Lander jury acquits Troy Willoughby after second murder trial
by Joy Ufford, Sublette Examiner
February 10, 2012
In January 2010, it took a Sublette County jury barely two hours to convict Troy D. Willoughby, a former Daniel resident, of the June 21, 1984, first-degree murder of Elisabeth "Lisa" Ehlers, a young Jackson woman.
Thursday (February 9, 2012), it took a Fremont County jury only about five hours to acquit Willoughby of the charge, after almost two weeks of testimony and evidence.
Court officials said Friday Willoughby is released from the Fremont County Jail in Lander, where the Ninth District Court trial was held after presiding Judge Tim Day ordered a change of venue from Pinedale.
Willoughby was arrested for Ehlers’ murder in 2009 in Montana and extradited to Pinedale to await his January 2010 trial. After being found guilty, he was sentenced by now-retired District Judge Nancy Guthrie to life in prison, and he spent almost two years in Rawlins until he was brought back to Pinedale during his public defender attorneys’ process to get him a new trial.
The new trial was sought – and ordered by the court – after Sublette County Capt. Lance Gehlhausen (an investigator in 2009-2010) told Sheriff Dave Lankford in 2011 he not only saw and heard former Capt. Brian Ketterhagen and County Prosecuting Attorney Lucky McMahon’s investigator Randall Hanson talk about withholding from defense a key sheriff’s incident report from June 20-21, 1984, but he taped the conversations as well.
These were brought up at the second trial and the defense called both Hanson and Ketterhagen as witnesses. An observer who saw those testimonies said neither came across very well on the stand earlier in the week.
Those revelations of potential prosecutorial error were then made public last year by current county attorney Neal Stelting. Until that time, Willoughby’s appeals were not granted.
Kerri Johnson and Rob Oldham, of the Wyoming Public Defenders Office, represented Willoughby at his first trial and at subsequent appeals and hearings. They also defended him at this Lander trial. They did not present a defense at the 2010 trial, choosing to rest their case after the prosecution finished. This time, they took almost three days to call witnesses and introduce evidence.
Special prosecutors Tony Howard, who led the first trial, and new appointee Scott Sargent led many of the same witnesses through their previous testimony. However, the jurors were left unaware this was his second trial and that he had been convicted previously for this crime, instead hearing about a "previous hearing."
Key prosecution witnesses such as former friend Tim Basye, ex-wife Rosa Hosking and her sister Brenda Marple gave much the same testimony as before, admitting much of the very specific details they might have recalled in later interviews were "fed" to them – but Basye and Hosking steadfastly maintained they definitely saw or heard Willoughby shoot Ehlers in a Highway 191 pullout just south of Hoback Canyon and just north of Bondurant.
Some defense witnesses were asked about alternate-suspect possibilities – including Jackson resident Patrick Elder – although Elder and his brother Shane took the stand as rebuttal witnesses Wednesday to dispel those concerns.
In his instructions to the jury before they withdrew to deliberate around 1 p.m. Thursday, Judge Day emphasized the tenets of "reasonable doubt" and commended each member for being "exceptional."
Willoughby himself had taken the stand and testified he did not know any of the witnesses who said he was in Jackson that night, did not know Lisa Ehlers, did not mix in her circle and never showed up late for work on the drill rig where he worked in 1984.
Howard argued that Willoughby was a volatile and violent drug user who would desert his wife and child to save himself, use someone else’s driver’s license when stopped for DUI and threaten people who didn’t do his bidding.
In closing arguments Thursday morning, Johnson stated from the start, law enforcement officers’ investigations were narrow and that after Willoughby was selected as the suspect, speculation and the alleged cover-up by Hanson and Ketterhagen led to Willoughby’s first trial and conviction.
Howard also pointed out that Willoughby "put himself" in Hoback Canyon that night and went through a series of admissions to the point that he finally told investigators in 2009 he saw Ehlers’ car and body in the pullout. He later retracted the statement.
For more about the Troy Willoughby Fremont County trial and Thursday’s acquittal, read the Feb. 14 Sublette Examiner.
Story by Joy Ufford, Sublette Examiner, firstname.lastname@example.org