LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. - The killing was planned. The motive was a $1,000 robbery. The murder weapons were a large pepper grinder and an iron skillet.
That's what Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard alleged Thursday as charges of murder and robbery were filed against Charles "Steve" Stephenson for the death of Leigh Jennings of Aurora.
"This was a very violent death and it's very unfortunate and tragic for Miss Jennings and her family," Negangard said. "The evidence is just compelling that Mr. Stephenson committed this horrible crime."
Jennings, 67, was found dead in her Aspen Ridge Drive home on April 5. Police said she was murdered on March 29. The cause of death was determined to be blunt force trauma, which caused multiple skull fractures.
Aurora Police Chief Bryan Fields praised the work of his officers and those of the Rising Sun Police Department, Indiana State Police and the Dearborn County Sheriff's Office. He said they took solving the case personally, were tenacious and worked nonstop. The chief added after seeing the drive of investigators he wouldn't have wanted to be the person that committed the crime.
"We really spared no expense nor would we have," the chief said. "It was very important to us to hold this person responsible for this crime and it was a horrible crime. We're not used to this type of thing in Aurora."
Ryan Siebe, one of Jennings' two sons, also had nothing but glowing words for the manner in which the investigation was conducted.
"As a family we only seek justice for my mom -- Leigh Jennings -- who we miss very dearly," he said. "At this time we're comfortable in allowing the legal process to begin and we'll see what the results come beyond that."
Prosecutors haven't decided what punishment they'll seek in the case. If convicted, Stephenson could either be given a prison term of up to 115 years or be sentenced to death.
People who lived near the Jennings house expressed relief that charges had been filed.
"It kind of puts me at ease knowing that he was charged," said Skyler Riggs. "Now we don't really have to worry about if he's going to be showing up again."
Patrick Kearney lives across the street and said neighbors figured it was someone Jennings knew because of the way the case unfolded.
"I'm glad there's going to be justice for the family. That's the main thing," he said. "I feel sorry for her kids and I feel sorry for her mother who lived next door."
Negangard confirmed what had been known for some time -- that Stephenson first met Jennings at Young's Barber Shop in Florence, where she was a hair dresser/stylist. He was a customer. They began a casual relationship where Stephenson would come to Jennings' house for dinner once or twice a week -- usually on Mondays or Thursdays.
They also had business dealings. On two occasions, Jennings loaned Stephenson a total of $5,000. A pair of promissory notes -- one for $3,000 borrowed on Oct. 1, 2011, and another for $2,000 borrowed on Dec. 12, 2011, were found in a safe. Family members told investigators that Jennings didn't trust banks, so she kept a large sum of money in safes at her home.
However, in late March of this year, Negangard said Stephenson was desperate for cash to repay a loan from his Aunt Fay Sparks. She'd loaned Stephenson $3,000, but was having a tough time collecting it because of bounced checks. In this case, Stephenson had to come up with $1,000 by March 30 and if he didn't pay it, he feared he would go to jail.
"The investigation determined that he did not have that money on Wednesday (March 28)," Negangard said. "He knew she had money. He knew where she kept the money and then proceeded to we believe steal the money."
On Thursday, March 29, the probable cause affidavit shows that Stephenson purchased a Papa John's pizza in Lawrenceburg and took it to Jennings' house. Police said he was the last person known to have seen her alive.
"There's no evidence to indicate that she's alive beyond that date," Negangard said. "In fact, the evidence suggests very strongly that that's the date on which she was killed."
Early in the morning on the following day (March 30), Stephenson purchased a money order for $1,000 and met his aunt's attorney David Steele in Florence to make a payment.
When investigators entered Jennings' home on April 5, they noticed a large red pepper grinder on the kitchen table with what appeared to be blood on it. They also took a picture of a red cast iron skillet hanging on a kitchen wall. It, too, had indications of blood splatter.
"The probable cause affadavit indicates that Charles Stephenson's DNA was on the pepper grinder and he could not be excluded as a mixture with Leigh Jennings on the handle of the skillet," said Negangard.
Stephenson is currently in the Boone County Jail held on a $50,000 cash bond. That stems from a two-count indictment charging him with evidence tampering and drug trafficking. Those charges were brought after police executed a search warrant on his Walton
apartment. That's when they determined that Stephenson tried to take his own life. He was put on suicide watch at St. Elizabeth Health Care in Florence before being taken to the jail.
Negangard said the tampering charge stemmed from Stephenson admitting he had cleaned out his car within a few days after Jennings was murdered.
"We believe there was blood evidence in his vehicle that he got rid of and that's what the evidence tampering charge in Kentucky was based on," Negangard added.
Until the Kentucky charges are resolved, Stephenson will remain in the Boone County Jail. Once that happens, he'll be extradited to Dearborn County to face the robbery and murder counts.
Chief Fields said in if investigators hadn't worked so long and so hard on the Jennings case, it probably would have gone unsolved.
"I hope it never happens to another family -- not in Aurora, not in Lawrenceburg, Greendale or any other community," he said. "But I know that if it does happen again I know that we're going to get the same response and I'm very pleased with that and I'm very proud of that."
As Ryan Siebe finished his brief comments for reporters, he was asked about the gruesome nature of the crime. He started to walk away from podium, paused for a second then gave his reply.
"My thoughts are there are some very ugly people in this world that we should all be aware of," he said.