On the morning of June 21, 1984, the body of 25-year-old Elizabeth “Lisa” Ehlers was found next to her car parked at a turnout on Highway 191about 15 miles south of Jackson, Wyoming in Sublette County. She had been shot in the chest and the head.
There were no suspects and the investigation of the murder soon went cold.
In 1985, Troy Willoughby, of Wickes, Montana, was driving a vehicle belonging to an acquaintance, Dell Stewart, through Yellowstone National Park when he was arrested for drunk driving. Willoughby found Stewart’s driver’s license tucked in the visor and presented to the arresting officer. He posted a bond and was released.
In February of 1986, when authorities tracked down Stewart for failing to appear on the charge, he protested his innocence and implicated Willoughby. He also said that he recalled in the fall of 1984 during a hunting trip with Willoughby that they had discussed Ehler’s murder and theorized on what happened.
Stewart said that Willoughby’s description was so vivid that he was terrified.
No investigator, however, followed up on Stewart’s statement.
In 1996, investigators took a new look at the case and, finding Stewart’s reference to Willoughby, decided to interview Willoughby’s ex-wife, Rosa Hosking, who was married to Willoughby at the time of the crime.
She denied knowing anything about the murder. Investigators then questioned Tim Bayse, a friend of both Willoughby and Hosking, and after he was threatened with being charged with the murder, he implicated Willoughby. In a follow-up interview, he recanted that claim and said Willoughby had been at work on an oil drilling rig at the time of the crime. A detective tracked down Willoughby’s work records, which confirmed that he was at work.
In October 2008, nearly a quarter of a century after the crime, a cold-case investigative team from Sublette County, Wyoming decided to take a new look at the murder.
During this investigation, detectives interviewed Hosking again and also re-interviewed Bayse.
This time, after being threatened with prosecution for the murder and being told that DNA linked them to the crime, Hosking and Bayse said that on the night of June 20, 1984, they were at a party with Willoughby and Ehlers and that Willoughby sold some drugs to Ehlers and that she drove off without paying.
Willoughby was enraged, they said, and the three of them chased after Ehlers in their car until they caught up to her at the turnout, north of Bondurant, Wyoming. There, they said, Willoughby pulled Ehlers from her car and knocked her down. He then retrieved a pistol and shot her in the chest and then behind her left ear.
The three then drove off and Willoughby later disposed of the gun in a septic tank.
Investigators went to Montana and brought Willoughby in for questioning in Helena. He was interrogated for nearly 17 hours over two days. He denied involvement in the murder for 11 hours on the first day.
On the second day, after nearly six hours of interrogation, he said he was driving through the canyon and passed another individual, whom he identified as Bob Crews, driving by with a male passenger. He said he turned around and met up with them. He said he thought they had done something but he didn’t know what. He said he drove off and went by the turnout and saw Ehler’s car parked there.
However, his description of where the car was located and how it was parked, as well as numerous other details he provided were inaccurate.
Although he recanted the statement five days later, Willoughby was arrested on March 1, 2009 and charged with murder.
He went to trial in January 2010. Hosking and Bayse testified that when they came upon Ehler’s car parked in the turnout, Willoughby said, “I’ve been looking for her.” They said that he dragged Ehlers out of the car by her hair and a screaming match and a struggle ensued. Willoughby, they said, punched Ehlers twice in the face, knocking her to the ground. He then came back to their car, got his pistol, and shot Ehlers as she was lying on the ground.
Hosking said that when he returned to their car, Willoughby said, “This will teach (her) to rip me off.” They then drove to the town of Daniel, south of Jackson, where Hosking and Willoughby lived.
An inmate testified that Willoughby had admitted to the murder while both were incarcerated while Willoughby was awaiting trial.
The pathologist who performed the autopsy in 1984 was no longer available to testify, so prosecutors summoned another pathologist who reviewed the photos and reports of the original examination of the body.
The new pathologist testified that Ehlers had been shot about 6 a.m. on June 21, 1984. Further, the pathologist testified that Ehlers’ nose had been broken (consistent with Bayse’s testimony that Willoughby punched Ehlers in the face), even though the original autopsy report said there were no facial injuries and the nose was not broken.
Willoughby testified that he was at work on an oil rig at the time the murder occurred. The prosecution brought in a handwriting expert who testified that he believed the sign-in log had been forged. And the prosecution presented a witness who alleged that Willoughby had told him that he paid a co-worker $100 to falsely sign a drilling log.
On January 29, 2010, after a 10-day trial, the jury took just one hour to find Willoughby guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
On June 8, 2011, the Wyoming Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence.
Two days later, Willoughby’s trial attorneys, Kerri Johnson and Rob Oldham, were provided with police reports from June 21, 1984 that they had never seen before. The reports showed that at the same time that Hosking and Bayse said they were at a party with Willoughby and Ehlers in Jackson, police in Daniel, Wyoming—more than 65 miles from Jackson—were questioning Willoughby about a rock-throwing incident following a dispute with three people at a bar in Pinedale, Wyoming.
At 12:38 a.m., according to the reports, Willoughby complained to the Sublette County Sheriff’s office that he and his wife were being harassed by three people, whose names Willoughby provided.
A sheriff’s deputy was dispatched to Willoughby’s home to investigate further, but before he could get there, he was summoned back to the station where the three individuals Willoughby named were demanding to file a complaint against Willoughby. They alleged he had thrown a rock at their car, breaking a window. All three said that they saw or spoke to Willoughby’s wife during the incident.
A week after the reports were disclosed, Sublette County Attorney Neal Stelting announced that an internal investigation of the case turned up evidence that his predecessor, former County Attorney Lucky McMahon, knew of the evidence and had failed to turn it over to the defense.
A motion for a new trial was filed within days and a hearing was held on August 1, 2011 before Sublette County District Judge Timothy Day.
At the hearing, evidence was presented showing that the existence of the report became known during the cold case investigation and that one detective, Sublette County Capt. Lance Gehlhausen, became concerned that it had not been disclosed to the defense.
Gehlhausen urged that the report be disclosed, but the lead investigators—Sublette County Sheriff’s Capt. Brian Ketterhagen and Randall Hanson, a County Attorney investigator—chose to question Hosking about the rock throwing incident without disclosing the report to her. When Hosking said the incident occurred after the murder, Hanson decided the report was not material to Willoughby’s defense.
Gehlhausen brought the report to the attention to McMahon, then the County Attorney and then became concerned when the report went missing. He decided to tape record conversations with Ketterhagen and Hanson as well as with McMahon.
The tapes were presented at the hearing and, according to Judge Day, showed that the cold-case team knew of the report 13 months prior to Willoughby’s trial.
On one tape, Hanson recounted his conversation with McMahon during which she asked about the report. “When Lucky [McMahon] said, ‘do I have to give it to them?’ I said, ‘No.” She said, ‘Are you sure?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
By October, 2009, three months before Willoughby’s trial, Hanson and Ketterhagen were convinced the report was exculpatory and became concerned that their fingerprints were on the report if it was ever turned over.
According to the tape recordings, they decided to just “keep our mouths shut” and “just let it ride” because “they may not even find it” and “if they find out that we knew that it’s exculpatory, and—he’s gonna (expletive) walk.”
On August 16, 2011, Judge Day set aside Willoughby’s conviction, ruling that the evidence was withheld “under a misguided zeal that the disclosure of the report may result in a failure of justice, in the eyes of the investigators, because they ‘knew’ (Willoughby) was guilty.”
Willoughby went on trial again in January, 2012. The evidence of the withholding, including the tape recordings of the investigators, was presented as evidence to the jury. Hosking and Bayse testified again and insisted that they were with Willoughby and that he shot Ehlers.
After a three-week trial, the jury deliberated for five hours before acquitting Willoughby on February 9, 2012. He was released that day.
Lucky McMahon, who denied withholding exculpatory evidence, was defeated by Stelting in a Republican primary race for County Attorney in August 2010. In January 2011, McMahon was sworn in as an assistant attorney general in the Republic of Palau. In 2012, she returned to Wyoming.
In September 2012, Willoughby filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Sublette County and several of the officers who investigated the case for withholding exculpatory evidence. The lawsuit was settled in September 2013 for $1.25 million.
– Maurice Possley