Judge finds ‘reasonable belief’ of sister’s involvement
Photo by: 
Times File

“Reasonable belief” versus “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the difference between the two is enough to proceed with first-degree murder and other charges “good things” were happening for her family, and that she had “awesome news” that made her want to run outside “screaming.”

Yet, the defense argued a lack of forensic evidence fails to tie Jackson to the scene of the murder, and that Jackson’s desire to remove her brother from the ranch was far different than wanting him dead.

Rudibaugh admitted to killing her son. However, court records show that the woman changed the story of her son’s disappearance — and what became of his body — over time, leading investigators to believe that Rudibaugh had accomplices. The prosecution also argued that due to Rudibaugh’s failing health, it is unlikely she could have carried out the act as told to investigators.

Following six hours of witness testimony, Judge Patrick based his decision on the difference between a preliminary hearing and an actual trial.

“The preliminary hearing is not a mini trial,” the judge said. “The purpose of a preliminary hearing … is to be a screening device to determine if there is probable cause to believe crime was committed and committed by defendant.”


The ranch at stake

Jackson was present for the hearing, wearing an orange sweatshirt. Her dark blond hair was pulled to a braid on one side with bleach blond coloring only at the ends. Five 2-3 inch binders were laid out behind her and public defenders Abby Kurtz-Phelan and Daniel Lavrisha containing defense documents.

Information presented at Thursday’s hearing was based on testimony from one witness — Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) agent Rosa Perez. Perez was the lead investigator for CBI who assisted the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office with the case.

Based on information downloaded from cellphones and other electronic devices such as tablets and computers, Perez detailed a trail of clues such as social media posts and messages, and cell phone texts. She also revealed information learned from the CBI investigation and suspect interviews through questioning by Deputy District Attorney Waggoner.

Perez testified that in May 2009, Stephanie Jackson received $30,000 in inheritance from her stepfather, Rudy Rudibaugh. The money was to be used to purchase a home in the Denver area. Yet, following her husband’s death, Rudibaugh’s will stipulated the ranch would be left to her son, Jake, and her stepson Shane Rudibaugh.

Perez said that in 2012, Jackson messaged a friend telling him that she was moving back to Gunnison, and she would not allow her mother to sell the ranch. The Jackson family moved back to the ranch in June of that year.

In the months that followed, the relationship between the Jacksons and Millison proved contentious. Perez said Jackson admitted as much. Jackson complained on social media that her mother favored Millison. The CBI agent also told the court Millison’s father had characterized his son as the apple of his mother’s eye.

In January 2013, Millison was granted a temporary restraining order against David Jackson after an argument between the two men. In April 2014, Perez testified, Stephanie Jackson wrote in an online blog that her brother was trying to ruin her life because the family was forced to move off the ranch.

Yet, the defense tried to show that Jackson was not the only person who would benefit from Millison’s death. During cross examination by attorney Kurtz-Phelan, Perez testified that Millison had a strained relationship with not only his sister, but his mother as well. Friends of Millison told Perez that he would fight with his mother in front of them, and they would chide him for such behavior.


Would not solve her problem

Yet, just a year later, Rudibaugh had changed her will, making Jackson the beneficiary of the ranch, Perez testified. The change took place just 10 days before Rudibaugh was to undergo gallbladder surgery. Rudibaugh was already in poor health before the surgery, weighing only 97 pounds, Perez said.

Investigators determined Millison was murdered in the early morning hours of May 16, 2015 — just nine days after Rudibaugh’s surgery, casting further doubt on Rudibaugh’s ability to kill Millison and hide his body.

Perez told the court that cell phone records indicate Jackson did not receive or send any text messages from 6:44 p.m. the night of May 15, until after 8 a.m. the following day. However, Perez said evidence indicates Jackson deleted an e-mail at 3:23 a.m. the morning of the murder. The 7-11 ranch is not within range of cell service, Perez explained, but it does have internet.

Jackson admitted to Perez that she helped her mother move Millison’s mattress to a burn pile and observed “specks” of blood on it. Jackson told the investigator that the mattress was believed to have had bed bugs.

Perez testified that interviews with Millison’s friends revealed his “pride and joy” was a black Harley Davidson motorcycle. Friends told Perez that Millison so valued the motorcycle that no one was allowed to touch it.

Yet, in the days following Millison’s death, social media posts indicated David Jackson had made modifications to the motorcycle and was pictured with it. When cross examined, Perez said Stephanie Jackson had not been tied to the modifications made to the Harley Davidson.

Defense attorney Kurtz-Phelan also questioned Perez about DNA found at the scene, such as on the Smith and Wesson handgun used to shoot Millison, or on the tarp or duct tape used to package his body. The agent said lab reports determined Jackson’s presence was “inconclusive.”

The defense argued that no forensic evidence or other statements implicated Jackson in the murder, and that the prosecution assumed Jackson was involved simply because Rudibaugh “could not do it on her own.”

Jackson told Perez that she had urged her mother to kick Millison off the ranch, but then admitted even doing that would not solve her problem.


Remembered ‘that way’

In a May 2017 interview, Jackson told Perez that she, her husband and another friend living on the ranch had found Millison’s body in the manure pile. Jackson then went to call her mother who instructed her to cover up the body. Jackson later admitted she knew it was Millison’s body at the time the remains were found.

The defense, however, asked Perez what Jackson had said about Rudibaugh’s reasons for covering up the body. Rudibaugh had told Jackson that the remains were that of either a bear or mountain lion which had illegally been shot by Millison and the family wasn’t allowed to keep it, Perez said.

Jackson eventually admitted to Perez that she helped move the body following the discovery because she did not want her mother remembered “that way.” However, Perez testified that when questioned on June 27, 2017 after the body had been moved, Jackson told authorities she still did not know where Millison was and that he could still return to the ranch.

Yet, in the search of the ranch conducted on July 17, 2017, agent Perez testified blood was found on a post in Millison’s bedroom, and that it had spilled through to a lower beam which had been sanded in what appeared to be an attempt to remove it.

Still, the defense said the prosecution could not show that Jackson knew that Rudibaugh would kill Millison.

“What (the evidence) shows is Stephanie Jackson wanted Jacob Millison off the ranch,” said defense attorney Lavrisha. “That’s not the same as wanting him dead or wanting her mother to kill him. To get to that intent, you have to make inference upon an inference. That’s not permissible in preliminary hearing.”

However, prosecutor Waggoner encouraged Judge Patrick to look at the evidence as a whole to understand Jackson’s mindset.

“Her encouraging (Deborah) to get rid of Jake — she admitted that wasn’t going to fix her problem,” said Waggoner. “Look at all statements as a whole to show she knew what Deb was going to do and … in two days celebrated someone is gone. If someone was coming back … that would not be the response.”


Going to trial

The court reconvened on Friday morning. After reviewing the facts presented in the case, Judge Patrick noted that the most difficult charge to consider was that of firstdegree murder.

Patrick noted the long history of statements made by Jackson as to the difficult nature of her relationship with her brother. He said there are statements of her ability to influence her mother, and that the transition of Rudibaugh’s will to favor Jackson over Millison a month before Millison’s death was a concern, given Rudibaugh’s health.

Patrick acknowledged the evidence did not suggest Jackson knew her mother was going to commit the act. But for the limited role the court plays in a preliminary hearing, the prosecution had met its burden of proof, he said.

“I have to conclude based on evidence presented there is a reasonable belief for purposes of viewing it in light which most favors of prosecution’s evidence, that she had instigated, incited and emboldened (Rudibaugh) to kill her son that the court finds on the charge that it should go to a jury,” said Patrick.

Jackson is scheduled for entry of plea on Dec. 4 at 10:30 a.m.

Rudibaugh — who waived her right to a preliminary hearing — is scheduled for entry of plea on Dec. 7 at 8:30 a.m.


(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.rourke@gunnisontimes.com .)