Defendant to testify Monday in his arson trial

State rests after more investigation testimony

Kurt Steidley will testify Monday morning in his own defense, on what will be the fourth day of his trial on second-degree arson charges.

Steidley, 53, Knob Noster, assured Circuit Judge Dan Green on Friday afternoon that he wanted to testify in the case, where he’s charged with setting the Jan. 1, 2011, fire that heavily damaged the Everhart’s Sporting Goods store, 2436 Missouri Blvd., just eight days after he’d closed the business.

The trial began Wednesday afternoon, and Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson didn’t finish presenting the state’s case until mid-afternoon Friday.

Shane Farrow, Steidley’s attorney, told Green he had only two witnesses — Steidley and his wife — but that Steidley’s testimony “likely (will be) long.”

Farrow said he was willing to work late into Friday night to present his case — or begin with Steidley’s testimony Monday morning.

“I just don’t want to break up his testimony and split it over two days,” Farrow explained.

After questioning the eight-man, six-woman jury — and getting only one juror concerned about plans made for Monday — Green agreed to wait.

Lynette Steidley testified for about 20 minutes Friday afternoon, telling Farrow her husband spent that New Year’s morning doing chores on the family’s farm near Whiteman Air Force Base, then came back to their home near Knob Noster “about 1:30.”

She said Kurt Steidley told her “he fell at the farm” and hurt his head.

Steidley’s friend Max Parsons, a Warrensburg plumber, told jurors Thursday that Steidley told him he may have been hit on the head by a disgruntled customer while he was inside the building, not long before the fire — a time that would have been later than Lynette Steidley said.

A registered nurse, Lynette said Friday she had looked at the head wound, and “told him to go to the emergency room. But he said it would be OK, and took some aspirin for it.”

She works in the labor and delivery rooms of Warrensburg’s Western Missouri Medical Center, and told jurors she went to work about 5:30 or 6 that New Year’s Day.

She said Kurt Steidley left their home “around 4, to go to Jefferson City and take his mom grocery shopping, like he always did.”

Kurt and his mother also went to dinner, Lynette testified, although she didn’t remember which restaurant.

After she went to work at the Warrensburg hospital that Saturday evening, Lynette testified, Kurt “came by work about 9:30 at night.”

That’s when he told her there had been a fire at the Jefferson City store.

Did she notice any unusual odor about him?

“No, and he was in the same clothes he was wearing when he went to take his mom to the store,” Lynette Steidley told the court.

Kurt Steidley had gone to the hospital because his headache had gotten worse, she said.

“I observed the knot (on his head) had gotten bigger,” she told Richardson during his cross-examination.

And she was pleased he had gone to the hospital, she said, because “his head was hurting, but he doesn’t go to the hospital or doctors, usually.”

Lynette said she didn’t learn until later that Kurt had smelled gas when he stopped by the Everhart’s store during his trip to Jefferson City.

Richardson wondered if she thought Kurt had made the right decision, to leave the store parking lot after smelling gas without calling anybody, then driving nearly two hours to the Warrensburg hospital.

“He said he called Max and did what Max told him to do,” she answered.

After Richardson pressed the issue with several questions, Lynette added: “He should have called the police, but if you have a head injury, you may not be thinking clearly.”

She reminded Richardson she had not known about Kurt’s smelling gas or any other details of the fire until it was over.

“I was more concerned with him having a head injury and swelling in the brain, than what was going on at the building,” she said.

She said the fire was “significant” in the family’s life but that the store’s “going out of business had nothing to hurt us. It’s just part of doing business.

“When you have several businesses, and one is not doing well, you shut it down and go on.”

She noted the Steidleys own several businesses, “and Everhart’s wasn’t the source of our income.”

Richardson asked her: “You would never suggest he burn it to make a $1 million insurance claim?”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Lynette replied.

Earlier in the day, Scott Stoneberger, a state fire marshal’s investigator, told Richardson that he “found no evidence of an electrical cause and no evidence of an accidental cause” for the evening fire.

He said there was “heavy charring on the underside of the shelving” above where the fire began, and the “damage was consistent with an ignitable liquid.”

Both Stoneberger and Craig Holloway, an investigator for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), testified Steidley had told them he had not been in Jefferson City that day.

But Farrow questioned whether Steidley had said he wasn’t in the city, or just had said he had not gone inside the Jefferson City store.

Holloway said his check of cellphone records showed Steidley had talked with Parsons twice — with the first call bouncing off a cell tower on Industrial Drive, and the second off a tower in St. Martins — and both calls not too long before the fire was reported.

Nichole Poirier, an ATF forensic auditor, testified her review of Steidley’s personal and business records showed “he had cash to pay about a month’s worth of bills” and that the empty store building would continue draining assets.

Even though Steidley was half-owner of the company that owned the property, the store — a separate company — was responsible for paying a $5,500 monthly rent and for covering the costs of insuring the building for $1 million, she said.

But, she told Farrow under cross-examination, even though he had not found a buyer, Steidley did appear to have money available to cover the store’s losses, when he closed it on Christmas Eve 2010.

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