The State Attorney’s Office in Okaloosa County has lightened its caseload considerably in the past couple of months by clearing four murder cases with convictions and a fifth via a plea deal.
Two more cases — one the death penalty case of triple-murder suspect Jacob Langston — were scheduled for docket days Monday ahead of May 14 trials. Both, however, have been delayed.
Langston’s trial was continued and rescheduled for Aug. 13, while the trial of David Holbrook, accused of killing Melissa Howard in 2006, has been postponed until June 11.
One trial that was scheduled to get underway this week is an aggravated assault case brought against Graylon Lamar Johnson, who is accused of threatening a woman with a knife and fighting police officers who came to arrest him.
Since early April, the Okaloosa branch of the First Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office has cleared three homicide cases involving: Jackie Long, Jostin Lantz and Tonisha Crowell; Harold Bielec; and Nijajuan Russell.
Long, Lantz and Crowell were all convicted of first-degree premeditated murder and all are now facing sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Bielec was found guilty April 12 of second-degree murder in the shaking death of his infant son. He will be sentenced June 4.
Russell, one of four members of the Money Mafia gang involved in the January 2015 execution-style killing of Mark Williams, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder April 22 and was sentenced to a minimum mandatory 25 years in prison.
The Langston and Holbrook trials were just two of several high profile cases that have been delayed.
Marlynn Stillions, a former Kenwood Elementary School teacher accused of child abuse, also had a Monday court appearance planned before a scheduled May 14 trial day, as did suspended Okaloosa County School District investigator Arden Farley and former Kenwood Principal Angelyn Vaughan.
All three cases have been pushed back. Stillions, Farley and Vaughan now all face June 11 trial dates.
Farley and Vaughan are both charged with failing to go to the Florida Department of Children and Families after witnessing alleged child abuse Stillions is accused of perpetrating.
Bill Bishop, the chief assistant state attorney in the Okaloosa County office, said “it’s possible” the school district cases could be tried in June, though it is also feasible that they will be continued again.
“We’re still conducting discovery, and there are still depositions being taken,” Bishop said. “There are several different lawyers involved.”
The State Attorney’s Office is still actively investigating the school district and specifically actions taken by Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson after findings of possible child abuse by Stillions were documented in an investigative report.
Bishop said information brought out as the state prepares for trial in the school district cases could help further its ongoing investigation of the district.
Stacie Smith, the last of four school district employees or former employees arrested as a result of the Stillions’ case, is scheduled for her own docket day June 4, and is currently facing a June 8 trial date.
Smith is also charged with failing to report child abuse.
Langston is to be tried for the Jan. 23, 2016 killing of Elbert Merrick III, Kevin McGrath and his mother, Shanna McGrath.
Merrick was fatally shot on a Saturday morning, shortly after arriving at the McGrath’s home at 179 Peoria Blvd., Crestview, to collect items left behind there by a young woman he was dating. The woman had once been Langston’s fiancé.
Langston initially told investigators he had armed himself before Merrick’s arrival “in case Elbert had someone with him to start trouble,” an arrest report said. He initially said he and Merrick had argued and Merrick had pushed him, but later conceded that he was the aggressor in the domestic dispute.
Shanna and Kevin McGrath heard the gunshots that killed Merrick and came out of their home to see what had happened. Langston followed the two back inside and shot his mother as she tried to call 911, his arrest report said.
Kevin McGrath, Langston’s stepfather, armed himself with a handgun of his own and, according to Langston, shot and wounded him in the shoulder. Langston grabbed another gun from a nightstand and wrestled McGrath’s gun away, the report said.
Langston told authorities he shot McGrath when he went for a gun on the floor. He then allegedly shot two family dogs, killing one.
He faces three counts of felony murder and two counts of animal cruelty. The State Attorney’s Office has announced it will seek the death penalty.
Melissa Howard, 33, had been divorced for almost three years on Jan. 6, 2006, when her body was found inside her home at 222 Tiffot Ave. in Crestview. The petite, athletic mother of three had been violently beaten about the head and her throat had been cut.
Holbrook had been a family friend of the Howard’s prior to Melissa’s divorce. He was arrested more than a decade after the murder following a decision in 2015 to reopen the investigation.
State Attorney Bill Eddins has said additional arrests are possible in the Howard case.
Other homicide cases
Though the Langston and Holbrook cases were scheduled to be heard next week, Bishop said there are other Okaloosa County homicides that are likely going to come to trial before them.
Judsen Rodney Cunningham, who is facing numerous charges, including boating under the influence-manslaughter, for his role in a wreck that killed two people, is scheduled for trial May 29.
The trial of Oscar Castaneda-Lopez, charged with shooting Osvaldo Torres-Michua and burying him in a shallow grave off Chat Holley Road in Walton County is scheduled for June 4.
Also on the June 4 docket is the trial of Jordan Christopher Reeves, who was charged with the Aug. 2015 shooting death of Timothy Stocker Jr. outside the New Green Frog Lounge.
Darian Kathleen Caldwell, accused of providing drugs that killed Chad Alan Beezley, was scheduled for trial April 23, but the case was continued, Okaloosa County court records show. No record of a new trial date appears in the court records.