Thirteen years to the day following the funeral of Michael Minger, Jerry Wayne Walker, arrived at Calloway County Circuit Court for an arraignment stemming from the Hester College fire on Sept. 18, 1998, in which Minger died due to smoke inhalation.
“It’s a pretty bittersweet day,” Gail Minger, the victim’s mother, said following the hearing. “Knowing that Mr. Walker has been re-indicted, I believe there will be a resolution as part of the tragedy and catastrophic events that unfolded at Murray State so many years ago.”
Walker’s attorney, Dennis Null, filed a not guilty plea at the Thursday hearing.
The fire was reported at 2:38 a.m. on the Friday morning 13 years ago. Another fire had been declared arson the Sunday before the fatal incident, also on the fourth floor of Hester College.
Minger, a sophomore music student from Niceville, Fla., was found unconscious in his doorway at the end of the fourth floor and was rushed to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Another student, Michael Priddy was also found unconscious and was critically injured. Several were rescued from the fire, including Walker. The second fire was declared arson when traces of accelerant were found.
Now married with three children, Walker, 35, is the assistant principal at Paducah Middle School and a part-time minister.
Walker was previously charged with murder and assault for the death of Minger and the injured Priddy, respectively. Prosecutors presented surveillance photos and a receipt showing Walker’s purchase of about $1 worth of gasoline approximately 30 minutes prior to the fire. However, that trial resulted in a hung jury and was declared a mistrial by Circuit Judge Dennis Foust in 2001.
A decade later, Commonwealth’s Attorney Mark Blankenship presented evidence in a special-called two-day grand jury and returned an indictment late Wednesday.
“For the last two years we have done an extensive review of the evidence in that case and we asked the judge to give us a special grand jury,” Blankenship said.
Blakenship said he is sure of his case.
“This thing is now back into the system and we’re going to move forward and we’re confident of a very different result this time,” he said. “The truth is on our side and the truth should prevail so that’s where we’ll be going.”
When he became Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2008, Blankenship said he began looking at cold case files and that the Kentucky State Police wanted to reopen the investigation.
“New eyes on it and time for this evidence to mature, time to read back over and look at people who were involved that may not have testified before, things like that,” Blankenship said. “Of course we have a long way to go. The trial is where it will be.”
Minger said she is appreciative that the case has been investigated again.
“I think it’s important for everyone who was touched that night by the fire – all the other victims who have lived with this for so many years and it’s really important for everyone that justice is served,” Minger said. “And I’m just so grateful to the Kentucky State Police and investigators that wanted to go back and reopen this case. I’m just so thankful and grateful that they cared enough to give it a lot of time and attention that it took.”
Null said he and his client were unaware of the reopened investigation until Sept. 15 and did not learn of the indictment until 8 p.m. Wednesday.
The indictment included a charge of manslaughter, 2nd degree; arson, 1st degree; assault, 2nd degree and 14 counts of wanton endangerment, 1st degree.
Blankenship said the new counts of wanton endangerment relate to the 14 residents who were on the west side of the fourth floor where the fire was set.
Null said he does not believe the change in charges will have an effect on this case.
“This case all hinges on whether or not my client started a fire,” Null said. “Whether or not its manslaughter or murder, I don’t think it makes a bit of difference. It’s whether or not he started the fire. I’ve actually thought about that a little bit, but I don’t think it will.”
Null, who represented Walker in the first trial, said he has pulled the old files but has not had a chance to view them.
“First of all, I’m lucky I still have my file,” he said. “Generally, you’re supposed to keep them for five years. I have mine going back to the beginning of my career and I’ve debated through the years whether or not I should go back and destroy or purge those files, but I haven’t.”
Having worked on the previous trial, Null said the familiarity of the case should be beneficial.
“That’s a case I spent so much time on that yes, the details – a lot of them are clear in my mind,” Null said. “I went back, for example, and found my trial notes. I kept a notebook of all the proceedings, the order of witnesses, who was called, how long they were on the stand, questions that were asked and cross examination. I have very copious notes. It won’t take me as long to get up to speed as if I’m starting from scratch.”
Null said he is unacquainted with the idea of a hung jury case being tried so long after the fact.
“A case that you’ve tried before, I think it’s pretty much unprecedented,” Null said. “I’ve never had it happen and I’ve never heard of it happening to another lawyer or another defendant. It’s no-man’s land.”
Foust, who heard the original trial, set a status hearing for Nov. 21 in Marshall County. The venue was chosen to accommodate the schedule of the defense attorney.
Null said he expects to have any motions he plans to file ready by that date.
Blankenship said he believes the most prominent motion will be change of venue.
“It’s been 10 years, I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t try it here but that will be up to the judge and a lot of people in this community as they’re asked if they already have a preconceived feeling about this case,” Blankenship said. “That’s going to be one of the early motion battles is where is this one going to be tried this time. We’re going to argue it be tried right here in Murray.”
Walker was released before noon with on a $100,000 surety bond signed by his wife.