doing.
Rodriguez: But you would agree, though, that he doesn’t turn around to look at anyone or his vehicle in this area.
Sanders: Again, I can’t say. It looks like he’s holding something in his hand, his left hand, and he goes up with his right hand.
Rodriguez: Is your testimony, though, that you can’t tell if he’s looking down at what appeared to be his phone?
Sanders: You can’t really tell what he’s doing from the pixillation. He could be looking at his phone, he could be looking at the ground. I don’t know where his eyes are focused.
Rodriguez: I see what you’re saying. At one point he’s got one arm out and then two arms out?
Sanders: It looks like he’s holding something in his left hand and the right hand comes up.
Rodriguez: Right, but he never turns around, correct?
Sanders: It appears that he doesn’t.
Rodriguez: You don’t know if he’s looking at his phone or at the ground, but it appears that he’s looking in this direction (down).
Sanders: I can’t say for sure. The arm is right here (raises left arm) so…but he didn’t turn around and look.
Rodriguez: He doesn’t. As best you can tell, you don’t know if it’s the phone or the ground?
Sanders: I don’t know.
Rodriguez: Ok, fair enough.
It’s safe to say that Ross did not turn around, but what was he looking at? Both Stoddard and Sanders testified that it’s impossible to know where his eyes are focused. Technically, that’s true. But then a certain piece of paper reared its ugly head.
Kilgore: We talked about the fact that he appears to stop twice & he was on his cell phone, correct?
Stoddard: He stops twice, but I don’t know what he’s looking at.
Kilgore: I’m going to show you your report from February 11, 2015 and on page 2, if you could read that.
Stoddard (reading from his report) “ During that time he pulled his cell phone out and begins using the phone.”
Kilgore: So between February 2015 and when you took the stand for me to cross-examine you yesterday, what exactly has changed that you no longer can say with any certainty that he’s looking at his cell phone?
Stoddard: I don’t know what he pulls out of his pocket. It could be his cell phone. I’m not sure.
Kilgore: Well, your report doesn’t say “It could be his cell phone, I’m not sure.” What you reported was that during that time, he pulls his cell phone out and begins using the phone.
Stoddard: Yes sir.
Kilgore: I’m going to ask you again. Has anything changed from the time you filed this February 11, 2015 report and when I cross-examined you yesterday on this issue?
Stoddard: Sitting here looking at that video, I cannot say with 100% certainty that’s what he did, was pull out his cell phone and start using it. Could it be his cell phone? Yes. It could very well be a cell phone he’s using. I want to be 100% correct sitting here on the stand under oath.
Kilgore: Of course. But you’d agree that, under your theory, if he turned around to watch somebody going back to his car, that would be more consistent with your theory that maybe he knows Cooper is actually in the car?
Stoddard: That’s true.
Kilgore: If what you wrote in your report in February 2015 is accurate, that he appeared to pull his phone out and use his phone, that would be inconsistent with your theory, wouldn’t it.
Oh, I think it would be very inconsistent with his theory, so I’m casting my vote for the cell phone. Ross was still using it when he entered the lobby a minute or two later.