‘Horrific night’: Trial for Missouri man charged in killing of 4 family members underway

·4 min read

Prosecutors warned jurors that there is “going to be hard evidence” to view and listen to as the trial got underway for a 30-year-old Platte County man accused of killing four family members, including a baby.

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd told jurors during opening statements that the facts will prove that Grayden Lane Denham murdered them all, set their bodies and the family home near Edgerton, Missouri, on fire on the night of Feb. 19, 2016, before fleeing in his grandmother’s car.

Zahnd, recalling words he said witnessed had used, called it a “horrific night.”

Denham is charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of his grandparents Russell Denham, 82, and Shirley Denham, 81; his sister Heather Ager, 32; and her 3-month-old son, Mason Schiavoni.

All had been shot in the head, some multiple times. Their burned bodies were found near the home, Zahnd said.

Denham’s attorney, Patrick Berrigan, told jurors during his opening statements that Denham has pleaded not guilty and maintains his innocence. Berrigan told jurors that Denham’s mental health had deteriorated.

It was in his early 20s that he underwent a change and showed signs that he was suffering from mental illnesses and was hearing voices, Berrigan said.

The night before the murders, Denham’s ex-girlfriend brought his two children over to his grandparents so they could celebrate a late Christmas. Berrigan said she described Denham as being in a trance and never seeing him so bad mentally.

“These aren’t first-degree murders,” Berrigan said.

In addition to the murder charges, Denham also faces four counts of armed criminal action and one count each of animal abuse for allegedly shooting the family dog; arson for allegedly setting fire to the home at 4170 Buena Vista Road in rural Platte County; and tampering with physical evidence by allegedly destroying the bodies of the victims and the residence.

In addition, he has been charged with stealing his grandparents’ car and driving it to Seligman, Arizona, where police arrested him as he walked around naked.

During the opening statements, Zahnd laid out that Denham had a rocky relationship with his grandparents and that he allegedly told a neighbor almost two weeks before the killings that “Grandma and grandpa don’t have much longer to live any more.”

Zahnd told jurors that surveillance photos will show that on the afternoon of the killings, Denham took his mother’s SUV to a Walmart in St. Joseph and bought three gas cans. Surveillance photos, he said, will also show that Denham filled the gas cans with diesel at a nearby truck stop before around 9 p.m. going to a gas station in Trimble and filling the tanks with regular gas.

Neighbors found the house on fire about 11:30 p.m.

Zahnd said Denham fled in his grandmother’s car, changing the license plate twice along the way. He stopped at a motel in Siligman, Arizona, where he stripped out of his clothes that had fuel and gunshot residue on them, Zahnd said.

When he was stopped by authorities nearby, he lied about his name, his date of birth and where he was from, Zahnd told jurors.

Zahnd told jurors that by the end of the trial, he’ll prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Denham committed all of the crimes.

He told jurors he’ll ask them to “return the one true and just verdict of guilty of each and every one of these crimes.”

Vince Roberts, a neighbor of the Denhams, testified that on the night of the killings, he was returning home from work about 11:30 p.m. when he noticed a glow coming from their home. He knew something was on fire, so he drove over and found the house on fire.

Initially he thought there had been an explosion because there were “multiple little fires.” He testified that he tried finding the Denhams, calling out their names. By that time other neighbors arrived. That’s when they noticed what looked like mannequins lined up.

Roberts said they realized that they were bodies, two adults, a baby and a dog. They then noticed another fire by a truck and when they looked closer, they discovered it was another body.

“It was very disturbing,” Roberts said.

One of the first firefighters on the scene, Christian Scott, testified that while fighting the fire, he sprayed water on what he thought was a tree trunk that was on fire. Once he noticed they were shoes, he realized that it was a body on fire.

Scott said once they realized that there were four bodies, their approach to fighting the fire change and it became more of crime scene preservation.

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