GALION -- The murder trial of Frederick “Lee” Saunders Jr. has been postponed after a request to evaluate his mental condition was granted by Crawford County Common Pleas Court Judge Sean Leuthold.
Lee Saunders is charged with the unclassified felony of aggravated murder in connection with the death of his father, Fred Saunders Sr., 68.
Marla, his wife, is charged with complicity to aggravated murder, also an unclassified felony, and third-degree felony obstruction of justice. Their trials, originally scheduled for next month, will be handled as different cases.
The defendants’ attorney, Adam Stone, requested an evaluation of Lee's mental competency to stand trial by seeking an evaluation for mental condition at time of offense. The evaluation is also to make sure he is “mentally sound and mentally competent,” said Donna Fox, assistant to the judge.
He is also being evaluated to see if he is not guilty by reason of insanity. As a result, all scheduled events for the trial have been postponed.
At this point, Fox does not know when the trial will be scheduled.
Crawford County Prosecutor Mathew Crall said this is the most heinous murder he has seen in his tenure with the county.
Fred Saunders Sr., 68, went missing Sept. 24, but was found a few days later with family in Marion. Shortly after his return home, the Alzheimer's patient was taken by family members to Galion Community Hospital, where he died in the early morning hours of Sept. 30.
According to published reports, the body was released to a funeral home with instructions for cremation, but authorities intervened and had it sent to the Lucas County Coroner’s Office for an autopsy, which Crall attended. The report from that autopsy indicated cause of death was strangulation and blunt force trauma.
Stone, who is representing both defendants, said he has seen the body and believes the bruises and marks were self inflicted. He said there are bruises on the arms, legs and hands, but not around the neck or face — bringing question to the strangulation allegation.
He said the couple loved the elder Saunders and took care of him the best they could.
“They couldn’t afford to send him to a (nursing) home, and they did the best they could with him,” Stone said.
Stone and his Martin and Stone law firm felt confident enough in their defendants to take on the case pro bono.
“We took this case after being approached by the Saunders family. After eight hours of interviews, I was convinced they had nothing to do with (Saunders Sr.) death. I was convinced they are innocent.
“I’ve sat across people who have squeezed the life out of others, raped children and have children pornography, but as I sat there and listened to this family, I heard genuine fear, contrary to when I hear most (client's) stories.
“I’ve handled more murder trials than most people in my position. I’m absolutely persuaded by the couple. They are innocent.”
Stone said the couple is not considering a plea agreement.
“Fred (Lee) Saunders' position is, he did nothing to kill him (his father), and he did the best to care for him. If the state of Ohio thinks they can scare him with life in prison, they don’t know what kind of man they are dealing with.”
Stone said the defendants' wife will mirror the thoughts of her husband.
Almost as soon as she was arrested, Stone said, Marla went into labor with twins. She was granted a furlough (house arrest) during her labor, but after she had her children, she was returned to the Crawford County Jail.
“She’s one of the strongest women I know,” he said. “I am proud to represent her. After her she had her children she hasn’t wavered (in jail) I don’t get to say that about many of my clients. I’m proud of her”
Stone added Lee Saunders has yet to hold his newborn children.
Stone said he was frustrated with how Crall has represented this case in public. He said he particularly disagreed with him calling the alleged murder "heinous."
"It (ticks) me off this family is sitting in jail with five kids living with their grandmother who has lung cancer. It is 11:30 at night and I cant stop thinking about it. It drives me crazy. These are just good people.”
Crall said nothing comes easy while proving a case, but he looks forward to the jury learning the facts about the alleged murder.
"We've charged them with kidnapping and murder," the Crawford County prosecutor said. "We look forward to the truth coming out in the court room."
Leuthold set bond for Lee Saunders at $5 million and for Marla Saunders at $2.5 million. Leuthold said the seriousness of the crimes and Lee Saunders ties to Missouri, where he once lived, necessitated the high bond.
Also involved with the case is Carla Willoughby, 37, Marla's twin sister. Willoughby was charged with complicity to commit murder, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice. But, according to her attorney Rolf Whitney, she took a plea deal two months ago admitting tampering with evidence and obstruction of justice.
Willoughby is out of jail after signing a personal recognizance bond, Whitney said.