By Managing Editor Teri L. Hansen
De ja vu seemed to be happening Tuesday morning in the case of Travis Belt. It’s like he had been there before. That is probably because he was in August of 2017. For the second time, Belt, 27 of Little River, is going through a preliminary hearing that will determine if he goes to trial and faces five felonies including first-degree premeditated murder of 58-year-old McPherson resident Steven Carlson who was found dead in his home at 548 Eshelman in April 2017. The original charges were filed in 2017. A jury trial was scheduled for April 23, 2019. However, the State dismissed the case without prejudice, stating that they wanted time to allow for further testing of DNA found at the scene. On June 19, 2019, the State refiled the case with the complaints being the same as the original filing.
On April 14, 2017 McPherson Police Department officers entered Carlson’s residence upon seeing signs of a break-in. Carlson was found with lacerations to his neck.
The proceedings are going a little differently this time. The tables turned a bit when one witness faced tough cross examination by Belt’s attorney Randall Fisher. Craig Shelton, 46, testified to having found Carlson’s body, after which he went to a nearby liquor store to call 911. Shelton described his relationship with Carlson as an “acquaintance” for approximately 30 years.
Fisher asked Shelton if he along with a female by the name of Tamica Sanchez had killed Carlson. Shelton became agitated and responded that he had not. During the course of questioning, Fisher asked Shelton if he had told people that he had participated in cutting the throat of Carlson, to which Shelton adamantly denied. The defense also maintained that Shelton discussed killing Carlson with a blue-handled knife that he later buried and subsequently dug up to get rid of later. When asked if he had a blue-handled knife, Shelton responded, “I don’t recall. I’ve had lots of knives.” Though he vehemently denied having anything to do with the death of Carlson.
Fisher then produced a letter written by Shelton in which he stated that his strategy in court would be to not remember as much as he could. When asked about the contents, Shelton stated that he had originally planned on being less than honest because he had received a death threat because of the proceedings, though he admitted that it had not been face-to-face with Belt.
Sanchez, 35, was also called to the stand.
On cross examination, Fisher asked about numerous posts on Sanchez’s Facebook page. The posts from just 12 days before Carlson was killed, contained such statements as “I have murder on my mind.”
“That’s a song,” Sanchez said.
She also denied ever telling anyone that she dreamed of getting high on methamphetamine and stabbing someone or bragging to witnesses that she had participated in the killing of Carlson.
The prosecution called a number of other witnesses to the stand in an effort to prove that there is enough evidence against Belt to move forward.
First to the stand was Jordan Baxter, a deputy with the McPherson County Sheriff’s Office, though at the time of Carlson’s death, was an officer with the McPherson Police Department.
Baxter testified that when he got off duty on April 13, 2017, he encountered Belt at Walmart, 205 Centennial Drive in McPherson. Baxter stated that he knew Belt from a number of previous encounters with him through his job. He described Belt’s clothing and that he had a television in his shopping cart at the time. Baxter also saw Carlson’s truck, a white 1998 GMC utility truck, in the parking lot, though he did state in cross examination that he was unable to ascertain who, if anyone was inside.
Shortly after leaving the store, a call came over the radio for shoplifting at that location. Baxter relayed what he had seen in regard to Belt.
Baxter also testified to his involvement with the investigation on April 14, 2017 when Carlson’s body was found. He stated that upon arrival at the residence, Shelton, was outside. After located other officers on the scene and clearing the structure, Baxter went to speak with Shelton who stated that earlier he had been told by “Travis Myers” that he needed to come to Carlson’s to “dig a hole to bury a body.” Shelton had misidentified Belt, calling him by the wrong last name.
In addition, during a later canvas of the neighborhood, Sarah Allen, 42, told him that Belt had used her fire pit to burn some clothing. She then produced a cardboard box with some of the charred article inside. Upon cross examination, Belt’s attorney Randall Fisher asked if Baxter had ever heard that the clothing belonged to Allen’s previous boyfriend, to which Baxter responded no.
Next to the stand, was Trevor Cole who in April 2017 was also an officer with the McPherson Police Department. Cole testified to the validity of footage from his body camera that was shown as well.
Police Carlson’s home on April 13, looking for Belt after the items were stolen from Walmart and he was deemed a suspect and Carlson’s truck was identified in the theft. Body camera footage showed Carlson invite police into his home where they recovered a roof rack from a closet that was believed to be one of the stolen items from Walmart. They also inspected Carlson’s truck. He told police that he let Belt borrow the truck and chased him and others from his home using a sword right before they arrived around 10:45 p.m.
McPherson Police Department Chief Mikel Golden took the stand after Cole. He was in Carlson’s home when the roof rack was discovered. He too confirmed the events that took place on Cole’s body camera.
Samuel Ratzlaff, 27, is a long-time acquaintance of most of the people involved in the events of April 13 and 14. He was called forward by the prosecution to speak on events that took place in the late night and early morning at a trailer park between Hickory and Kelly streets known as “the Hidden Ghetto.”
Ratzlaff testified that he gave Belt a ride in his purple Chevrolet Suburban, to Carlson’s home on the morning of April 14. He also testified that when he saw Belt later on, that he was wearing different clothing from what he had been wearing earlier and was not wearing shoes. He said that Belt told him that Carlson had not been home.
Courtney Randolph who has lived with the Ratzlaff’s off and on for some time, testified about the events at the Hidden Ghetto as well, reiterating information given by Ratzlaff. She did state that she was surprised by how quickly Belt made it back to the Hidden Ghetto after they dropped him off and that he had cigarettes when he got back that were the same brand and type that Carlson smoked.
Randolph stated that Belt was acting paranoid though that wasn’t out of the ordinary. He asked her for something to put on his hand and she assumed it was for a cut.
“He asked me if a I had something to put on his hand,” she sated. “I assumed he was bleeding but I didn’t see it.”
During cross examination, Randolph admitted that at one-point Ratzlaff had placed Carlson in a choke hold while she had turned his pockets inside out in an effort to rob him, though she stated that it did not happen on April 13 or 14.
Fisher also asked if she recalled telling someone that she hoped the police wouldn’t find her blood on the stairway of Carlson’s home. Randolph denied having said it.
McPherson Police Department Officer Katelyn Conn was one of the first officers on the scene at Carlson’s home. She and another officer met with Shelton at the liquor store he was calling from. She followed him to Eshelman on foot and the other officer followed in the vehicle.
Conn testified that there was a cut on Carlson’s knee that apparently happened after his death. She stated that a hair tie was found near the body as well and that Carlson was found with his pockets turned inside out.
Edward Christopher Gonzalez
Better known as Chris, Edward Christopher Gonzalez, 47, was living near the Hidden Ghetto in April 2017. While he was not at his home often April 13 and 14, he was there when Shelton and Belt were at his residence discussing trading some items to another local man, Tim Schrock, in exchange for methamphetamine. Gonzalez testified that it was Shelton who talked about burying a body rather than Belt.
“Tweakers talk,” Gonzalez said. “When they are tweaking you don’t pay much attention.”
Another resident of the trailer court, Sarah Allen testified that she turned over burned clothing from a burn pit in her yard to police. She stated that at approximately 6:30 a.m., Belt came to her home and asked to burn something in her fire pit. After he left, she put the fire out and dug the contents out of the pit and later turned the items over to law enforcement. Allen said that she had burned other clothing in the pit the evening before but was sure that what she turned over were “mostly” Belt’s items.
McPherson Police Department’s Ryan Bauer testified to finding items that had been stolen from Walmart at Carlson’s home and also what they believed were items stolen from Carlson’s house at Belt’s mother’s home in Little River. He also testified that there were cuts on Belt’s hand when he encountered him at his mother’s home. Packaging for a knife was recovered, however the knife was never recovered, and it is unknown if that knife was the one used in the assault on Carlson.
Preliminary proceedings will continue tomorrow at 9 a.m. and are expected to carry through Thursday as well.