A judge will determine whether statements made by 26-year-old Chaz Zachery Stephens prior to his arrest in connection to the death of 2-year-old Iviona Marae May Lewis last year can be admissible as evidence in his upcoming trial.
Senior Judge Edward Bouker heard pre-trial motions Thursday in the case of Stephens, the Hoisington man charged with first-degree murder, child abuse and drug possession. He has entered “not guilty” pleas to all charges.
Judge Bouker heard motions in Barton County District Court from defense attorney Paul Oller and from Assistant Attorney General Lyndzie Carter. The jury trial is scheduled for March 28 through April 5.
Carter introduced witnesses for a Jackson-Denno Hearing. The proceeding determines whether a defendant’s statements were voluntary or involuntary, and whether they can be admissible as evidence.
Carter had 12 pieces of evidence, including interviews and a statement Stephens reportedly wrote and signed as “an apology letter” to the girl known as Ivy.
The state’s witnesses were Detective Brian Volkel from the Barton County Sheriff’s Office and Hoisington Police Captain Josh Nickerson, along with Roger Butler and Joby Harrison from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Volkel recalled how the investigation into the death of Iviona Lewis began as a missing child report on March 20, 2018. A crowd gathered at Fourth and Elm Street in Hoisington, home to Stephens and his girlfriend, Iviona’s mother, Annissia Rose Janice Houp.
Nickerson arrived around 3:45 p.m.
The witnesses all testified that Stephens was upset but cooperative and appeared to have his wits about him. He was not a suspect at the time, they said. It was cold outside and he agreed to come to the KBI office in Great Bend to answer questions. Stephens was driven to the office, where interviews that began that evening continued through the night and into the following morning.
At 4:20 a.m., Nickerson came into the interview room. Because he had a prior relationship with Stephens and his family, the others agreed to let him take over the questioning. Nickerson said Stephens did become more talkative.
“He said that he trusted me with his life.” They talked for about an hour and Stephens volunteered to take Nickerson to the missing girl.
“I said she didn’t deserve to be out there,” Nickerson said, and at some point, Stephens agreed.
Nickerson said Stephens was never threatened nor told he couldn’t leave. He was not under arrest as he rode in the front seat of Nickerson’s patrol vehicle, directing him to take U.S. 281 back toward Hoisington. He said Stephens had been given a Miranda warning and advised of his right to remain silent during the interviews.
As they traveled, Stephens became more emotionally distressed. He gave Nickerson a location on a rural road and began to cry. Other law enforcement officers followed.
The body is recovered
“Mr. Stephens pointed over to the ditch. He said Iviona would be in there in a black trash bag,” Nickerson said.
For the drive back to Great Bend, Nickerson said Stephens was no longer a passenger by choice. He was “10-15,” or under arrest.
They returned to the KBI office and left Stephens alone for about an hour. He slept on the floor and when he woke up he received the Miranda warning again.
Carter asked the witnesses repeatedly if Stephens ever said he didn’t want to talk or said he wanted an attorney. They said he did not. Stephens agreed to provide a written statement. “It was an apology letter to Iviona,” Nickerson said.
He was booked into the Barton County Jail but was interviewed again at the KBI office on March 23. This time the agents picked up a lunch at the jail. After Stephens ate, he heard the Miranda warning explained again.
Oller asked the witnesses whether they knew Stephens was diabetic and whether he was allowed to eat during the long interviews on March 20-21. No one was aware of his diabetes, but he was given a meal of his choosing — a grilled chicken sandwich and garden salad with dressing, along with decaffeinated tea.
“Was he tired?” Oller asked.
“Would it be fair to say he was physically and emotionally exhausted?” It was.
Other testimony described how Stephens agreed to a polygraph test and a DNA swab. When asked if he was under the influence of drugs, he said he had smoked marijuana that day and used methamphetamine on March 17 or 18. He had not been drinking and did not appear to be under the influence of drugs during the interviews.
Special KBI Investigator Roger Butler was a KBI agent at the time and handled the polygraph. He set up recording equipment and cameras around 7 p.m. and Stephens was brought to him around 9.
“He had not had anything to eat, so we made arrangements for him to have some food,” Butler said. That is when they got the sandwich and salad, which Stephens ate uninterrupted.
The polygraph test began around 11:20 p.m. and Stephens never asked for it to stop and never asked for an attorney, Butler said.
“Mr. Stephens said he did not like machines and was uncomfortable. I assured him that was normal. ... He said he wanted to cooperate.”
Although Carter introduced 12 pieces of state’s evidence for the Jackson-Denno hearing, Bouker said he would not listen to the actual interviews unless it becomes necessary. For a Jackson-Denno, “the content is not as important as the context,” the judge said.
In other issues discussed Thursday, attorneys said they would work together on a questionnaire for prospective jurors. Because the case had received some publicity, they thought at least 150 prospective jurors will need to be called up.
Mr. Stephens pointed over to the ditch. He said Iviona would be in there in a black trash bag.Hoisington Police Captain Josh Nickerson
He said he wanted to cooperate.Roger Butler, Kansas Bureau of Investigation