Defender wants recordings thrown out in Oakley murder trial

Published 8:08 pm Friday, January 4, 2019

Jenna Oakley was back in Boyle County Circuit Court this week as evidence was presented during a suppression hearing. Oakley faces charges of complicity to commit murder and auto theft, and public defender Jessica Buck wants recordings thrown out of evidence, including a recording that contains an alleged confession.

Oakley, now 17, is charged as an adult with complicity to commit murder when she was 15. The charge stems from a 2016 incident when her stepmother, Rhonda Oakley, was found dead in the basement of the family home. Oakley and her 20-year-old boyfriend, Kenneth Nigh, were taken into custody three days later in New Mexico, where they were found with Rhonda Oakley’s vehicle. After their arrests, Nigh later died in a hospital after attempting to hang himself in his jail cell.

Testimony was heard Wednesday from Kentucky State Police Det. Frank Thornberry and retired Det. Monte Owens; and Danville Police Det. A.J. Mullins, based on transcripts provided of interviews they had with Oakley during the investigation.

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On Thursday, Owens was back on the stand where public defender Buck questioned tactics he used. Owens was lead investigator on the case before he retired. Owens had connected with Samantha Hobbs, a young woman in New Mexico, after she called the Lexington Crimestoppers line, claiming she had valuable information about the murder case.

At first, it appeared that Hobbs was relaying the details she claimed to have heard first-hand to Owens. But after some discussion, it turned out the information was actually coming from her mother, Andrea Esparza. Later in discussions, Owens discovers Esparza was an employee of Curry County Juvenile Detention Facility, where Oakley was detained in New Mexico.

Hobbs first claimed Esparza felt bad for Oakley, believed she’d been abused all her life, and that Esparza was afraid of retaliation from Nigh if she talked.

Buck pointed to the fact that not once or twice, but several times, Hobbs asked Owens about payment for the information she had, saying she could get her mom to talk if she could “bribe her.”

In consequent conversations, as Owens attempted get more information, Hobbs would only say it could be provided if they were paid, and that her mother said the information she had was “worth way more than $500,” which is the dollar amount that had been discussed.

“In fact, she goes as far as to say, ‘show us the money,’” Buck read from the transcript of the calls. Owens agreed to arrange the payment.

“You mentioned before you’re not super familiar with Crimestoppers … So you weren’t aware of the protocol, but still set about trying to get money to give them before you’d actually gotten any useful information, right?”

Owens responded, “I guess you could say that,” but added he felt there was some very useful information the women could have.

She then asked if he’s aware that third-hand information has little evidentiary value.

“I am aware of that,” Owens said.

Buck said during each conversation Owens had with Hobbs, the payment issue was one of the first things she asked about. She said nowhere could she find within the transcript that Hobbs or Esparza ever expressed that they wanted to do the right thing and help, but several requests were made about money.

Owens eventually told the women the most that’s paid for information is about $1,000, “for the people who are willing to testify and actually bring us something,” Buck reads from the transcript.

Eventually, Hobbs told Owens her mother would “wear a wire” and engage Oakley again, but only if she gets paid. Buck asked Owens if he had done any research about the legality of recording someone in New Mexico, to which he said no.

“So you had no idea if it was legal or not, correct?” Buck asked.

“No, and honestly, at this point right here, I’m kind of letting her go, because she’s saying ‘wearing a wire,’ and she’s really getting into it, which is sort of — I mean, we don’t even use wires anymore …”

Buck said the term “wire” is what “we lay people” call it when you record someone without their knowledge. She also pointed out that Owens came back to Hobbs in a later phone conversation, brought up the “wire” idea again, and then directed Esparza on how to get best quality of recording by putting a device in her pocket, and how not to do it within the cell because it’s hard to hear.

“And at this point, you still don’t know whether it’s legal for her to secretly record Jenna, correct?” Buck asked.

Owens said no.

Buck asked, “You hadn’t checked, or called the detention center to see if tape recorders were allowed?”

“I’m operating under the assumption there that if I do something illegal, it’s going to be taken care of in court,” Owens said.

“Well, and that’s why we’re here,” Buck responded.

As Buck asked questions about the transcript of recordings, Owens indicated he had never read them, nor listened to the recording from the jail.

“You’ve never listened to it?” Buck asked.

“Never,” Owens said.

Buck said, “… It’s a recording of the defendant, Jenna, correct? And you spent a lot of time talking to Ms. Hobbs and Esparza to get that information, right? And they were paid for that, correct?”

Owens said, “It’s my belief, yes …”

Buck pointed to part of the transcript where Esparza asks Oakley what she’s told her attorney.  Esparza lied to Oakley and said she had texted Nie and he responded, when he was actually unconscious in a hospital bed.

Buck maintains that Owens and officers purposely withheld the fact that Nie was “near death” at the time that Oakley was questioned, and within her motion states “this concealment of information was a deliberate tactic to elicit a confession.”

Buck also asked Owens about transcripts which showed Oakley had brought up her attorney and some conversations, to which Owens asked her, “Did you tell him what you had done?”

“So that’s you asking her what she has told her lawyer, correct? OK, before you asked her that, did you tell her that conversations between attorney and client are privileged?”

“No,” Owens said.

“And that she had the right to keep what she told her attorney a secret?” Buck asked.

“No,” Owens said.

“What you told her was that her lawyer had told her not to make any statements, and that’s what lawyers tell you to do …” Buck said. “They tell everybody not to talk, is that what you told her?”

Owens, “Yes, that’s what I told her.”

In Buck’s motion, she claims Det. Owens was aware Oakley had mental health issues and “preyed upon Jenna’s mental illness by phrasing questions in a way which called into question Jenna’s self-worth and feelings of doubt and guilt.”

The trial is scheduled to begin on Jan. 23; the judge will hear several pending motions in the case before then.