Crime

$50 debt, jailhouse letters and a dying man’s words. Tacoma murder trial goes to jury.

John Suppah, 36, watches closing arguments in his trial Wednesday in Pierce County Superior Court. He’s charged with first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of 30-year-old Preston Stafford Dec. 19, 2015 in Tacoma.
John Suppah, 36, watches closing arguments in his trial Wednesday in Pierce County Superior Court. He’s charged with first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of 30-year-old Preston Stafford Dec. 19, 2015 in Tacoma. Staff writer

As Preston Stafford was dying from a gunshot wound, he told police his killer was a black man, in his 20s or 30s, who might have said something about Stafford owing him money.

The man charged with his death is not black, and a Pierce County jury began deliberating Wednesday to decide whether he is guilty.

In his closing argument, Deputy Prosecutor John Neeb told jurors the discrepancy wasn’t enough to overcome other evidence — including jailhouse letters Neeb called Stafford’s “magnum opus” of the crime — that showed 36-year-old John Francis Jude Suppah was the one who shot Stafford.

Defense attorney Kent Underwood told jurors the evidence presented during the two-week trial doesn’t prove Suppah was the one who fired, and pointed out that Stafford knew Suppah and didn’t identify him as the gunman.

Before the shooting Dec. 19, 2015, Stafford had messaged Suppah’s girlfriend for a ride, and it was dark as he waited about 1 a.m. at East T and Morton streets.

Instead of the ride, Neeb told jurors: “Death showed up for Mr. Stafford. Death in the form of John Suppah.”

The 30-year-old was shot once in the torso by the driver of the car, a man he said was wearing dark clothing, including a hood or a hat.

Initial court records identify Suppah as a white man. An amended document in August identified his race as American Indian/Alaska Native.

Neeb said Stafford could have been mistaken when he spoke to police — that the dying man might not have been able to pay attention to get all the details right.

Stafford allegedly owed Suppah $50, and witnesses said Suppah became jealous when others spoke with his girlfriend.

He’s accused of first-degree murder, second-degree murder, drive-by shooting, unlawful gun possession, possession of a stolen vehicle and two counts of witness tampering in the case.

Also charged are 41-year-old Nadine Jolie Lezard — Suppah’s girlfriend at the time — and 40-year-old Thomas Jun Watts. Both were accused of being with Suppah during the shooting and pleaded guilty. They are to be sentenced next month.

Lezard pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and Watts to first-degree rendering criminal assistance.

Neeb told jurors that Suppah wrote Lezard and Watts letters from jail, telling them different things to tell police, such as that Stafford was shot when he tried to get in the wrong car, thinking it was his ride.

“They’re John Suppah’s written confession,” Neeb said of the letters.

He told jurors that, when they read them, “Forget about reasonable doubt. You’re not going to have any doubt.”

Underwood said the letters “might look damning,” but he asked jurors to consider as they read them: “Is this somebody who is making a bad decision, because they’re caught in a very precarious position, and they want the truth to come out?”

He pointed out inconsistencies in the testimony of the codefendants, and argued the evidence doesn’t support the allegation that Suppah was the one who fired.

But if jurors find differently, he said, they could find that Suppah acted recklessly, committing a lesser crime than the premeditated murder he’s charged with.

A shooting can be intended to injure, not to kill, he pointed out.

Killing someone, he said, is: “not a good way to get your money back.”

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell

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