Lane Stephens pleaded guilty Monday to second-degree murder and a robbery charge in connection with a rampage a year ago when he shot and killed Don Pierce and wounded his own estranged wife at a motel room in Carthage and then hijacked two vehicles in fleeing the scene.
Set to go to trial next week on first-degree murder charges, Stephens, 30, took a plea offer that sends him to prison with concurrent terms of 10 years for the robbery conviction and life with a chance of parole in the murder case.
His plea agreement dismissed a count of first-degree domestic assault, a second count of first-degree robbery and four counts of armed criminal action. Circuit Judge Dean Dankelson accepted the plea arrangement at a hearing in Jasper County Circuit Court and assessed the defendant the agreed-upon length of sentences.
Pierce, 43, and Toni Stephens, 25, were checked into separate rooms of the Quality Inn in Carthage on Aug. 1, 2020, but were together in the same room when Lane Stephens showed up there.
Toni Stephens later told police that she and Pierce were acquainted but not romantically involved. But authorities had reason to believe Lane Stephens may have thought otherwise, according to Carthage police Chief Greg Dagnan.
“The motivation (for the shooting) seemed to be that there was at least a perceived relationship going on,” Dagnan told the Globe a couple of days after the shooting.
He said the Stephenses had a conversation outside Pierce’s room just before the shooting. When Toni Stephens walked back into the room, her husband followed her and the shooting ensued, Dagnan said.
Toni Stephens told police that her husband shot Pierce in the bathroom of the room before shooting her. He then walked back inside the bathroom and shot Pierce again before emerging and shooting her a second time, she told police.
The gun may have jammed at that point, according to a probable-cause affidavit, because she reported seeing the gun’s slide “lock back, unable to fire,” and said her husband left the room.
Preliminary findings of an autopsy determined that Pierce had been shot at least three times, although there was some uncertainty as to the number of times each victim was shot, police reported at the time. The affidavit states that Toni Stephens was treated for two gunshot wounds to her legs.
Six spent 9 mm casings were recovered at the scene, along with two unspent rounds that appeared to have been dropped during the shooting.
Lane Stephens was charged with hijacking two vehicles while fleeing the scene, first taking a woman’s pickup truck at gunpoint in the motel parking lot and later displaying a knife to steal a car outside the O’Reilly’s store on Garrison Avenue in Carthage.
The pistol used in the shooting was found inside the truck he abandoned and a magazine containing eight unspent 9 mm rounds was recovered in the parking lot of the auto parts store.
The defendant fled in the car to Lamar, where he entered the First Christian Church. Church members there for Sunday morning services reported the presence there of a man matching the description of the fleeing suspect.
When police Officer John Simpson arrived at the church, Stephens purportedly pulled the knife out of his waistband, told Simpson that he wasn’t going back and inflicted a cut on the officer’s hand as the officer tried to disarm him.
Three church members who came to Simpson’s aid and helped him get Stephens under control were awarded public safety medals by the Missouri governor earlier this year for their actions in defense of the officer.