Home Depot for Light Bulbs
Ross recounted his day in an interview later that evening. He told Stoddard who he had gone to lunch with, and where they ate, but he had forgotten the side-trip to buy lightbulbs. It’s obvious, from the probable cause hearing, that Stoddard believed Ross had deliberately withheld that information from him.
Boring: Did you eventually find out where he’d gone during lunch, that he’d left out?
Stoddard: Yes, sir. He’d gone to Publix, to the UPS store, and then went to Home Depot for two boxes of light bulbs.
Stoddard’s suspicions, again, make no sense. Ross was well aware of the surveillance cameras all over that parking lot and in the Treehouse lobby. You couldn’t miss them. In addition, he’d actually given Stoddard the names of the two friends with whom he had lunch, and that they ate at Publix. Those aren’t the kind of details you share with law enforcement if you’re trying to hide something.*
Kilgore: You would certainly agree that it’s possible he forgot going to Home Depot and getting those light bulbs?
Kilgore: You don’t think it’s possible?
Stoddard: I don’t think it’s possible at all.
Stoddard and Murphy had questioned Winston Milling on June 19th, less than 24 hours after Cooper died. At trial, he testified that he, too, had forgotten about stopping for light bulbs.
Kilgore: Do you remember that you neglected to tell detectives that y’all had stopped at a Home Depot store for lightbulbs after you went to Publix?
Milling: Correct, I didn’t recall it at that time.
Kilgore: You weren’t under arrest.
Kilgore: You had not lost a child.
Kilgore: You weren’t facing the prospect of having to tell you wife what you had done?
Kilgore: But you forgot to tell the detectives about stopping by the Home Depot store. And you didn’t just stop. You actually got out of the car and went into the store while Ross bought light bulbs.
Kilgore: Were you trying to mislead the officer?
Milling: I was not. I just forgot until he reminded me.
Light Bulb Toss
The lead detective apparently became even more suspicious when he viewed the parking lot surveillance videos, which showed Alex dropping Ross off at his car at 12:40 p.m. The following exchange is from the probable cause hearing.
Kilgore: In the June 24th search warrant, you make some specific statements about that event in the parking lot. You stated, “Said accused did access the same vehicle through the driver’s side door to place an object into the vehicle. Said accused then closed the door and left the car, re-entering his place of business.”
Kilgore: So in that video, you didn’t see him get into that car. You didn’t see him look around in that car. You didn’t see him pick anything up off the floor. You didn’t see him look in the back seat. You didn’t see him look over the back seat. You didn’t see him looking around to see if anybody was watching. You didn’t see any of that on the video, did you?
Stoddard: Not at the car, no.
Kilgore: Because if you’d seen it in the video it would be in the warrant, right?
Kilgore: He just tosses the light bulbs in, closes the door, and walks away?
Stoddard: Yes sir.
Those videos didn’t undergo any changes between June 18th and July 3rd, but Stoddard told a very different story when questioned by Boring at that same hearing.
Boring: So when he comes back to the car, what does he do?
Stoddard: First of all, a car pulls up and from interviewing the two friends he went to lunch with, they pull up, he gets out of the car and they immediately take off. You can see him walk up to the car. He approaches the car from the driver’s side, opens the door and he kind of tosses the bulbs inside. He’s all the way inside the frame, but he just kind of tosses the light bulbs inside the car.
Boring: How does it appear that he reaches in and where his head is?
Stoddard: He opens up the door and, as he’s reaching in, he kind of turns his head a little bit. He’s in there. He has a clear view, and he kind of turns his head and then just tosses the light bulbs into the car.
He’s in there. Stoddard is implying that Ross is actually inside the car. He has a clear view. The implication, again, is that Ross MUST have seen Cooper.
These assertions were proven untrue at trial by two unlikely sources: the prosecution’s own witnesses, Greg Sanders and Walter Pineda. Very early in the investigation, Greg Sanders provided detectives with the June 18th security videos shot from various angles in the parking lot. Boring was in a difficult position. He had to present evidence of Ross returning to his car after lunch, but he didn’t want to draw the jury’s attention to details that would damage the state’s case. So he kept it simple.
Boring: Is there anything between him and the car door?
Sanders: Just him and the car door.
Ross’s actual position in relation to the car, and what he could see, became clear on cross-exam. Rodriguez showed the video shot from the left camera.
Rodriguez: Did you notice that Ross doesn’t get in the car?
Sanders: He’s not in the car.
Rodriguez: Did you see sort of a blur go across the windshield there?
Sanders: It looks like one arm goes in. He leans down a little bit and the head is out.
Rodriguez: The head is out, above the roof line, correct?
Sanders: Well, it doesn’t appear to be going in the vehicle.
The defense then showed the same video, from the middle angle, that Greg Sanders was questioned about on direct.
Rodriguez: This camera angle still shows the head above the door frame, correct?
Ross opens the car door, tosses the package of light bulbs in, and closes the door within 3-4 seconds. His head is above the roof line.
The prosecution hired Walter Pineda to enhance still shots from the parking lot videos. On direct, Boring clicked through the photos in rapid succession, but did not ask his witness a single question about them. Please note the image taken from the front camera. It shows Ross opening his car door, but is very blurry due to the sun’s reflection on the glass.
Pineda’s cross-exam echoed Greg Sanders’. Rodriguez showed a still shot from the left camera.
Rodriguez: Do you see kind of a dark color here (i.e., Ross’s hair). Does that appear to be a head?
Rodriguez: You’d agree it’s above this roof line here?
Stoddard testified about this as well. I urge you to watch this portion of the video and note the extreme, almost desperate emphasis he gives to specific words.
Boring: How do you describe what he’s doing at this point?
Stoddard: He steps into the frame of the door. He is IN the frame. He is IN THERE. He has a clear view and by that I mean there’s NOTHING between the defendant and a view of the interior of that car.
The lead detective may not have remembered exactly what he said at the probable cause hearing, but Kilgore did. On cross-exam, the defense confronted Stoddard about his previous testimony.
Kilgore: So you agree that in July 2014 when specifically asked “Can he see the car seat?” you responded “He’s in there, he has a clear view.”
Stoddard: Yes sir.
Kilgore: So you’re suggesting that when he put the bulbs in the car he could see the car seat.
Stoddard: I’m suggesting that when he walks up to the car & opens the door, he has a clear view. As he continues forward into the door frame he has a clear view. I’m not stating where his eyes are. I’m just stating he has a clear view.
A clear view of what…the parking lot? That’s all Ross could see with his head above the roof line. He certainly couldn’t see the car seat.
Stop. Step Away from that Vehicle.
Ross tossed the bulbs in his car, and then proceeded to walk back to his office. Along the way, another person passed him going in the direction of Ross’s vehicle. At approximately the same time, Ross paused for a few seconds and then walked on. The prosecution contended that Ross was so concerned about this other individual discovering Cooper that he turned around to look. Their theory makes no sense at all, considering Ross’s parking spot and the many people who walked right by his car all day long.
Boring: As that person passes him, what does the defendant do?
Stoddard: He pauses.
Boring: Can we tell with any certainty, if at all, he turns back or not to look at him?
Stoddard: The video is what it is. You can’t really tell. All we know is he stops, or pauses.
Boring: Based upon your view of this and enhancements, is it possible that he was looking back?
Stoddard: After looking at many many pictures of this up close, it is possible that the defendant is turning his head as that person walks by him.
Kilgore: So if Ross was going to look at somebody walking toward that car, one of two things has got to happen. He’s either got to rotate his head to look at whoever is walking past him, right? Or he’s got to somehow rotate his shoulders and his torso to look.
Stoddard: He could use his peripheral vision? Just turn just a little bit. Kinda catch a glimpse of him?
Kilgore: Well once the person’s all the way behind him, that’s not going to work, is it?
Stoddard: Are you talking about directly behind him? Then no.
Kilgore: You would agree that from the video it certainly looks – and it’s much clearer the second time he stops – it looks pretty clear he’s messing with his phone, doesn’t it.
Stoddard: I don’t know where his eyes are.
Ross was looking down. There was something in his hand. Common sense tells us that Ross was using his phone in the parking lot. He was still on his phone when he walked in the Treehouse.