Weeks before the trial in a high-profile murder case was scheduled to commence, a plea agreement has been reached. It dismisses all but a single count against a woman previously accused of playing a part in her brother’s death.
Stephanie Jackson, 35, pleaded guilty this past Friday to one count of tampering with a deceased human body with aggravated circumstances, a Class 3 felony. In exchange, first-degree murder and numerous other charges were dropped.
Jackson was accused of the crimes stemming from the death of her brother, Jake Millison, who was reported missing in 2015 before his body was found buried under a corral on the family’s 7-11 Ranch near Parlin, east of Gunnison, in July 2017.
Millison’s mother, Deborah Rudibaugh, confessed to shooting her son in the head as he slept after years of what she described as threats and physical abuse. However, authorities contended that she did not act alone in committing the crime or disposing of the body — leading to the arrests of Jackson and her husband, David Jackson.
The future of the 7-11 Ranch appeared to be at the root of strife among family members prior to Millison’s disappearance. In a will signed April 27, 2015 — week’s before the date Millison is believed to have been murdered — Rudibaugh left the ranch to Stephanie Jackson.
In addition to first-degree murder after deliberation, Jackson was originally charged with accessory to a crime, tampering with a deceased human body, tampering with a witness or victim, concealing a death, tampering with physical evidence and abuse of a corpse. Her trial was previously scheduled to commence Sept. 23.
Rudibaugh was sentenced to 40 years in prison earlier this year after pleading guilty to second-degree murder.
David Jackson is currently free on bond until after the conclusion of his wife’s case. Late last year, he agreed to plead guilty to tampering with a deceased human body, which carries a stipulated sentence of 10 years in a state correctional facility.
On Friday, District Court Judge J. Steven Patrick asked the defendant why she agreed to the plea offer. He noted that by signing the agreement, Jackson was avoiding the possibility of conviction on a more serious charge, should the case have gone to trial.
“I feel after talking with my family and (defense attorneys), given the circumstances this is the best course of action,” said Jackson. “Besides my brother, my father and my son are the biggest victims. I can’t put them through a trial that would be a media circus.”
Jackson said her son’s photo and name had been posted on an international news outlet’s social media page.
“His safety and well-being are my top priority,” she said.
District Attorney Dan Hotsenpiller said the homicide charge against Jackson was based on criminal liability as an accomplice — meaning the evidence suggested that Jackson encouraged Rudibaugh to commit murder.
“This requires proof that Ms. Jackson acted with the specific intent to have Jacob Millison murdered, and that she took steps before the homicide to encourage the criminal act,” Hotsenpiller wrote in an e-mail to the Times. “These cases are always very challenging to prove.”
Hotsenpiller also noted more than two years passed between the time Millison was killed and when his body was discovered, which had a “clear and obvious impact on the evidence.”
The Class 3 felony with aggravating circumstances, he said, justifies a longer jail sentence — 16 to 24 years — than the presumptive range.
“In light of the evidence and the position of the victim’s family, this range of a significant sentence is appropriate,” Hotsenpiller continued. “Of course, achieving finality with an agreed resolution is of great value, and eliminates trial continuances, likely change of venue, appeals and years of post-conviction litigation. This finality is even more important in a case that is already more than four years old.”
Judge Patrick ordered a presentencing investigation before Jackson’s next court date. He noted the number of documents which would need to be reviewed before sentencing. Patrick said he would vacate the jury trial and cancel 400 jury invitations.
In the meantime, Jackson remains in the custody of the Gunnison County jail. Sentencing is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 8, at 1:30 p.m.
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org .)