FLORENCE — Out of earshot of the jury, on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, prosecutors stated that defense attorneys for Demian Blu were getting dangerously close to violating a free-talk agreement that had been signed between the prosecution and the defense.
Blu, 44, is one of three men who were arrested in connection with the 2016 deaths of Keith Long and Renae Gardner. The couple were shot and killed while sleeping in their home in an Apache Junction trailer park. Long’s body was found in a canal near San Tan Valley. Gardner’s body was found along Beeline Highway/State Route 87 between Phoenix and Payson.
Blu is charged with three counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abandonment or concealment of a dead body. His trial started last week.
Clint Wendelschafer, 34, of Tempe and Nicholas Douglas, 45, of San Tan Valley were also accused of murdering the couple. Wendelschafer accepted a plea agreement in December 2019 and Douglas is awaiting trial. Wendelschafer is expected to testify in Blu’s trial.
A free-talk agreement is a statement given to prosecutors by a defendant with the promise that statements cannot be used against a defendant in court.
On Wednesday afternoon, Deputy Pinal County Attorney Patrick Chapman argued that Blu’s attorneys had been asking questions of a crime scene technician that might shed doubt on how evidence was collected at a canal where the body of Long was found and could contradict Blu’s statements to law enforcement officers under the free-talk agreement. Under the free-talk agreement, if Blu’s attorneys attempted to contradict statements Blu made to police in the agreement, then prosecutors bring the information he gave police under the agreement into the trial.
Judge Robert Carter Olson asked if Chapman was making a specific motion to bring information from the free-talk agreement into the trial or if he was trying to warn Blu’s attorneys.
Chapman argued Wednesday afternoon that he thought some statements from the free talk could come into the trial because of the defense's questions to witnesses.
Defense attorney Christopher Doran said that prosecutors were being overly sensitive about the free-talk agreement and didn’t think the defense had done anything to violate the agreement. He claimed the state was trying to get the defense to show them their plan to defend Blu.
Olson said because of the late hour, it was past 5 p.m., that he would not be making a decision that afternoon and that attorneys could continue their arguments Thursday morning.
When the court picked up the situation Thursday morning, before the jury was seated in the courtroom, defense attorney Joshua Wallace said that prosecutors were trying to keep the benefits they got from the free-talk agreement that helped law enforcement investigate the case and use the information in the agreement in court, which would violate the agreement.
The defense had made plans on how to defend Blu against the allegations based on what was agreed to in the free-talk agreement, he said. It wasn’t fair that prosecutors should try to upend the agreement now.
Olson interrupted Wallace’s argument to point out that nothing in the free-talk agreement was going to be allowed in the trial without a court order and that there was no motion before the court at that time from prosecutors to bring anything in from the agreement.
In case such a motion was presented to the court, Olson ordered that expedited copies of transcripts from some parts of the trial that had occurred over the last few days be created and given to both sides in the case.
He also stated that he would not issue a pre-emptive order on the free-talk agreement.
The jury was then seated and testimony was taken from Pinal County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Benedict, who was a detective at the time of the murders. Benedict testified about where Long’s body was found at the canal and how the scene was processed as well as how the evidence was collected from Long and Gardner’s trailer.
The discussion also detailed how detectives were able to use a grocery store savings card found in the back pocket of the body found at the canal and tattoos on the body to help determine that it was Long.
Defense attorneys questioned Benedict at length about whether officers knew about connections the Loose Cannons motorcycle club had to the trailer park where Long and Gardner lived and if officers felt threatened or intimidated while executing the search warrant at the couple’s trailer. Defense attorneys also pointed out that three members of Pinal County Regional SWAT were called to help in the execution of the search warrant.
Defense attorneys also questioned Benedict about how some of the residents in the park, who may have had connections to the motorcycle club, reacted to their presence in the park during the search, such as trying to prevent officers from doing their job, by trying to prevent them from entering the trailer.
Defense attorneys also pointed out that detectives had said that they found the door to the trailer unlocked and that the trailer appeared to be cluttered and in disarray, as if someone may have rummaged through the area.
Prosecutors were in the midst of testimony from another PCSO detective when the court recessed for the day. The trial will continue Friday morning at 9.