A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Grand jury to consider murder charge against Burlington man in the death of Arizona woman

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

A grand jury will decide if a Burlington man will stand trial for murder in the killing of a woman found dead in a Florence hotel room Dec. 1.

Friday, District Court Judge Jeffrey Smith determined there was probable cause for the grand jury to consider an indictment against Jesse A. James in the death of Amanda D. Webster, of Cameron, Arizona.

Jesse James is led from a Boone County District Courtroom Friday. Judge Jeffrey Smith determined there is probable cause for a grand jury to consider a murder charge against him in the death of Amanda Webster (photos by Mark Hansel).

Webster was Native American and the courtroom was filled with members of the American Indian Movement of Indiana and Kentucky, there to show support.

Many were holding sheets of paper that read, “Murder and Hate Crime Charges 4 Jesse James, Justice 4 Amanda Webster.”

Members of the organization say Webster’s death is the latest in an increasing pattern of violence against Native American women. James’ family, however, says he is mentally ill, that the system has failed him and he should not have been allowed to leave a behavioral health facility just hours before Webster was killed.

Friday’s testimony did not seem to provide the resolution any of them were seeking.

Florence Police issued a release on Dec. 1, indicating Webster had been killed inside the Home 2 Suites hotel in Florence. The report also stated James had been arrested for acting strangely inside the Rave Cinemas on Mall Road earlier in the day, confessed to killing Webster and was charged with murder.

Florence Police Det. Pat Cottingham, who interrogated James, provided some background, including graphic details of the crime scene, in court Friday.

Cottingham said he arrived at the hotel at approximately 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 1 and was informed that Webster was “cold to the touch (and) did not have a pulse” in a room that was registered to James.

Officers from the Florence Police Department processed the scene and collected evidence.

Another officer heard that James had been arrested at the Rave Cinemas, recognized the name and notified a supervisor, who contacted Cottingham.

Cottingham began a recorded interview with James, who he says signed a Miranda waiver, shortly after 5:30 p.m.

Initially, Cottingham said James denied killing Webster, but then began admitting to certain aspects of the crime, which Cottingham was able to confirm through updates from officers on scene.

“He did admit to getting the hotel room, going to the hotel room with the victim and attempting to get a massage,” Cottingham said. “He then claimed that he had left her in the room, intoxicated, after she was speaking of committing suicide with a knife and he described the knife. At the end of the interview, he stated, after a brief moment of silence that, ‘he killed her, he meant it.’”

James was transferred to St. Elizabeth Hospital for examination and then to the Boone County Justice Center.

Florence Police Detective Pat Cottingham, right, describes the circumstances that led to the arrest of Jesse James in the killing of Amanda Webster at the Home 2 Suites in Florence.

Other details revealed by Cottingham included James’s activities before and after he and Webster arrived at the hotel, as well as a description of the victim’s wounds.

Prior to going upstairs with Webster at the hotel, Cottingham said a Walmart video show James stealing the clothes he was wearing then, as well as a knife.

Cottingham said video from the hotel shows James and Webster arrived at the hotel at approximately 3:45 a.m. James came downstairs alone 25 minutes later and ordered a cab.

He them embarked on a two-hour cab ride, ultimately fleeing the vehicle on Winston Avenue in Covington. Covington Police located James shortly thereafter on Decoursey Avenue and cited him for theft of services for allegedly failing to pay for the cab ride.

James was later believed to be seen on video at retail stores in the area, before being arrested at the Rave Cinemas. 

After reviewing a Covington police officer’s body-cam, Cottingham returned to the site where James was arrested in Covington. He retrieved $676 and a knife, which he said was potentially the murder weapon, under a car there.

Cottingham said Webster appeared to have three wounds when she was found in the room.

“We are still waiting on the final report, but the preliminary report indicates there were two wounds to the victim’s neck that severed her carotid artery, her trachea and her jugular, as well as a secondary wound underneath her right arm and her ribs that went through her lung,” he said.

He said a medical examiner determined the wounds were likely caused by a single-bladed knife of the same size as the one recovered in Covington.

Members of James’ family said after his arrest that he had left a behavioral health facility, against their wishes, just hours before Webster was killed.  

Members of the American Indian Movement of Indiana and Kentucky hold up notes calling for justice for Amanda Webster.

Attorney Jake Johnson, a public defender representing James, asked Cottingham to go through the hours leading up to his client’s arrest.

Cottingham said he determined that James had been in the Kenton County Detention Center on Oct. 25  and was checked in to the Sun Behavioral Health Center in Erlanger on Nov. 29. James checked himself out of the facility at 1:52 p.m. on Nov. 30.

Between that time and the time he checked into the Home 2 Suites at 10:54 p.m., James had two encounters with the Boone County Sheriff’s office and was kicked out of the Holiday Inn on Mineola Pike for lewd behavior toward guests and employees.

Johnson asked Cottingham if he was aware of James’ history of mental illness, when he interrogated him, but a prosecutor challenged the relevance of that question.

“The alleged confession here is a big piece of the evidence that (Cottingham) testified to under direct,” Johnson said. “I think the circumstances surrounding those statements are absolutely relevant.”

Judge Smith allowed the question and Cottingham acknowledged a supervisor had informed him James had mental health issues and was possibly schizophrenic. He said James told him he liked turning people into frogs.

Smith admitted to concerns about James’ mental state at the time of the killing but referred the charges to the grand jury.

Given the testimony of both witnesses, the court will make a finding of probable cause that the defendant Jesse James…has committed the felony offense,” Smith said.

Melinda Pennell, a member of the Indian Movement of Kentucky and Indiana, said she is pleased James was charged with murder, but wants more.

“I wish he was charged with a hate crime because that’s exactly what it is,” she said. “For him to sit there and try to use the mental health issue, we’ve seen that over and over again.”

Members of the James family declined to make a formal statement but said they grieve with Webster’s family and supporters.

They said elected officials need to do more to ensure proper care and treatment of those with mental health and behavioral issues.

James faces charges of murder, tampering with evidence and theft of identity.

He is lodged in the Boone County Justice Center on a $1 million bond.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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