“It’s murder,” Justin Wade Ragan stated on a DVD recording of an interview with investigators that was played for the 10-man, two-woman jury in 355th Judicial District Court in reference to the Jan. 17, 2012 shooting death of Gene Sabin.
The jury in Ragan’s trial needed just 2-1/2 hours on Thursday afternoon to decide that what happened early that morning at T.J.’s Private Club and Cafe was something else – capital murder. The verdict brought Ragan an automatic sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole for killing the popular 63-year-old former Army soldier and Rolling Hills Shores resident who ran the bar, near Oak Trail Shores (OTS) northwest of Granbury.
The jury was chosen on Monday, and testimony began Tuesday morning.
Two other defendants – Gordon Ray Lewis and Kimberly Danielle Milwicz, a former employee of Sabin – are also in custody and also charged with capital murder. Their cases will be tried separately.
Ragan had been arrested on Jan. 17, 2012, on a Hood County warrant in Meridian by Bosque County officials. Rangers Anthony Bradford and Don Stoner drove to Meridian with information from tipsters after being asked to assist the Hood County Sheriff’s Office with the investigation.
During the interview, Stoner told Ragan a man had been killed in OTS and began to ask if he knew anything about it.
“Y’all think it was me?” Ragan asked.
After several uncomfortably long pauses in which Ragan slumped forward and kept his head down without speaking, finally Ragan blurted out a response that included a mention of a sledgehammer that had been found by investigators in a strange spot – on the floor inside T.J.’s, only a few feet from the murder scene.
“He (Sabin) grabbed the sledgehammer and he was coming at me – and the gun went off,” Ragan said.
“Did you see where it hit him?” Stoner asked.
“No. I ran,” said Ragan, who was believed to be living in OTS. “I feel bad for shooting the guy. I went into a panic. I freaked out.”
Ragan told the Rangers he didn’t realize Sabin was inside T.J.’s, and told him, “I’m not going to hurt you. Just give me all your money.”
Ragan described forcing Sabin into a storage closet, then being surprised when he pushed it open.
“He grabbed the sledgehammer,” Ragan said. “I was like, ‘stop!’ and then the ——- gun went off.”
One Ranger advised Ragan that telling the full truth might help him in the long run. Ragan disagreed.
“It probably won’t,” Ragan said. “It’s murder.”
Investigators never found the firearm used to kill Sabin, and no DNA evidence was presented.
‘HE WANTED METH’
In his final summation to the jury, District Attorney Rob Christian noted that in the interview with the Rangers, they gave Ragan an opening to say that the shooting was just an accident. But Christian rejected that notion entirely.
“I think the evidence was that he intentionally killed him, and that that was the plan the whole time,” Christian said after Judge Ralph Walton brought the trial to a close. “(Ragan) never said it was an accident himself. He wanted meth.” Christian also told the jury that the case showed “just how callous and cruel people can be. This was all about bags of money and pools of blood. That’s what the defendant and his friends wanted.”
Granbury resident Rebecca Cleere testified that Ragan came to her home a couple of days prior to Sabin’s murder to visit with a mutual friend, Sandra Smith, who is Lewis’s sister. Cleere said Gordon Lewis and Kimberly Milwicz showed up there later.
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Berry asked Cleere if the subject of Gene Sabin came up. Cleere replied, “Yes, sir.”
Cleere described Milwicz saying she was upset with Sabin because he had fired her. Milwicz, for whom Sabin had provided a place to live for a while, was also upset when Sabin told her she had to move out, according to testimony.
“Did Milwicz say she wanted to see Gene Sabin beat down on the floor in a pool of blood?” Berry asked Cleere, who responded yes.
“She was trying to convince me to say that’s okay to do to somebody,” Cleere added, noting she felt Ragan knew what was being discussed because he was also in the small bedroom at the time, talking with Lewis. Under cross-examination from Bryan, Cleere said that she thought “Kim and Flash (Lewis) already had planned” to rob Sabin’s business.
TRIP TO MERIDIAN
Christina Munoz of Meridian testified she had been dating Ragan off and on for about a year, and came to OTS at his request on Jan. 16. She said Ragan said he had things to do, and asked her to wait at the home of Mike Eubank, on Oak Meadow Street in OTS. She testified Ragan returned later and convinced her to drive him to Meridian. Munoz had learned someone had been shot, and testified she was “scared.” When they stopped at a store along the way, Ragan pulled out a “roll of money,” she said.
“I asked if (he was) the one that shot that guy,” Monoz testified. “He said ‘yes’.”
Earlier, Eubank testified he saw Ragan on foot in the pre-dawn hours on Jan. 17 running to a spot across from the street from his house, where three ragged-looking recliner chairs were sitting outside an abandoned home.
“Mr. Ragan said to me, ‘I shot him.’ I believe I said, ‘You shot who?’ and he said, ‘I need to use your phone’,” Eubank testified. “He called 911 to report his truck was stolen. Then I asked him to leave.”
Based on information Munoz provided, deputies later found $235 in cash in the liner of one of the recliners, plus another $1,337.19 in an abandoned house next door to where Lewis was living, also on Oak Meadow Street.
Evidence experts from a DPS lab in Garland testified on two crucial pieces of evidence. Once said a shoe print found on the inside of a front glass door at T.J.’s matched the tread of a shoe found in the motel room that had been rented by Ragan and Munoz in Meridian. A firearms expert testified that a 9mm shell casing found in the kitchen sink at T.J.’s had “identical magazine tool marks” to one of the unfired 9mm bullets found in a bag in the pickup.
Dr. Nizam Peerwani, the chief medical examiner at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, testified that a single bullet from a 9mm firearm shot from at least 3-1/2 to 4 feet away severed Sabin’s jugular vein and entered his chest cavity, slowly causing his lungs to be squeezed by incoming blood – not a rapid death.
“He would have a sensation of extreme suffocation,” Peerwani explained.
Berry painted a vivid mental picture of that for the jury, after noting that Ragan could have called for an ambulance if it had been an accident, but didn’t.
“(Ragan) makes a conscious decision to enter T.J.’s with a loaded gun,” Berry said, “leaving him drowning in his own blood. Does that show intent to kill? Absolutely.”
Ragan’s lead attorney Cole Bryan, who was co-counsel with Mark Piland, said, “I tried my absolute best to tell Justin’s side of the story. Our story, from Day 1, was that the shooting was accidental. He never meant to pull that trigger. Unfortunately, the jury saw it differently.”
Shawn Hawthorne, a 37-year-old electrical lineman who served as the presiding juror, said, “There were (jurors) that still had to process some things,” Hawthorne said. “We all wanted to make sure we were making the right decision. I’m at peace with the decision we made. We did not walk out until everyone was at peace with the decision we made. The jury as a whole, we were confident we had come to the right verdict.”
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