By Managing Editor Teri L. Hansen
Day two of the preliminary hearing in the case of The State vs. Travis Belt kicked off this morning.
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.
After the prosecution called their witnesses, the defense had a chance to call their own. In that process, Paige White, 28 took the stand. White testified that she had been incarcerated with Courtney Randolph and Stormy Nelson. She stated that Nelson told her on more than one occasion that Edward Christopher Gonzalez had committed the murder of Carlson. Gonzalez, Nelson’s father was aided in the murder by Craig Shelton. In addition, she stated that Carlson was shot. Nelson also allegedly told her that they took items from Carlson’s house after including a pair of boots.
White also testified that Courtney Randolph told her that she and her boyfriend Samuel Ratzlaff had been at Carlson’s that day as well. She stated that while Ratzlaff held him, Randolph searched his pockets. Randolph also stated that she knew her DNA was at the home near the back steps from a sexual encounter with Carlson and hoped it would not be found. Both Randolph and Ratzlaff testified yesterday.
In addition, White testified to a conversation with another female by the name of Sarah Reeves, 35, who had a utility knife that she claimed was used in the murder of Carlson by Shelton. White described the knife as orange or red. However, on cross examination by Assistant District Attorney Amanda Voth, the original report of the knife stated that the blade was neon green and that Reeves was allegedly inebriated and taking prescription drugs at the time of the conversation.
Voth also had White reiterate testimony from the day before in that Belt had been taken to Carlson’s house and had gone back to a trailer park between Hickory and Kelly streets known as “The Hidden Ghetto.” She also stated that she had been told at the time that when Belt returned, he had cigarettes that were known to be the type and brand that Carlson smoked. Also, that White had been told that Belt had cuts on his hands that may have been from sliding down a blade of a knife when making a stabbing motion.
Voth also brought up White’s relationship with Belt. White described him as a friend she had known for quite some time but admitted that in jail she has been known to shout out “Team Travis.”
“There’s no way he did it,” White said on the stand.
Nelson, the daughter of Gonzalez, who was called to the stand Tuesday, was the first witness for the defense prior to White. Upon being sworn in, Nelson stated that she had no knowledge of why she was at court.
She testified that she had a conversation with her mother in which she expressed a belief that Belt had not committed the murder. Her mother has since passed away. She also stated that she expressed such sentiments to Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents who had interviewed her about the circumstances surrounding Carlson’s murder.
While Nelson admitted that she had been incarcerated with White, she did not recall speaking with her about the case.
Other witnesses took the stand for the prosecution and defense throughout the day.
The first witness of the day was Belt’s former stepfather, Steven Soule. He testified that in April 2017, police issued a search warrant at his residence. Within his garage two air compressors were found that did not belong to Soule. He stated that he had “a good idea” of where they came from, but had not seen them brought in. Belt had been known to visit often, though he was not living there at the time. He also stated that he had not seen Belt handle the air compressors.
KBI Forensic Scientist Holly Latham testified about her experience on April 14, 2017. She responded to the house of Carlson at approximately 11:50 p.m. Latham works in the latent prints department and is also a blood stain analyst as well as a member of the crime scene response team. On the night of April 14, 2017 she was assigned the task of collecting evidence. Latham stated that a DNA profile was obtained from the entryway, front door and other areas of the home. Testing showed the DNA matched Belt. In addition, an empty package that once contained a knife, was found lying on top of the trash within a can in the kitchen. DNA from this package also matched Belt, however the knife was not located.
A towel was found near the sink in the kitchen. This towel had a mixture of two DNA profiles on it. The major contribution was from Carlson and the subsequent DNA was Belt’s according to testing. Belt’s DNA was found on the blade of a knife and red-brown stains found in the bathroom also matched Belt.
Burned underwear were tested and blood was found to be on those, though there was no testimony about the DNA there.
During cross examination by Belt’s attorney Randall Fisher, Latham stated that there were two hair ties found on and near the body of Carlson. The tie on the body was found near the pelvis. The hair ties that were found were not tested for DNA. Latham also read information from the KBI laboratory report that stated that on the steps, DNA was found from an unknown female contributor. She could not comment on whether further testing was done to determine the unknown source.
Upon redirect, Voth was able to glean that multiple female’s DNA profiles were taken, to include Tamica Sanchez, Nelson and others. The profile did not match any of them. In addition, a brown, rubber ring was obtained from the crime scene. This ring is a sexual aid for which the hair ties could be used as a substitute.
Fisher then clarified with Latham that while DNA may have been found in various places like the towel, it is unknown when the DNA was left there. Latham confirmed that the DNA on the towel could have been left at different times.
Next to the stand was Brandon Smith who stated that he had been interviewed about the murder in 2017. However, he denied having conversations with Sanchez that related to the case.
A current resident of Larned Correctional Mental Health Facility, Kevin Rubio, 24 was called to the stand. He stated that he had spoken with detectives and expressed a disbelief that Belt committed the murder of Carlson. However, he denied knowing or speaking with Craig Shelton. He also stated through drug usage his memory had been impacted and that he has very little memory of any of the events from that time in 2017.
KBI Special Agent Jeff Newsum interviewed Belt after the murder of Carlson. Belt stated during the interview that Carlson had been upset about people stealing from him and had prior to his death, chased people from his home with a sword. He also admitted that he had an air bubble that he had taken from Carlson’s in order to air up a bicycle tire and that they would find it in his mother’s vehicle. Belt stated that he had no knowledge of items that had been found in Gonzalez’s home.
Newsum testified that he took pictures of Belt’s hands at the time and there were multiple scrapes and cuts.
He also stated that he interviewed Craig Shelton who was a witness in yesterday’s proceedings. Shelton denied involvement but implicated Belt, though Newsum stated that he identified Belt by the name “Travis Myers.”
In addition, Fisher was able to get a coroner’s report entered into evidence. Though not much was discussed about the report except that there is a time of death in the report, which is not on the autopsy.
Preliminary proceedings will continue tomorrow at 9 a.m. and are expected to conclude in the afternoon.