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June 25--WHITLEY CITY -- A Somerset man is facing 40 years in prison after a six-man/six-woman jury convicted him Friday night of participating in a murder conspiracy.
Timothy R. Prater, 32, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, unlawful imprisonment, complicity to commit first-degree robbery and impersonating a peace officer in connection to the February 2013 assault on Deborah Taylor of Pine Knot.
Taylor had been accosted as she left home around 5:30 a.m. the morning of February 7, 2013, but neighbors intervened. A description of the suspects' getaway car led authorities to Prater, who allegedly been paid by co-worker Regina Stephens to kill Taylor so Stephens could further her relationship with Taylor's husband. Prater enlisted the help of two acquaintances -- Antonio A. Turner, 22, and Joseph R. Denning, 20, also of Somerset -- who entered guilty pleas last March and testified against him.
Prater's trial began Wednesday with McCreary Circuit Judge Dan Ballou presiding. In building his case, Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Robert Stephens first launched into the events of February 7, 2013. He called the neighbors who intervened on Mrs. Taylor's behalf: Billy Aull, George Danny Lay and Judy Wilson.
Debbie Taylor herself described getting ready to leave for work that morning and seeing a man in a mask as she headed down her steps. The man charged her and began using a stun gun. She also felt fingers down her throat to keep her from screaming. She attempted to fight back but was ultimately rolled face down and handcuffed.
Mrs. Taylor testified that during the course of the attack, she was asked about her involvement with the Mexican drug cartel, about drugs or money in the house, and the security code to get inside. The man in charge identified himself as FBI.
"He told me if it sounded the alarm, I would die," Mrs. Taylor testified.
Taylor described the two other males, one of whom rifled through her purse by the light of her car door -- taking eight $1 bills in spending money. They assisted in getting her back on the porch as they attempted to enter the residence. At this time, Lay and Wilson pulled into the driveway. Taylor recounted asking Wilson not to leave.
"I was terrified," she said. "I didn't know what was going on. [I did know] if they were FBI, they wouldn't have charged at me."
Mrs. Taylor described her injuries, including taser burns, as well as the mental trauma recovering from the attack. She told the jury she had to have someone with her for at least six months.
"I used to sit on my porch and drink coffee; I can't do that anymore," she said.
Debbie Taylor's husband, Larry Taylor, admitted to a two-year affair with Regina Stephens with whom he communicated through a cell phone which she had purchased for him.
Mr. Taylor, a truck driver, testified that he was traveling through Alabama and Florida when he learned of the attack. Ms. Stephens had called him later that night, then again the following morning. In that second call, Mr. Taylor testified that she confessed to paying Prater to kill Deborah Taylor.
"Her voice never raised the whole time she was telling me what she'd done," he said.
Taylor testified that he then told her he had no alternative but to call the police. Ms. Stephens, he testified, responded that she "was going to cash out" rather than go to jail.
Taylor called Trooper Phillip Hayes (now retired) and reported what had transpired. He then tried unsuccessfully to call Stephens back and would later learn that she had apparently killed herself.
The trial resumed Thursday with Mr. Taylor being cross-examined by defense co-counsel Thomas Szczygielski regarding his wife's insurance policy and Ms. Stephens' will.
The prosecution introduced bank and phone records indicating Ms. Stephens had withdrawn $7,000 on September 25, 2012, and that she had conversed with Prater via 29 phone calls and 342 texts between Sept. 1 and Feb. 7. Blood found on a glove and stun gun retrieved from Prater's apartment matched Deborah Taylor's DNA.
Turner and Denning testified they had been offered $250 to serve as lookouts. Turner claimed Prater was to "stage a scene" to help the victim's husband file for divorce but Denning acknowledged a plan to rob the home. Both denied any plan to kill Mrs. Taylor.
The final prosecution witness was KSP Det. Billy Correll, whose testimony took up much of Friday. The jury heard two recorded statements from Prater, the first of which he indicated that a cousin "Kevo Blair" had access to the vehicle. After a search warrant had been executed at his home, Prater met Det. Correll on February 8, 2013, at the Burnside Police Department.
During this interview, Prater admitted "Blair" didn't exist but claimed to Regina Stephens that he had Mafia ties. She first spoke to him about Mrs. Taylor in September and paid him a $1,500 down payment of an expected $4,000 a month later to make it look like Taylor had a heart attack in her furnace room. Prater told authorities that Stephens drew him a map and did not want Mr. Taylor knowing about the plan.
Prater purchased two guns with the money and scoped out the Taylor property but stalled for three months until Stephens started "getting antsy." He claimed he only wanted to warn Mrs. Taylor that she was in danger.
Det. Correll's testimony wrapped up with the phone records between Prater and Ms. Stephens. Texts indicated that she alerted Prater when Mr. Taylor had left then questioned what happened the day of the attack.
On cross, co-counsel Shea Chaney questioned Correll about his efforts to reach Stephens and her death -- the time of which could not be precisely determined.
The defense rested without calling any witnesses but in closing, Chaney described his client as having a hero complex. Prater, he said, had ample opportunity to kill Mrs. Taylor that morning but did not do so.
"The idea that Tim is a murderer is just as off-base as Tim being in the FBI," he said. "Regina's intent can't be transferred to Tim."
Chaney also called into question Turner and Denning's credibility, noting that they had pled guilty to reduced charges.
The jury began deliberating at approximately 7:20 p.m. Friday night and by 8:15 p.m. had unanimously agreed to convict Prater on all counts. They recommended a 20-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder, 10 years for complicity to commit robbery, and five years each for unlawful imprisonment and impersonating a peace officer -- to be served consecutively for a total of 40 years.
Formal sentencing has been scheduled for July 24. Prater is expected to be eligible for parole in 8.5 years.
"I'm pleased with the verdict," Mrs. Taylor said. "Det. Billy Correll did an outstanding job as did Robert Stephens. I hold them in high respect."
The Taylors had been subject to recall and spent most of the three-day trial in a small waiting room unable to hear the proceedings, which Mrs. Taylor described as nerve-wracking. Mr. Taylor praised victim's advocate Jamie Ford for her assistance in seeing them through the trial.
Assistant Commonwealth Attorney Stephens said he respected the verdict and hoped it "gives a little closure to Debbie."
The Taylors, along with Ford, were back in court on Monday morning as Turner and Denning were sentenced to a total of eight years each for unlawful imprisonment and criminal facilitation to commit robbery. Each was ordered to pay $8 in restitution as well as $130 in court costs. They are now eligible for parole but Mrs. Taylor said she has filed documents objecting to it.
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