Judge finds plausible cause for all felony charges
By Cayla Vidmar
Gunnison District Court Judge Steven Patrick determined last week there is probable cause to hold a trial in the case of Stephanie Jackson, who is charged with murdering her brother, Jacob Millison, at a Gunnison County ranch in 2015.
Stephanie Jackson has been charged with murder in the first degree; two counts of tampering with a deceased human body; five counts of accessory to crime; one count of tampering with physical evidence; and two other misdemeanors.
During the preliminary hearing that took place Thursday and Friday, November 1-2 in Gunnison District Court, the judge heard details of events occurring from 2009 through the summer of 2017, when Jacob Millison’s remains were discovered buried at his mother’s ranch near Parlin, east of Gunnison.
Stephanie opted to enter a plea at the beginning of December with her arraignment set for 10:30 a.m. on December 4. Jacob and Stephanie’s mother, 68-year-old Deborah Rudibaugh, who has confessed to fatally shooting Jacob while he slept, waived her right to a preliminary hearing. Her case is set for arraignment at 8:30 a.m. on December 7.
Prosecutor Jessica Waggoner spent most of the day on Thursday “laying the foundation” for the charges against Stephanie Jackson, most notably, the first degree murder charge. Waggoner attempted to show probable cause that Stephanie encouraged or influenced her mother to kill her brother, Jacob.
The story has unfolded that on May 15, 2015, Jacob attended a showing of Mad Max at the Majestic Theatre in Crested Butte with a friend, Randy Martinez. The last activity Jacob conducted on his cell phone was an internet search at approximately 2:29 a.m. on May 16, 2015, according to testimony from Colorado Bureau of Investigation (C.B.I.) agent Rosa Perez, who participated in the case.
Jacob was living at the sprawling 700-acre ranch near Parlin owned by his mother. There is no cell phone service there to make calls or send text messages, but according to testimony the ranch does have wireless internet.
According to agent Perez, Stephanie Jackson, who was not living at the ranch but was often there guiding horse rides, did not have any cell phone–related activity from 6:44 p.m. on May 15, until 8:44 a.m. on May 16, when she called her mother, Deborah. However, she did have internet-related activity—she deleted an email—on her cell phone at 3:23 a.m. on May 16.
During Waggoner’s questioning of Perez, a picture was painted of a long-time tense relationship between brother and sister, and the influence Stephanie believed she had over her mother. Perez reiterated a statement made by Stephanie that simply kicking Jacob off the ranch would not solve her problems.
In 2009, prior to his death, Stephanie’s stepfather, Rudi, gave Stephanie and her husband, David Jackson, money in advance of an inheritance to purchase a house in Denver. After Rudi passed away, Deborah drafted a will to leave the 700-acre ranch to Jacob and his stepbrother, Shane Rudibaugh. Later, in June 2012, according to investigative reports, Stephanie was messaging a friend during which she discussed the potential of her mother selling the ranch. She messaged, “She won’t sell it and I am not going to let her.”
The Jackson family—Stephanie, David and their son—moved back to the ranch in 2012, but in early 2013 an altercation between David and Jacob resulted in Jacob filing a restraining order against David.
“Since the restraining order, it was Deborah Rudibaugh’s wish and instruction that Stephanie and David were not to be at the ranch when Jacob was there,” Perez testified.
Waggoner submitted an exhibit of a blog from 2014 written by Stephanie on Moms.com titled, “My Younger Brother is Trying to Ruin My Life.” In the blog, Stephanie detailed their relationship, saying, “My younger brother and I have never really gotten along.” She also explained how Deborah tended to side with Jacob, writing, “[Deborah] pretty much chooses to ignore his behavior and give in to his demands.”
The days leading up to Jacob’s murder
During the investigation, agent Perez recalled, “We found a completed will in [Deborah’s] living room, dated April 27, 2015,” which amended the previous will leaving the ranch to Jacob and Shane, and instead leaving the ranch solely to Stephanie.
On May 7, 2015, the 68-year-old Deborah had gall bladder surgery and weighed 97.5 pounds, according to medical records recalled by Perez. According to Perez, instructions for post-operation included “Don’t lift anything heavier than 20 pounds or exercise for two weeks.”
According to Perez, nine days later, on May 16, 2015, Jacob was murdered, and his 170-pound body was moved “90 to 100 feet” from his bedroom to the back door of the ranch lodge, and then moved to and buried in a manure pile. In 2017, Deborah confessed to killing Jacob, wrapping his body in plastic and duct tape; she confessed that she acted alone in moving his body from his bed to the manure pile.
The surgeon who conducted Deborah’s surgery was asked during the C.B.I. investigation if she believed Deborah would have been able to roll, wrap or move a body after the gall bladder surgery. According to Perez, the surgeon said she believed it would be very difficult even before surgery. The surgeon also told investigators that during Deborah’s post-operation check-up on May 21—five days after Jacob was murdered—Deborah did not appear to have ripped any stitches.
The days following Jacob’s murder
Two years after the murder, on July 27, 2017, when investigators arrived at the ranch with a search warrant, Stephanie claimed that she did not believe Jacob’s body would be found on the ranch that day. But prosecutors painted a different picture of Stephanie’s knowledge of Jacob’s whereabouts, as agent Perez led the court through social media posts by Stephanie and alterations to Jacob’s most prized possession—his motorcycle—only days after his murder.
Two days after Jacob was murdered, on May 18, 2015, Stephanie posted on Facebook, “Big things happening for Jackson family this year.” A friend commented on the post, asking if Stephanie was pregnant, to which she replied, “I’m going to go ahead and say much better things than being pregnant.”
Three days after Jacob was murdered, on May 19, 2015, Stephanie made another post on Facebook, writing, “Have you ever been woken up with such good news you wanted to run outside screaming?” A comment from a friend on that post read, “No more Jake??? Only news worth screaming about haha.”
On June 3, 2015, Perez testified, David was using a photo of him sitting on Jacob’s altered Harley Davidson motorcycle as his Facebook profile picture. Friends had told CBI investigators the motorcycle was Jacob’s pride and joy, and no one was allowed to touch it.
Friends of Jacob’s begin looking into his disappearance
Around this time, shortly after the murder, Jacob’s friends began to question his disappearance. On May 20, 2015, Randy Martinez and Nate Lopez went to the ranch because they had not heard from Jacob for a few days and thought it was out of the ordinary, said Perez. According to their testimony, when the two arrived at the ranch, Stephanie and Deborah were in the horse corral with shovels, and “There was a backhoe in the corral, and Nate got the impression that Stephanie had been operating it,” Perez said. The pair reported that Deborah had told them that Jacob had simply left.
Deborah did not file a missing person report for Jacob until August 4, 2015, according to Perez.
Two years after the murder
According to Perez, Stephanie had admitted to police that David and his friend, Jeremy McDonald, had been digging in the manure pile when they uncovered bones sometime in May 2017. After Stephanie looked at the bones, she stated she called Deborah, who told her that the bones were from either a mountain lion or a bear that Jacob had illegally shot, and told her to cover the bones back up.
In a later interview, Perez stated, Stephanie reported she knew at the time that they had found Jacob’s body in the manure pile, and had told David and Jeremy that they could not tell anyone what they had found, and needed to keep it to themselves. Perez also said that Jeremy reported that Stephanie told him he could never leave the ranch because of what he knew.
Perez continued, saying, “By the time I show up on June 27, 2017, [Stephanie] has already seen Jacob’s body in the manure pile, and has re-covered it and it’s still in the manure pile.” In later interviews, Stephanie admitted, after they had uncovered his body, and police had shown up in late June, she had decided the body needed to be moved, and buried in a hole.
According to Perez, on the day the search warrant was executed, on July 17, 2017, police interviewed Stephanie prior to locating Jacob’s remains. She told police his body would not be found at the ranch, and that she did not know of Jacob’s whereabouts. When police told her that Deborah was confessing to murdering Jacob, Stephanie was “extremely emotional, she began crying and was making statements that she couldn’t believe her mom was confessing,” said Perez. C.B.I. investigators later found Jacob’s remains in a hole in a horse corral, wrapped in a tarp.
The judge’s ruling
The prosecution wrapped up last week’s testimony with agent Perez, asking what Deborah had to gain in murdering Jacob, to which Perez responded, “Deborah didn’t gain anything by killing Jacob.”
Waggoner asked Perez, “Through your investigation, who has potential of gaining through the death of Jacob Millison?”
Perez answered, “Stephanie,” who, she stated, would gain “sole ownership of the ranch after Deborah passes.”
Cross examination by the defense attorney, Abby Kurtz-Phelan, pointed out some holes in the investigation, including “inconclusive DNA” of either Stephanie or David on the .357 Lady Smith revolver that was used to shoot Jacob. During cross-examination, Perez also stated there were no “latent prints suitable for comparison on the tarp,” or on the tape used to wrap the tarp around Jacob’s body.
The C.B.I. investigation also did not have hard evidence that Stephanie or David were at the ranch, or any reports that either were in the area in the early morning hours on the day of Jacob’s murder. Perez also stated, “I have no records of what she purchased in that time frame,” when asked by the defense if there was record of Stephanie purchasing tarps, tape or any tools used in Jacob’s murder.
The deputy public defender representing Stephanie, Daniel Lavrisha, used his closing statement to try to convince the court that the prosecution was using “inferences on top of inferences” to prove Stephanie committed first-degree murder. Lavrisha said, “There has been no suggestion today, Your Honor, that prior to May 15, 2015, Stephanie had any sort of knowledge that Deborah Rudibaugh, after deliberation and with intent, was going to cause the death of Jacob Millison.”
Waggoner said during closing arguments, “No matter who pulled the trigger on May 16, Stephanie Jackson was the one that set these things in motion. For two years she was encouraging her mother to kick Jake off the ranch. There is nothing in the evidence that indicated Deborah gains anything from Jake leaving the ranch.”
Ultimately, after reviewing the evidence presented, Judge Patrick ruled there was reasonable cause to believe that Stephanie had “instigated, incited, or emboldened the person that confessed to killing her son, such that the court finds the first-degree murder charge… should go to jury.”
Judge Patrick said that this does not suggest proof beyond reasonable doubt that she committed these crimes, and she is still innocent until proven guilty, but that the prosecution met their burden of proof for the preliminary hearing. He also found probable cause of all other felony crimes Stephanie has been charged with, such that the case could go to trial. Stephanie opted instead to enter into a plea in December.
On Tuesday, November 6, David pleaded guilty to one count of tampering with a deceased human body, a felony charge. All other charges have been dropped. David was also charged with five counts of accessory to crime; one count tampering with physical evidence; one count concealing death; and one count abuse of a corpse. His sentencing will occur on December 4, 2018, unless Stephanie pleads not guilty, at which point her case will go to trial, and David’s sentencing will be postponed until Stephanie’s trial is completed.
Stephanie Jackson will appear in court for her arraignment on December 4 at 10:30 a.m.