Stephenson pleads not guilty to Indiana murder/robbery charges

LAWRENCEBURG, Ind. - When Lala Ullrich walked into the Dearborn Circuit Court Courtroom in Lawrenceburg Thursday, she thought she'd be filled with hate.

After all, the man seated at the defense table was Charles "Steve" Stephenson, accused of murdering and robbing Leigh Jennings, one of her closest friends.

Stephenson was dressed in an orange jail outfit with shackles on his wrists and ankles.  He occasionally put on dark-rimmed glasses to gaze at court papers spread out on a table before him.

However, as Ullrich gazed at the Walton man, her emotions surprised her.

"I didn't feel anything.  There was just emptiness," she said.  "I think about Leigh every day.  The world will never be the same without her."

March 29 was the day that authorities say Stephenson beat Jennings to death at her Aurora home with a pepper grinder and an iron skillet, then stole $1,000 from her to repay a debt to a relative.

Laura Lesko also sat in the first row of the courtroom wondering how anybody could possibly take the life of another human being.  She and Jennings were close friends as well.

In fact, it was the two women who first gave investigators the name of "Steve" as someone who might be a person-of-interest in the case.

Stephenson first met Jennings at Young's Barber Shop in Florence, where she worked as a hairdresser.  He would come over twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays to have dinner at her Aspen Ridge Drive home.

"We've lost a really good friend," she said.  "It's just really hard to be in the same room with somebody who has taken a very good life away from all of us."

Lesko suggested people try to think of the crime from Jennings' perspective.

"She's probably eating pizza from Papa John's that he ordered and he hit her in the head with a peppercorn grinder and then finished her off with a skillet," she said.  "This man has no clue what most human beings feel in their heart."

Thursday's court appearance was Stephenson's first in Indiana since he waived extradition and was transported from the Boone County Jail to Dearborn County's Law Enforcement Center.  The Kentucky charges of evidence tampering and drug trafficking have been temporarily put on hold.

Judge James Humphrey entered a plea of not guilty for Stephenson during the 10-minute hearing and refused to set a bond.

The judge said he will appoint an attorney for Stephenson next week, since he said his only assets are a $650 monthly retirement pension from Delta Air Lines.

A pretrial hearing has been set for July 2 at 8:30 a.m.

Dearborn County Prosecutor Aaron Negangard said he was glad that Stephenson is now in custody in Indiana.

"We're pleased that he's held without bail pending a jury trial," he said.  

Negangard added that's the way Jennings' family feels as well.

"They were pleased when we filed murder charges," said Negangard.  "They were confident that he wouldn't be getting out of jail anytime soon."

The next big decision for the prosecution is whether to seek the death penalty if Stephenson is convicted or ask a jury to consider a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

"I'm not going to make a time frame on that decision," Negangard said.  "There's no deadline upon which we have to file it and we'll make that decision when we're ready."

The two Jennings friends offered differing viewpoints on capital punishment.

Lesko came out in favor of it.

"One specific person who I really dearly love said the same thing that he did to her is what should be done to him," Lesko said. "I agree."

However, Ullrich said she wasn't so sure.

"I don't think that Leigh would say, 'Oh, I want him to die.'" she said.  "For me, it's fair enough if he'll stay behind bars until the end of his days."

Asked what she would say to Stephenson if she got the chance, Ullrich said she would ask him why he hurt Leigh.

"I wanted not to see his eyes. I wanted to see his hands," she said.  "I would just ask him what he was feeling and how he came up with that and what he was feeling when he was doing that."

Lekso said she disagreed with that assessment.

"I want him to look into himself and ask how could you kill another individual over $1,000," she said.  "Something had to go wrong in his life.  There is no 'why.'  Why could you kill somebody?"


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