The case against the lone defendant still facing murder charges in the slayings of three West Valley family members appears to be moving forward, with the judge on Thursday ordering a huge jury pool of 300 for a trial date in early March.
Yakima County Superior Court Judge Ruth Reukauf made the request during a pre-trial hearing for defendant Tracy Culton, who is charged with three counts of first-degree murder as a principal or accomplice in the Feb. 18, 2011, bludgeoning deaths of Bill and Pauline Goggin and Bill Goggin’s 98-year-old mother, Bettye.
Chief Criminal Deputy Prosecutor Ken Ramm told the court Thursday that sheriff’s detectives are largely finished with a fresh look at the case after it had suddenly collapsed against former prime suspect Kevin Harper in October.
Ramm said some forensic testing is still being conducted but should be finished soon. He did not elaborate. The transfer of interview transcripts and other legal material is also nearly complete, he added.
According to court records, Culton became a suspect after making incriminating statements about her alleged involvement in the burglary of the Goggins’ home in the gated Falcon Ridge community, west of Yakima. Investigators believe burglary was the motive behind the slayings.
Detectives also said state prison officials had intercepted emails between Culton and an inmate in which Culton claimed she was involved in the burglary and had actually planned the break-in.
But investigators were skeptical, leading to a disconnect with prosecutors that was exposed during a pre-trial hearing in the Harper case when a sheriff’s detective admitted on the stand that he had failed to seek a DNA sample from Culton because he didn’t believe she was guilty.
A DNA sample from Culton has since been tested. The results have not been released.
According to Harper’s attorneys, Culton told at least eight people that she — but not Harper — participated in the slayings. Bill Goggin, 61, co-owned a civil engineering firm in Yakima, and he and his wife, Pauline, 60, were described by friends as a fun, happy couple who were active in vintage car clubs.
Rather than specifics about evidence, much of the discussion during Thursday’s hearing centered around the need for a large enough jury pool.
In terms of notoriety, Reukauf likened the case to that of Mike and Dorothy Nickoloff, an elderly couple brutally slain in their Parker home in 1988. Russell Duane McNeil and Herbert “Chief” Rice, who were both 17 when they committed the murders, were sentenced to life without parole.
She said an unusually large pool of prospective jurors would be needed to ensure an impartial jury untainted by media coverage.
However, she added, “The fact that they’ve heard of the case doesn’t mean an automatic disqualification.”
Reukauf has kept a tight rein on evidentiary deadlines in the Culton case to avoid a repeat of the delays in the Harper case that led to a rare sanction against Ramm and replacement of the original investigators.
Harper, who had been charged with three counts of aggravated murder, eventually pleaded out to relatively minor charges of one count each of first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm and second-degree possession of stolen property. Prosecutors also dismissed an accessory charge against his wife.
Reukauf said the Culton case is on track. “We’re making good progress,” Reukauf told the lawyers, adding, “I actually am pleased.”
Culton remains lodged in the Yakima County jail on $500,000 bail. She is represented by local attorney Barry Woodard.