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Premeditation claim untested at hearing on hammer murder

Apr 20, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Public defender Valerie Schoneberger, who's representing Florin Brandon Wyatt in his murder case, declined to argue Wednesday that there's not enough probable cause to suggest the killing of Keith Stephenson was premeditated.

While living in a bedroom in Stephenson's basement, Wyatt killed the 56-year-old with a claw hammer and then fled Riverton.

County attorney Pat LeBrun originally charged Wyatt with second-degree murder, but new evidence later made him upgrade that charge to first-degree, which could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

The case was bound over to district court this week after LeBrun convinced circuit court judge Wesley Roberts that there's enough information to suggest the killing occurred with "premeditated malice."

Victim shot as well

The hearing revealed new details about the case, including that Wyatt shot Stephenson after he was already dead. He also sent a friend a message on Facebook two days before the killing, saying "well, it looks like Keith is going to be gone for a while."

Sgt. Eric Smits of the Riverton Police Department testified that Wyatt confessed to the killing almost immediately after he was captured near Pine Bluffs.

Wyatt said that when he came home March 2 to Stephenson's house at West Park Avenue, all doors were locked.

When he knocked on the door, Stephenson told him to collect his belongings from the basement and leave.

Instead, Wyatt went to the basement and made it appear he left even though he hadn't. He told police he waited in the basement with a claw hammer, hoping Stephenson would come downstairs.

The victim didn't, and Wyatt eventually fell asleep.

When he awoke the next morning, he waited outside Stephenson's bedroom. When detective Jacob Nation later asked him what he was thinking during that time, he replied: "To be honest, (I was thinking) get it done. Get it over with. Run."

When Stephenson emerged from the bedroom, Wyatt struck him 17 times in the head with the claw hammer.

After Stephenson was dead, Wyatt dragged his body out into the garage and covered his body with towels and blankets.

He then went back into the house and loaded a 0.22 caliber pistol, returned to the garage and shot Stephenson once in the back.

"Shooting a dead man in the backside is pretty strong evidence of malice," LeBrun said.

Fled scene

Wyatt then took Stephenson's debit card and Jeep, fleeing east on I-80, where he was later arrested by Pine Bluffs police near a rest stop.

Smits said that when he arrived on the scene, he found significant blood splatter on the house's floors, walls and furniture.

Smits said Stephenson's body was found "defensive-type injuries" to his hand and elbow.

Wyatt originally told police that the killing originally took place in self-defense, and Schoneberger questioned Smits as to why a coroner was not called to the scene until the day after Stephenson's body was found.

Before the coroner arrived, LeBrun and chief deputy attorney Ember Oakley had both been on the scene. Numerous samples and other pieces of evidence had also been collected, which Smits said was appropriate because "we were performing our own investigation."

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2017-09-22