Crime

Dying victim was wrong about who shot him, jury decides in Tacoma murder case

Preston Stafford was mistaken when, as he was dying, he told police the man who shot him was black, a Pierce County jury decided Friday.

Jurors convicted 36-year-old John Francis Jude Suppah, who is not black, in Stafford’s death.

The jury didn’t find Suppah guilty of premeditated first-degree murder, but did return guilty verdicts for second-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, second-degree unlawful gun possession, possession of a stolen vehicle, and two counts of witness tampering.

The shooting on Dec. 19, 2015, happened after 30-year-old Stafford messaged Suppah’s girlfriend to ask for a ride and waited for it near East T and Morton streets in Tacoma.

Suppah showed up driving a stolen vehicle, and shot Stafford once in the torso as he approached the car.

Stafford allegedly owed Suppah $50, and witnesses said Suppah got jealous when others talked to his girlfriend.

Stafford didn’t recognize Suppah as the shooter, and told police before he died that the gunman was a black man in his 20s or 30s.

Initial court records identified Suppah as white but a more recent one lists his race as American Indian/Alaska Native.

Jurors got the case late Wednesday, after about two weeks of testimony in Superior Court. Friday morning, they had their verdict.

Asked how the jury came to its decision, Deputy Prosecutor John Neeb said he thought letters Suppah wrote to his codefendants in jail were significant.

Also charged in the case are Suppah’s girlfriend at the time — 41-year-old Nadine Jolie Lezard — and 40-year-old Thomas Jun Watts. Both were in the car when the shooting happened, and Suppah stayed in Watts’ hotel room after.

Suppah wrote them from jail, telling them things they should say to police. This led to witness tampering charges. The gun possession charge relates to Suppah’s prior felony convictions, which made it illegal for him to have a firearm.

Lezard has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and Watts to first-degree rendering criminal assistance. They and Suppah are to be sentenced Oct. 13.

Neeb said Suppah faces a standard sentencing range of 29 years, 10 months to 38 years, one month in prison.

The prosecutor said he expects to ask for an exceptional sentence above that range, given Suppah’s criminal history, which includes more than 20 prior felony convictions.

Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268, @amkrell

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