Judge: Trial warranted for 3 teens in Mich. attack
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
PORT HURON, Mich. (AP) — The 17-year-old daughter of a couple attacked in their Michigan home and two men accused of carrying out the stabbings are likely heading to trial.
A judge on Tuesday found enough evidence to warrant a trial for Tia Skinner, her 18-year-old boyfriend Jonathan Kurtz and his 18-year-old neighbor James Preston.
All three were arrested within hours of the Nov. 12 attack that killed Tia’s father, Paul Skinner, and severely injured her mother, Mara.
Investigators say they were led to the suspects in part by glaring evidence: a hand-drawn map found outside the scene of a horrific home invasion with the words “my house” scrawled on it.
The three face charges of murder, assault and conspiracy for the attack in Yale, about 85 miles northeast of Detroit.
Authorities said the discovery of the map and Tia’s unusually calm demeanor led them to arrest her and her co-defendants.
A prosecutor said the girl was angry at her parents for forbidding her to see Kurtz and for grounding her and confiscating her cell phone after finding texts from him declaring his love for her.
“Her demeanor was indifferent,” Michigan State Police trooper Regina Margosian said of Tia’s behavior as she questioned the teenager after the attack.
As they rode in a patrol car to the state police post, Margosian said Tia Skinner talked about being a high school senior and her plans for college.
“She never asked what happened or the condition of her parents,” Margosian testified before Port Huron District Court Judge John Monaghan.
Later, Tia Skinner revealed that she had been fighting with her parents, especially her 44-year-old mother, who is a teacher at Yale Middle School.
“The basic argument was who she chooses as boyfriends,” Margosian said. “She said her mother did not want her dating Jon.”
It was that rift between Tia — Mara Skinner’s biological niece whom the couple adopted when she was 3 years old — and her parents that resulted in a plan to get rid of them, St. Clair County Prosecutor Michael Wendling told Monaghan.
At about midnight on Nov. 12, two men with bandana’s covering their faces climbed through Tia Skinner’s first-floor bedroom window and crept upstairs to her parents’ room.
The girl was in the basement watching a movie with her brother Jeff, who was visiting from his home in the Grand Rapids area.
Mara Skinner, who was recently released from a hospital after suffering 26 cuts and stab wounds, calmly recounted the attack in court on Tuesday while her daughter, clad in an orange prison jumpsuit, listened.
Mara Skinner said she was resting comfortably next to her husband that night when he shouted “Hon! Hon!”
“At the same time, I felt blunt force to my back and to my neck,” she said. “I was being attacked and my husband was being attacked. I was screaming. My husband was screaming.”
Skinner said she couldn’t see her attackers until her husband turned on the light in their second-floor bedroom.
“I saw a knife ready to come down. I grabbed it,” she said. “I said ‘no! You have to go, go, go. Jeff is here right now.”’
Jeff Skinner ran up from the basement when he heard the commotion. His sister stayed behind.
The attackers fled with the bleeding Paul Skinner chasing them out the front door. He made it back into the home but collapsed in a pool of his own blood and died.
Jeff Skinner, one of the couple’s four children, testified that he first realized something was going on upstairs when he heard a rumbling.
At one point his sister had gone up the stairs, returned and told him “there’s something wrong. There’s something wrong,” Jeff Skinner testified.
He said when he got upstairs, he followed a blood trail. He saw his father come back into the house and said he was blood-covered and appeared disoriented. He also went upstairs to help his mother.
Tia Skinner remained in the basement during the attack and after police arrived at the home, he said.
As officers attempted to calm down Jeff Skinner, at least one was surprised by how his sister was responding to the tragedy.
“She was so calm,” St. Clair County sheriff’s deputy Jeff Green testified. “I asked ‘Do you know what happened up there?’ She said, ‘No, but my brother said it was bad.”’
It was Green who found the hand-drawn map while searching outside the family’s home.
Tia Skinner told detectives that she allowed Kurtz and Preston to take the map before the attack, Margosian said.
Preston also told officers that she gave it to him, state police Detective Sgt. Twana Powell testified.
The map included an arrow pointing to the location of the Paul and Mara Skinner’s bedroom.
They also were given a checklist of what to do before the attack and promised $500 each to carry out the job, Wendling said.
“She was angry at her mother,” Wendling said. “Mr. Kurtz volunteered and entered into the plan because he wanted the money, and he recruited his friend, Mr. Preston.“
Details of that plan were discussed days before outside of a church youth group meeting.
The breaking point appeared to come Nov. 10 when Mara Skinner grounded the girl and took her cell phone after reading the text from Kurtz professing his love.
Kurtz later told police that Tia Skinner texted him that she “snatched” her phone and needed “it done tonight at 11 p.m.,” Powell said.
Police testified that under questioning, each of the defendants tried to play down their role in the attack.
Lawyers for Tia Skinner, Kurtz and Preston said after Tuesday’s hearing that those statements about culpability likely will lead them to seek separate trials.
“Frequently that occurs in these situations, especially when fingers tend to be pointed back and forth,“ said Tia Skinner’s attorney, John Livesay.
The defendants were ordered held without bond, and a trial date was not set.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, as her daughter, Kurtz and Preston were led away in chains and orange jail clothing, a weeping Mara Skinner had to be consoled by relatives and friends.