By JESSIE HORTON
ERATH COUNTY (January 23, 2015) — It happened more than a year ago, but people in the community won’t soon forget the horrible acts committed against Erath County resident Ricky Stephens in February 2013. However, now it appears those responsible will go free long before the memory has left the county. According to Erath County District Attorney Alan Nash, in such brutal cases, unfortunately because a person lives, it means the punishment isn’t as significant as the crime warrants.
Stephens was found alive, tied to a tree, on some property off FM 205 after being beaten, mutilated and set on fire. According to Nash, investigators do know the incident began in the Walton home, where two of the suspect were involved, then one suspect – Lanny Walton – took Stephens to a remote pasture location where the other male suspects were involved in beating him and more. All the suspects in the case eluded authorities for months, until one-by-one they were taken into custody. One of those responsible for the crimes against Stephens, Danny Paul Dittoe, went on the run for more than six months, only to be captured in the East Texas woods in September 2013.
In all, five people were indicted in August 2013 for organized criminal activity, which is a first-degree felony, and other crimes involved in the aggravated assault of Stephens. According to court records, Ashley Walton, Dittoe, Dustin Drew Davis, Jody Bob Cohran and Lanny Walton were all indicted by the Erath County Grand Jury in August. At the time, Dittoe was still on the run; he would be arrested a month and a half later. The rest had already been taken into custody.
Stephens endured a horrible attack, dealt with months in the hospital recovering from the incident and returned to life in Erath County. However, only a few months after the suspects were indicted, Stephens, then 44, was killed on Thursday, December 28, 2013, in a single-vehicle accident in Louisiana. According to Louisiana State Police, Stephens was driving a 2003 Dodge pickup when it left the road and struck a tree. He was pronounced dead at the scene despite wearing his seatbelt.
And while originally county officials didn’t believe it would be the case, in the end, Stephens unrelated death would become a factor in the sentences of the five indicted for the crimes against him. At the time, county officials believed the case against the subjects was strong enough without Stephens testimony. However, not one of those cases as gone to trial and Nash said he offered all five took plea deals in the case.
“We have a solid case against these folks because we were never building around Stephens testimony,” he said. “However, all other witness statements we had came from those involved in the crime and that’s going to always make things more complicated. We know these were the people responsible for committing the aggravated assault, but they had already pulled out of the pleas once before and I was a bit surprised they took them earlier this month.”
Ashley Walton plead guilty to not only her part in the assault, but also to two counts of endangering a child with criminal negligence, and received two years state jail time to run concurrent with five years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. She has already left Erath County Jail to complete her sentence elsewhere. Her husband, Lanny Walton, also plead guilty a count of aggravated assault, Felony 2 (maximum 20 years), and was sentenced to 15 years TDCJ. According to Nash, he was believed to be the one most responsible for the assault on Stephens.
And Dittoe, who was arrested in Jasper County by US Marshals after a manhunt lasting several months, plead guilty to aggravated assault, a second-degree felony, and received a 10-year sentence in TDCJ. He, along with Walton and Davis, still sit in the Erath County Jail awaiting departure to state facilities.
Davis has not plead guilty to aggravated assault and is the sole hold out on the case, Nash said. Davis also faces charges from the US Marshals who have a hold on him at the Erath County Jail for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance, which means 151 months federal time. Nash said Davis can expect to see at least 120 months of the federal sentence, which would be served in a different facility than TDCJ.
Cohran is currently out of the Erath County Jail. He plead guilty to his part in the crime, which Nash said was minimal, and received deferred adjudication and probation. If Cohran violates his probation, Nash said he would face charges for the original first-degree indictment.
“It’s good to know they’re all spending time for such a violent crime committed against one of our residents. These things are not forgotten in Erath County,” Nash said. “It’s just sad to think all these people will be out of jail for this crime long before the community has gotten over the act.”