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Lander murder suspect bound over, but on lesser charges

Nov 2, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

A Circuit Court judge said he did not find probable cause to bind over first-degree murder charges against the man accused in the September shooting death of a Lander resident.

Judge Robert Denhardt on Monday filed an order transferring four charges against John Thomas Hereford, 24, of Lander, to District Court. Those charges are second-degree murder, kidnapping-confinement and two first-degree sexual assault counts.

Hereford will enter his pleas at an arraignment Nov. 20.

Hereford is charged in the Sept. 11 shooting death of Travis Armajo, 32. Officials also allege that after the shooting Hereford confined Armajo's fiancee and sexually assaulted her.

First-degree murder dismissed

According to the order, Denhardt dismissed two first-degree murder charges against Hereford after finding no probable cause.

The first first-degree murder count alleges Hereford purposely and with premeditated malice killed Armajo.

The second count alleges he killed Armajo in the perpetration of or in an attempt to perpetrate a sexual assault. This type of charge is considered a "felony murder" and involves someone purposely and with premeditated malice participating in the perpetration of or attempt to perpetrate another crime such as sexual assault.

According to Denhardt's written decision accompanying his order to transfer, no evidence was presented at court showing intent or motive on Hereford's part to harm Armajo.

"We can speculate about what transpired, but the process of the court is to base its decision on evidence and the reasonable conclusions which can be reached for that evidence," Denhardt said in his decision.

Regarding the felony murder charge, Denhardt said evidence presented at court did not explain Hereford's motive for allegedly sexually assaulting the woman.

"No evidence was presented at the preliminary hearing from which the court could find probable cause to believe that Travis Armajo's death occurred as a result of a continuous transaction in the perpetration of the sexual assault upon (the woman)," Denhardt said.

Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn in an e-mail said preliminary hearings are held so judges can make these decisions.

"While I may believe that both Count 1 and 2 should be bound over, the judge gets to decide after hearing the evidence we present," Varn said. "I do not have any issue with the Judge's findings as to Count 2 (felony murder). However, as to Count 1, premeditated murder, I do believe that the facts of the case support a finding to bind over."

Preliminary hearing

Prosecutors presented evidence supporting Hereford's original charges at a preliminary hearing Oct. 11.

It was the first court session in which Hereford's case was opened to the public after Denhardt granted a non-disclosure order the day of the shooting.

A state statute restricting information about individuals involved in an alleged sexual assault was used to impose the order.

About a dozen individuals sat in the audience as Lander police Detective Randy Lutterman testified about the investigation.

Lutterman said his agency received a call at 3:12 a.m. Sept. 11 concerning a shooting at 947 N. Second St. in Lander. Hereford was reportedly renting the house.

"The caller stated there had been a shooting, and that there was a dead body at the residence," Lutterman said.

According to an affidavit, Detective Sgt. Fred Cox responded to the residence and observed Armajo's body, "lying in the living room with a pool of blood around his head."

Lutterman testified the defendant's mother, Mary Hereford, was the one who called police. Lutterman said Mary Hereford called from her home on Plunkett Road on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Lutterman also said Mary Hereford told police her son was at her house when she notified the authorities.

"She said the shooter was her son," he added.

According to court documents, Mary Hereford told police her son confessed to shooting Armajo "accidentally while messing around with a new gun."

Lutterman said he later learned about a statement Mary Hereford gave to sheriff's deputies, reporting that her son said, "I pulled my gun and bang, bang. I knew what I was doing. I shot him dead."

Lutterman attested Armajo was shot in the upper left shoulder, between his nose and mouth and in the top of the head. Autopsy reports indicated the two head shots were taken from close proximity.

Lutterman said Armajo and Hereford were first cousins who grew up together and were on a "friendly basis."

Another crime

Lutterman testified Armajo's fiancee was allegedly sexually assaulted by Hereford at her house roughly two blocks from the spot where police found Armajo's body.

The assault allegedly occurred a short time after the shooting.

Lutterman said the woman told police that she, Armajo, Hereford and Hereford's girlfriend were together the evening of Sept. 10, consuming alcohol at Hereford's residence.

Lutterman told the court the woman said the first time she saw Hereford display the black semiautomatic handgun was that evening while the group was at the Loaf n' Jug. The woman said Hereford boasted about using the gun, saying he had "put a few shells into people."

Lutterman said the woman recalled Armajo telling her afterward, "He's not kidding. He's done that."

The woman told Lutterman the four people returned to Hereford's house, and she said she never saw the gun again while at the residence.

Lutterman said the woman left Hereford's residence at 11:30 p.m. and went to her home. She returned to Hereford's house a short while later after he reportedly went to her place and said Armajo wanted her to come back.

Lutterman said at about 12:20 a.m., Hereford's girlfriend asked the woman to leave, and she complied. Armajo stayed, Lutterman added.

Lutterman testified that at 12:55 a.m., Hereford forced his way inside the woman's house, holding the woman at gunpoint and at one point striking her in the face with the butt of the weapon.

The woman failed an escape attempt after falling into a dry irrigation ditch near the backdoor, Lutterman said. Hereford forced her back inside at gunpoint, he added.

Lutterman described the struggle that occurred inside the residence.

"I'm going to smoke you like I smoked Travis (Armajo)," Lutterman said Hereford told the woman.

He said the woman repeatedly asked where Armajo was.

Lutterman said Hereford told her: "'I shot Travis. I shot him.' Or he would say 'I shot Travis. I killed him. I did what I had to do. I did what I had to do.'"

Lutterman said Hereford kept a gun pointed toward the woman while he forced her to engage in sexual activity.

"She said the barrel was pushed against her head," Lutterman testified.

After an estimated 60 to 90 minutes, Lutterman said the woman escaped to a neighbor's house.

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