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Trial for man charged in triple murder to begin Tuesday

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2 men charged 23 years after triple homicide of woman, teens in Hammond

David L. Copley Jr., left, and James H. Higgason III

CROWN POINT — A Whiting man's trial on charges linked to a triple homicide in Hammond was scheduled to begin Tuesday, one day after a judge denied his motion to dismiss the case because prosecutors waited 23 years to file it.

James H. Higgason III, 52, has pleaded not guilty to six counts of murder in the bludgeoning deaths of Jerod "Buddy" Hodge, 18, of Chicago; Elva Tamez, 36; and Timothy W. "Midnight" Ross, 16, of Calumet City, on Jan. 18, 1998, inside a home in the 4600 block of Torrence Avenue in Hammond.

Higgason's co-defendant, David L. Copley Jr., 47, of Franklin, Indiana, pleaded guilty in October to one count of murder and was expected to testify against Higgason during this week's trial. Copley agreed to a 45-year sentence for his role in the killings.

Lake Criminal Court Judge Salvador Vasquez previously granted Higgason's motion to review Copley's medical, psychiatric and jail records. 

The judge told defense attorneys Matthew Fech and Mark Gruenhagen last week he found nothing in the records to indicate Copley's ability to recall events from 1998 could be impaired.

Copley admitted in his plea agreement he and Higgason were at the home using crack cocaine when Hodge and Ross fell asleep and Tamez went outside to search for cigarettes.

Copley told police Higgason handed him a board and said something like, "We're going to kill these guys." Copley said he and Higgason each hit Hodge, and Higgason began "whacking away" at Ross, who was on a couch, court records state.

Tamez was hit in the head after she began knocking at the door to be let back inside, records allege. 

Vasquez denied Higgason's motion to dismiss Monday, finding Higgason's attorneys had not met their burden of showing by a preponderance of the evidence that his case was prejudiced as a result of the state's delay in filing charges. 

"I don't think you've met your burden of proof," Vasquez said. "It's a significant burden."

Copley first spoke to detectives about the homicides in February 1998, according to charging documents.

The Lake County prosecutor's office declined to file charges after Copley was interviewed and again after detectives conducted two recorded phone calls in May 1998 between Copley and "a person the state claims" was Higgason, Fech said.

In fall 1998, Copley told a man in South Bend about the homicides but didn't identify Higgason by name, he said. Instead, Copley told the man about "his buddy," a person the man believed was a bartender or someone Copley knew from hanging out at a bar, Fech said.

Higgason's former attorneys at Stracci Law Group looked into the man's whereabouts and passed along information to Fech and Gruenhagen, who entered the case in December, that the man might be dead, Fech said.

A Hammond detective prepared a report after a 1998 interview with the man, which indicated Copley said "he beat them to death, not that we beat them to death," Fech said.

"This is exactly the type of evidence that could exonerate Mr. Higgason from these crimes," Fech said.

If the man is dead, the delay by prosecutors in filing the case caused actual prejudice to Higgason's defense, he said.

"They want him to fight with one arm behind his back while they're able to present all this evidence," Fech said.

Lake County Deputy Prosecutor Keith Anderson said the defense provided no proof that the man Copley talked to in South Bend was dead. 

The prosecutor's office gave the defense information about the man's last known address, which the man provided to police in 1998, he said.

"They didn't do anything to find (the witness)," Anderson said.

Anderson said he conducted an online search while listening to Fech and learned the man might be incarcerated in Michigan.

Vasquez said the defense, in arguing its motion to dismiss, carried the burden of proving the man died.

Man pleads guilty in 1998 triple homicide

Anderson also rejected the defense's position that evidence he and Deputy Prosecutor Jovanni Miramontes plan to present this week is not substantially different than what the state had 23 years ago.

DNA evidence was submitted to an Indiana State Police lab in 2008, 2020 and 2021, he said.

Results in 2008 were inconclusive, but new technology led to a finding in 2020 that included Higgason as a possible contributor to DNA found under Tamez's fingernail, he said.

Within months after learning of the results, prosecutors charged Higgason, Anderson said.

Vasquez said the state had gathered new evidence.

"Things are different, and it's hard for me to reach where you want me to reach," he said. "Your motion is denied."

Opening arguments were expected to begin Tuesday morning. 

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