Murder trial witness IDs being kept under wraps

Justin James Rector

Justin James Rector

KINGMAN - Two mystery witnesses have been added to the murder case against Justin James Rector, who potentially faces the death penalty if convicted of the 2014 killing of an 8-year-old Bullhead City girl.

Few people aside from defense attorney Gerald Gavin, prosecutor Greg McPhillips and Judge Lee Jantzen know who the witnesses are, but apparently revealing their identities could put their lives in danger.

Jantzen at a recent hearing said there was a "lot going on behind the scenes" in the case, but there won't be much going on in public until a second defense attorney is assigned to the case.

State law requires all death penalty defendants to have two attorneys.

Rector, 27, has had Gavin all along, but former Mohave County Public Defender Harry Moore backed out after learning he had a conflict in representing Rector. Then Ron Gilleo, the county's legal defender, had to step aside for the same reason in February.

Jantzen said the county's indigent defense network ran into unexpected problems in locating a second chair to assist Gavin. That appointment has been made, but the attorney must attend death penalty-related continuing education classes before he can begin work in late June.

The lack of a second attorney forced Jantzen to postpone a number of hearings until July.

Jantzen said the ex parte communications between him and Gavin, meetings in which prosecutor Greg McPhillips did not participate, were troubling and resembled "skullduggery." He said he did not want to go through such measures again.

Gavin said the issue with the witnesses was "quite sensitive. You made it clear you like things done in the sunlight of an open courtroom," said Gavin to the judge, but he also said such secretiveness was necessary.

Jantzen held off on delaying the trial, which is currently set to begin in October, until the second attorney is on the case. Also, the judge appointed investigator James Vasquez to assist Gavin.

Rector's next hearing is July 15. He is accused of strangling Bella Grogan-Cannella in early September 2014, and burying her partially clothed body in a shallow grave in a wash about a mile from her home.