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July 8, 2009

Shot in the dark

Fifteen years ago, Trent DiGiuro was gunned down on his front porch. Today his killer is free

It was almost 5 a.m. when the phone rang.

The call jarred Mike DiGiuro awake, and he fumbled for the telephone in the dark. The man on the line identified himself as a police dispatcher, and groggy confusion turned to panic.

Then came the matter-of-fact statement that changed life in an instant: “Mr. DiGiuro, I’ve got some bad news — your son Trent’s been killed.”

The dispatcher had no other details, instructing DiGiuro to call the coroner in Lexington.

“And that was it,” says DiGiuro, recounting the moment he and his wife, Ann, learned of their youngest son’s death. “There’s no good way to explain what happened next.”

The Oldham County couple would soon learn in excruciating detail what transpired two hours earlier on the front porch of 570 Woodland Ave., a blue, two-story house their son rented with several friends near the University of Kentucky campus.

That night, Trent DiGiuro had been celebrating his 21st birthday. A keg party at his house was winding down, and Trent was chatting with two friends on the front porch, sitting in his favorite brown leather recliner — a perfect fit for the 6-foot-2, 275-pound college football player.

Trent was laughing and talking about the upcoming season when a loud bang halted the conversation. Trent’s friends jumped up and panned the area, but saw nothing in the darkness. When they turned around, they saw Trent slumped in his big leather chair.

Police later determined that at 2:40 a.m. on Sunday, July 17, 1994, a gunman positioned himself underneath a dogwood tree at the corner of Woodland and Columbia avenues, a location that would have provided a clear line of fire and an easy escape. Two divots in the dirt at that spot suggested the shooter used a bi-pod rifle stand to steady his weapon. They believe the marksman then carefully aimed the rifle — likely a .243 with a right-twist barrel pattern — and pulled the trigger, releasing a copper-jacketed bullet that struck DiGiuro in the left ear, traveling through his skull and into his brain, killing him instantly.

What they did not know is who might have carried out this deadly act, a mystery that remained unsolved for nearly six years.

“There for a while we would call the detectives every couple of days and ask them what’s going on, then it was every week. Next thing you know, it was a year later,” says DiGiuro, adding that he always believed someone would eventually come forward with information about his son’s murder.

But for years it was only false leads that poured in, with detectives chasing down and ultimately discounting each one.

Then, in January 2000, Mike DiGiuro called to check on the status of the investigation, expecting to hear there was nothing new to report. “Instead the detective told me he had something and in fact, it was the only thing he was working on.”

Earlier that week, an anonymous source relayed a tip directing the lead detective to an unlikely suspect named Shane Ragland, the son of a wealthy Frankfort businessman who attended UK at the same time as Trent. Perhaps even more baffling than the prospect of this preppy computer whiz from an upper-class family committing murder was the supposed motive: a grudge that had festered since Trent DiGiuro took the blame for having him blackballed from a fraternity their freshman year.

It sounded implausible, but the deeper detectives delved into story, the more clues they uncovered suggesting Ragland was the killer.

“I always knew there was a reason, but I didn’t know if we’d ever know what it was. Then when we found out the reason — it was just so stupid,” says DiGiuro, sitting behind a desk strewn with papers on a recent weekday afternoon. Fiddling with a paperclip, he shrugs his shoulders and adds, “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

It has been 15 years since Trent DiGiuro was murdered, and his father says the long, arduous journey of seeking justice is not finished.

It is true Ragland was arrested and charged with murder. It is also true a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to 30 years. But with the help of a high-priced legal team, Ragland appealed the verdict, and his conviction ultimately was overturned. By then, the prosecution’s key witness would no longer cooperate and the case began to crumble. In the end, the Fayette County commonwealth’s attorney offered Ragland a sweetheart deal — plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter and walk out of the courthouse a free man.

The DiGiuros filed a wrongful death suit against Ragland, which Mike DiGiuro says is meant to ensure “this guy doesn’t live fat and happy on daddy’s money for the rest of his life.” Last August, it again appeared justice might prevail when a Fayette Circuit Court jury awarded a record-setting $63.3 million at a trial Ragland did not even bother to attend.

Then came another appeal, with Ragland claiming — ironically, through a well-compensated lawyer — that he is broke and that the judgment is excessive. The Kentucky Court of Appeals is considering his appeal.

“At this point, if I have to spend $1,000 to collect $100 out of him, I’ll do it, just on principle,” says DiGiuro. “Hopefully, every week for the rest of his life something comes out of his paycheck, just so he remembers it.”

Most of the homicide division was out of town for a training exercise when the call came in at 3 a.m., meaning Officer Don Evans would have to handle this one alone.

At 28 years old, Evans was a rookie homicide detective with the Lexington Police Department, and this would be the first time he responded to a murder scene as the lead investigator.

All he knew as he drove toward the Woodland Avenue house was that a young male victim had been fatally shot at an off-campus party. “I remember thinking at the time that this was probably going to be fairly routine,” Evans recalls. “I assumed that because it involved someone being shot at a party, there would be a lot of witnesses, and that somebody was going to be able to tell me what happened.”

But during initial interviews at the scene, the victim’s distraught friends said they had no idea what happened.

Believing the witnesses might just be scared to talk, Evans brought them to police headquarters and conducted individual interviews. It was during a conversation with Sean Mann — a close friend of Trent’s who was on the porch when the shooting occurred — that Evans grasped the gravity of the situation.

“His friend looked at me and said, ‘Detective, you are going to figure out who did this, right?’ That’s when I realized they really didn’t have a clue,” says Evans.

In the wake of the sniper-style slaying, Evans forged ahead with little to go on, conducting interviews, canvassing the neighborhood, and looking into Trent’s past for anything that might shed light on why someone would want him dead.

Typically, Evans says it doesn’t take a homicide detective long to come up with at least a possible motive — if a gas station attendant is found dead behind the register, robbery; if a drug dealer is killed, a deal gone bad; if the victim was in a tumultuous relationship or having an affair, a romantic quarrel turned deadly.

In this case, the cold-blooded murder of a college student sparked a frenzy of rumors around Lexington. There was speculation that Trent might have been on steroids and was killed by a dealer. There was talk of a mysterious, married woman who was supposedly sleeping with football players, and whose jealous husband may have found out.

“But with Trent there was nothing like that. Trent was just a good guy,” says Evans, adding that police disproved each of these outlandish stories. “There was nothing torrid here. Trent’s life was his friends and football.”

From the beginning it seemed Trent DiGiuro was destined to play football — he was always a big boy, weighing nearly 12 pounds when he was born. As he got older, Trent developed a bold personality that complemented his burly stature. His father recalls how he was often stubborn, but good-natured: When sent to his room, he would sit in the doorway with his hand barely over the threshold. He was inquisitive, but satisfied with a suitable explanation: When he learned his older brother, Thad, was in the advanced program at school, he wanted to observe an upper-level class to see what he was missing. He did, and after a few minutes he was content to return to his own classroom.

Raised in the Oldham County suburb of Goshen, Trent was always popular, and although an average student, he worked hard to achieve good grades. In the fifth grade he began playing football, which soon became a year-round activity. By the time he was a sophomore at Oldham County High School, Trent was starting for the varsity team.

“He sort of became the big man on campus,” says his father, whose office bookshelves are lined with dozens of family photos. Prominently displayed among them is a picture of Trent cradling a football and wearing his UK football uniform, the No. 67 emblazoned on a royal blue jersey.

After Trent’s death, the DiGiuros received countless phone calls and letters relaying fond memories of their son. His middle school principal told them how Trent befriended a disabled classmate who was ridiculed by the other kids. The father of one of his college friends called to say thanks for raising such a protective young man, explaining how when a guy was harassing his daughter at a bar, Trent “knocked him on his ass,” which DiGiuro says with a smile, “was sort of his way.”

“I think all kids do those things from time to time, but because there’s no tragedy, you never hear about it,” he says. “It’s sort of unfortunate that most of the real good stories about Trent we never heard until after he was killed.”

When it came time for Trent to decide on a college, several smaller schools showed interest in offering him a football scholarship, but he was determined to play for a Division I university.

As a freshman at UK in 1991, Trent made the team as a walk-on. During his second year, the offensive lineman made his collegiate debut on the field, playing only a few minutes. During his third year, Trent began traveling with the team and getting ample game time. And in the summer of 1994, Trent was preparing to be a starter in the upcoming season.

“He had gotten past the wild part of college and was very dedicated to football,” says DiGiuro. That summer he was working in the weight room as a strength coach, and could often be found running wind-sprints on the practice field by himself. Off the field, he was majoring in business and had mentioned the possibility of law school.

A few days before Trent’s death, the DiGiuros visited their son in Lexington, grabbing an early dinner at a local sandwich shop. Their conversation was unremarkable — they talked about football, and Trent’s plans to come home the following week to celebrate his 21st birthday with family.

It was a trip he never had the chance to make.

A high-profile murder mystery like this was bound to garner vast media attention, which can both help and hinder a case. In the early months of the investigation, dozens of tips flooded in, but none panned out. One such dead-end involved a Woodford County man who had called the department on several occasions to discuss the case. Investigators obtained a warrant and searched the man’s remote shack, where they discovered hundreds of paper plates on which he had scribbled messages to Trent. It ultimately was determined the mentally unstable man had become obsessed with the case from what he read in the news.

Eventually, “America’s Most Wanted” highlighted Trent’s murder in an episode, resulting in hundreds of leads from all over the country.

“It’s a catch-22. This can cause people — the crazies, so to speak — to come out of the woodwork,” says Evans. “But it can also keep things moving forward and keep it on people’s minds, which in this case ultimately brought it to fruition.”

Although Evans was eventually moved to the burglary unit, he kept this murder case, in large part because he had formed a good relationship with Trent’s family. Over the years he re-interviewed witnesses and pored over the file, at times asking fellow officers to do the same, hoping they would pick up on something he missed.

But the investigation remained stalled until January 2000, when Evans received a call from a local attorney. The Lexington lawyer, Tom Bullock, said he was calling on behalf of a client who had information vital to solving the case. That client turned out to be Shane Ragland’s ex-girlfriend, Aimee Lloyd.

Unable to find any mention of Ragland in the case file’s hundreds of pages, the detective followed up with the attorney representing Lloyd, who insisted that she remain anonymous. Through her lawyer, Lloyd claimed that while she was having drinks with Ragland at a Lexington pub about a year after the murder, he admitted to killing Trent during a conversation about the “most terrible” things they had ever done. She proceeded to relay this version of his confession: Ragland was on his way home when he noticed Trent sitting on his front porch. He rushed to his house — just up the block on Woodland Avenue — and retrieved his rifle, stashing it in a duffle bag and riding his bike back to the corner of Woodland and Columbia, traveling through backyards to avoid detection. He then shot Trent once in the head. The motive: Ragland wanted revenge for being blackballed from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

Evans dug through old fraternity records, finding a list of SAE pledges from 1991. The list included the name “Shane Ragland” with a line through it.

It was a major break, but it was just the beginning.

Evans compiled a list of random names and showed it to Matt Blandford, one of Trent’s closest friends. As Blandford scanned the list looking for someone who might have had a problem with his friend, his expression changed when he saw Ragland’s name. This was the guy.

In the fall of 1991, Blandford was sharing a dorm with Trent, and on one occasion early in the semester, Ragland visited their room. While there, Ragland noticed a calendar with photographs of female UK students, one of whom he bragged about having slept with. That woman turned out to be the girlfriend of an officer in the SAE fraternity, which both Blandford and Ragland were pledging.

When the SAE officer learned of Ragland’s boast, he kicked him out of the pledge class.

Soon after, Ragland encountered Blandford and DiGiuro walking across campus and angrily confronted them. He was furious, saying he couldn’t believe Blandford had “dicked a pledge brother,” according to court documents. That’s when Trent — who was not in a fraternity — stepped up and took the blame, saying he was the one who told.

“That explained why I couldn’t figure out who did it, because it was such a stupid reason,” says Evans. “Who would think that something so stupid that occurred three years ago would cause this guy to come back and assassinate someone?”

Following the murder at 570 Woodland Ave., Trent’s friends were grief-stricken and afraid for their lives. Because police at the time had no idea who might have fired the fatal shot, it was unclear whether anyone else might be a target.

“At practice I would look out into the tree line and wonder if there was someone out there,” says Antonio O’Ferral, a former UK football player who was living with Trent when he was killed. Unable to live in the same house after that deadly night, O’Ferral moved into an apartment with his girlfriend across campus. “We couldn’t even sit on the porch on a cool fall day. We walked quickly to and from the car and never spent much time outside … We avoided driving down Woodland and near the house. It was a difficult time.”

Eventually that paranoia dwindled, but the pain did not.

“Words can’t explain the loss we suffered that night,” says O’Ferral, before veering off in a more positive direction, recalling Trent as someone who taught him to golf, and who scooped him up like a feather and rushed him to the emergency room when he blew out his knee. “I can truly say there aren’t many days that go by that I don’t think about Trent.”

Over the past 15 years, O’Ferral has remained close with Trent’s parents, who are godparents to both his children.

At least twice a year the DiGiuros open their home to O’Ferral and many of Trent’s out-of-town friends — on Thanksgiving, and again in the summer when they host an event to raise money for the Trent DiGiuro Foundation, which provides scholarships to students in Oldham County and at the University of Kentucky.

“We have a good time, laugh and tell stories,” DiGiuro says of the gatherings. “Any time any of the kids will come over they will go down to Trent’s room. They’ll get into his closet and rummage around, look at pictures.”

DiGiuro says reminiscing about Trent no longer makes him sad. What’s heartbreaking is thinking about all the things Trent will never get to do. “I remember the look on my oldest son’s face when he saw his wife on his wedding day for the first time, and Trent is never going to have that. And I remember when he came running out of the delivery room when his baby was born. Trent is never going to have that. That’s what we miss.”

On the day after Trent was killed, the DiGiuros were sitting by a pond in their backyard. At that moment, DiGiuro says they determined this tragedy was not going to destroy their lives. “We decided that except for more time with Trent, we wouldn’t change a thing.”

It took a long time for them to laugh again. But now, he says, “Any day that we don’t laugh is a day that this guy wins, and we aren’t going to let that happen.”

After nearly six years, the long-stagnant murder investigation was suddenly in motion. But police would still need the help of Aimee Lloyd, who was terrified of what Ragland might do if he discovered she was assisting police. In fact, she said it was fear that prevented her from coming forward sooner.

Although the couple had broken up long ago, Lloyd remained haunted by Ragland’s confession. She had tried to forget about it and move on with her life; then she came across a newspaper article about the five-year anniversary of the unsolved murder. For months the article weighed on her conscience, and eventually she came forward.

“Even though she was vehement about not helping,” says Evans, “we were able to convince her with some conditions.”

In exchange for the promise of protection — including a new name and Social Security number, and a new home where she could not be found — Lloyd agreed to contact her ex and set up a meeting.

First Lloyd contacted Ragland via e-mail, and the two exchanged phone numbers. During a series of calls that were recorded, they talked about their past relationship, Lloyd’s recent breast surgery, and the suicide of Ragland’s brother in 1994, among other topics. Investigators then concocted a story for Lloyd to tell about having recently broken up with a boyfriend, saying she would be traveling through Lexington on business and would like to get together. Ragland took the bait and the two met for a drink at the bar inside Blue Grass Airport.

Wearing a wire, Lloyd brought up the murder and Ragland’s past confession, saying she wished he had never told her. The following is an excerpt from that recorded conversation:

Lloyd: Something has been bothering me. Something you told me a long time ago. I wish you never had. I need to know how you feel about it now.

Ragland: I regret it …

Lloyd: How could you do something like that over something so fucking stupid? Do you ever think about that?

Ragland: You are making me uncomfortable about it now, just thinking about it …

Lloyd: Do you ever plan on telling anybody what you did?

Ragland: Of course not. You’re scaring me talking about this. I’ve never told anybody else … You’re not setting me up are you? Swear to me you are not setting me up …

Lloyd: I need to get some closure.

Ragland: I do too … I could tell you everything. I just needed to get it off my chest … To answer your question, I am very, very remorseful.

Lloyd: How could you be so stupid?

Ragland: I know … I made the wrong decision. But there is nothing I can do now.

The next day, on July 14, 2000, Kentucky State Police arrested Shane Ragland and charged him with the murder of Trent DiGiuro. Because Ragland, 27, split his time living with his divorced parents, law enforcement searched both Frankfort homes. At his father’s house, they found a box of .243 caliber bullets. At his mother’s, they found a .243 caliber Weatherby rifle with a right-twist barrel pattern.

Immediately Ragland was transported to the Lexington Police Department, where he maintained his innocence throughout a videotaped interview. One month later, he was released from jail after his father, Jerry Ragland, posted a $1 million bond. Unlike most defendants charged with murder, Ragland remained free pending trial, which commenced in March 2002.

“It was very traumatic the first time we were in court,” says DiGiuro, recalling how he and his wife were ushered in through the basement to avoid reporters swarming outside. “It seemed like we were in court 100 times after that.”

Despite her reluctance, Aimee Lloyd agreed to testify at trial, serving as the prosecution’s star witness. Other evidence against Ragland included his rifle and ammunition, which were considered a match to the murder weapon, but could not be conclusively linked to the crime. In addition, the prosecution outlined for the jury that Ragland had the motive, the means and the opportunity to kill Trent DiGiuro.

The team of three star defense attorneys fired back, saying Lloyd was nothing more than a bitter ex-girlfriend who admitted that she hated Ragland, and who police shrewdly used to trap their client. Further, they discounted being blackballed from a fraternity as a believable motive for murder.

At the conclusion of the three-week trial, the jury returned a guilty verdict, and the judge sentenced Ragland to 30 years.

What followed was a convoluted legal battle: Several months after trial it was determined that an FBI bullet analyst inexplicably lied on the stand during a pre-trial hearing in the Ragland case. After reviewing the matter, Fayette Circuit Judge Thomas Clark determined the inaccurate testimony was inconsequential.

In an unrelated appeal, the defense claimed the prosecutor violated Ragland’s constitutional rights during closing arguments by referring to the fact that he refused to testify. The Kentucky Supreme Court agreed and ordered a new trial, but later — in a highly unusual move — agreed to reconsider its ruling. In the meantime, the defense filed yet another appeal, this time challenging the type of bullet analysis used in Ragland’s case, a method the FBI had since stopped using because it was unreliable.

This time, Ragland was successful and his conviction was overturned.

But by then, a retrial was not an option. In convincing Aimee Lloyd to testify the first time, prosecutors had promised she would not have to cooperate any further, meaning they had lost their star witness. And so they offered Ragland a deal — confess, plead guilty to a reduced charge, and walk away with a punishment of time served, which amounted to four years and three months years behind bars. Immediately after that hearing, Ragland retracted his confession.

“It chapped my ass pretty good, but at that point it was all we were going to be able to get,” says DiGiuro. “The fact is he had a conviction overturned on evidence that was insignificant.”

Given how much Ragland likely shelled out for his defense — an amount some observers estimate exceeded $2 million — DiGiuro isn’t all that surprised.

“I think everyone realized if this had been a poor kid from the ghetto he would be in jail, and he never would have had all these appeals and top-flight lawyers,” he says.

That’s why he is determined to go forward with attempts to collect on their $63.3 million civil judgment, regardless of the amount they actually receive. The Kentucky Court of Appeals is likely to rule on Ragland’s latest challenge later this year. Even if the judgment is upheld, DiGiuro expects another appeal.

“At some point, we’ll need to decide whether we are going to hound this guy to the end of the earth, or just say to hell with it and forget about it,” he says. “We’re not ready to forget about it yet.” 

RIP Trent

By LK
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