DNA from the man charged in the July homicide of Renee Eldridge matches evidence from her reported rape in Columbus in December 2014, though Eldridge accused another man in that case, testimony revealed Tuesday in Chambers County, Ala.
Murder suspect Stacey Gray’s DNA cleared the suspect initially charged with raping Eldridge in her Columbus home, and Gray now is being charged with that sexual assault, Sgt. Clay Tucker of the Valley, Ala., police department testified during Gray’s hearing before Chambers County Circuit Judge Calvin Milford.
According to the Columbus police warrant charging the first suspect, Eldridge was raped on Dec. 22, 2014, and her hands and feet were bound during the assault. That suspect’s attorney was Kyle Fischer, who Tuesday said his client, an Army Ranger, was held without bond for ten weeks before he was released, and Columbus police did not officially clear him until July 17.
The Columbus case charging the Ranger with rape and false imprisonment was assigned to Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus, who Tuesday declined to comment beyond confirming the Ranger was released as soon as the evidence test showed the DNA did not match.
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It was unclear whether Gray had a criminal record sufficient to have his DNA included in the FBI’s national DNA database known as CODIS, or whether investigators here sought to have the DNA profile derived from the 2014 rape checked through that system.
Fischer said Gray was in prison in Ohio from 1994 until 2003, having been convicted of assaulting two police officers.
Authorities said they did not know why Eldridge would accuse someone else, as Gray was well known to her and her family. Tucker said Gray had an “on-and-off” sexual relationship with Eldridge’s mother, Nancy Gray, and that Stacey Gray had his own key to her home. Though they share the same last name, Nancy Gray and Stacey Gray are not related, Tucker said.
Fischer said his client knew Eldridge, having met her in a bar and later having met her for dinner. The Ranger was to meet Eldridge again the night she was raped, but he decided not to when he couldn’t reach her by phone, the attorney said.
Tucker was the only witness to testify Tuesday, cataloging evidence in a murder case that spans multiple jurisdictions and crime scenes.
Eldridge’s mother reported her daughter missing July 4 from the Columbus home they shared on 46th Street. Eldridge’s body was found bound and weighted down in a creek in Chambers County on July 7. She died of blunt-force trauma to the right side of her head.
Tucker said Valley police officers found the body about 3 a.m. July 7 in Osanippa Creek, under a bridge in the 1300 block of Hopewell Road. Officers were checking the area because people had been camping and partying there, leaving trash and drug paraphernalia.
The 25-year-old’s body was face down in the water, her hands and ankles bound with green rope tied to a cement block, Tucker said. At least one knot used in the rope was a “running bowline” commonly used by tree service workers, he said.
Eldridge’s body was decomposing, having been in the creek for days. She at first was identified by a tattoo of an anchor, Tucker said. An aunt after Tuesday’s hearing said the tattoo bore the motto “I will not sink.”
Eldridge’s dental records later confirmed her identity, the investigator said.
He said witnesses hearing of the homicide told police of seeing a sport-utility vehicle parked on the bridge overlooking the creek. One described it as a greenish gray SUV, on which the door was open as someone peered into the creek from the bridge. Another reported seeing a dark Ford Expedition, with no one near it at the time.
Tucker said investigators at first began checking out another “person of interest” known to be friends with Eldridge’s family. He worked for a tree service in Columbus, and usually parked his Toyota Camry at the business owner’s home on Abbott Avenue, where Tucker went looking for him.
Tucker said he was walking toward the residence when he saw a greenish gray Ford Expedition parked in the yard behind a privacy fence. It had Macon County, Ala., license plates registered to Stacey Gray. In the cargo hatch, Tucker saw green rope, he said.
Contacted by phone, the tree service owner said he and his crew, including Gray, were out on a job and needed 30 minutes to get back.
When they returned, Gray agreed to be questioned at the Columbus Public Safety Center. Crime-scene technicians later examined the vehicle, in which they found blood in the front seats, back seat and cargo hold, Tucker said. Gray that day was released.
Detectives began retracing Eldridge’s activities the night she disappeared. She and her mother had met friends at a Columbus bar, where Stacey Gray came in and began flirting with Eldridge, stroking her hair and otherwise getting “touchy-feely,” said Tucker, who added the encounter was captured on surveillance video.
He said at one point Eldridge looked so intoxicated she needed help walking, but appeared abruptly to recover after stepping outside for a moment and returning. Nancy Gray and a friend took Eldridge home about 3:30 a.m., but the mother did not stay there.
As she left the bar, Nancy Gray sent Stacey Gray a text to the effect of “You’re all about my daughter tonight. Gross. Such a turnoff,” Tucker testified.
Surveillance video from security cameras near Eldridge’s home showed an SUV matching Stacey Gray’s headed toward the house at 5:05 a.m. July 4, Tucker said. It passed headed in the other direction eight minutes later, then came back in about 2 minutes. It appeared to stay at Eldridge’s home for about five minutes, and then in six or seven minutes was recorded as it passed a nearby store, the officer said.
Investigators checking Gray’s cellphone records saw that the phone was near Eldridge’s home that night, and its signal hit cell towers on U.S. 80 in Russell County and later a tower near Lee Road 379 in Lee County. Records also showed Gray’s phone signal hit a cell tower three miles from the creek the morning Eldridge’s body was found, he said.
The most damning testimony came during Tucker’s description of authorities’ searching a trailer off U.S. 80 in Russell County, where Gray sometimes stayed.
The first thing investigators noticed was the driveway lined with cinderblocks, the same size and type found with Eldridge’s body, Tucker said. A pile of the blocks was near the trailer.
On a blue washcloth on the bed inside they saw a hair 8-10 inches long that looked like Eldridge’s, and in the bathroom they found blood and a box of Band-Aids that had been left open, with remnants of the Band-Aids used left scattered about, Tucker said.
Outside was a barrel in which trash had been burned. Inside it, authorities found what appeared to be the remains of burned clothing, and pieces of a purse Eldridge carried the night she disappeared, the handbag’s pattern featuring snake scales and other animal prints, Tucker testified.
Also in the yard, investigators saw a tarp tied down with a running bowline knot that looked just like the one used on Eldridge’s body, the officer said.
Authorities got a warrant for Stacey Gray’s arrest, and requested assistance from U.S. Marshals.
On July 13, Gray was reported to be riding with his brother in a black SUV in Notasulga, Ala., but he fled into the woods when police tried to stop it, triggering a 10-hour manhunt before he was captured. In the rear of the SUV, authorities found a gun that belonged to Eldridge, concealed in a bag of dog food, Tucker said, adding the brother told investigators Stacey Gray put it there.
Tuesday’s hearing concluded with the judge ruling the evidence was sufficient to have Stacey Gray held without bond, and the case submitted to a grand jury.
Assistant District Attorney Roland Sledge said a Chambers County grand jury next will convene in January.
Gray was represented Tuesday by attorneys Bill Smith and Mark Carlton.