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Judge orders competency evaluation for suspect in Spring Brook homicide

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  A Dunn County judge has ordered a competency evaluation for a 20-year-old Stanley woman accused in the death of a 24-year-old Eau Claire man whose body was found in the Town of Spring Brook March 23. 

Judge James Peterson ordered the competency evaluation for Ezra J. McCandless following a preliminary hearing in Dunn County Circuit Court April 25.

During a preliminary hearing, a judge uses testimony given by witnesses to determine whether there is probable cause to believe a felony has been committed and that the defendant committed the crime.

Judge Peterson said following the preliminary hearing for McCandless he questions whether she is competent to stand trial. 

McCandless’s attorney, Aaron Nelson, said he needed time to speak with his client, and Judge Peterson said he would file the order for a competency evaluation on May 2. 

The body of Alexander Woodworth was found in a car identified as belonging to McCandless in the Town of Spring Brook March 23. According to the preliminary autopsy report, Woodworth had been stabbed 16 times. 

The owner of a residence in the Town of Spring Brook called 911 the afternoon of March 22 when a young woman came to his house with torn clothes, muddy pants, no shoes and blood on her face and hands. 

Sergeant Scott McRoberts of the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department was called as the only witness during the nearly two-hour long preliminary hearing.

Richard Dufour, an assistant state attorney general, represented the prosecution during the hearing.

Nelson objected to a variety of questions Dufour asked, including questions pertaining to the word “boy” that had been carved into McCandless’s right arm. 

McCandless is not charged with causing harm to herself, so the question is not relevant to the felony of intentional homicide, Nelson said.

Dufour said the questions about “boy” were relevant because McCandless had lied to law enforcement officers.

According to the criminal complaint, McCandless told investigators Woodworth had carved the word on her arm but then later on said she had done it herself after she had stabbed Woodworth.

Medical release

One of the exhibits filed with the court was a medical release form that allegedly had been signed by McCandless.

Nelson objected to the exhibit because he said there was no foundation to judge whether the signature actually belonged to McCandless since Sergeant McRoberts could not testify that he had personally watched McCandless sign the form.

Judge Peterson informed Nelson the question about the signature would be a good argument to make during a trial but that it was not an argument to make during a preliminary hearing to establish probable cause. 

Sergeant McRoberts also testified McCandless had wounds in her groin area, on her hand and on her right upper thigh and described the wounds as cuts that were like “scratches” and not deep penetration wounds, and the wounds were linear or slightly curved.

Regarding the area where Woodworth’s body was found, Sergeant McRoberts described the muddy dirt road as a field driveway and said the vehicle was located on the other side of a small hill. 

Woodworth was found partially out of the open rear door on the driver’s side and there was blood on the ground, he said. 

Woodworth’s body was taken to the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy, and according to the preliminary autopsy report, the body had 16 sharp force penetrating wounds, he said.

Spring Brook 

Sergeant McRoberts testified he went to the scene in the Town of Spring Brook on March 24 to coordinate a search during the daylight. Three deputies walked along the muddy road, and one of the deputies located a folding pocket knife on the shoulder in a grassy area. At that point, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground.

Sergeant McRoberts said they saw foot tracks in the snow, and a black cell phone cover was found about 10 to 15 feet from the knife.

Sergeant McRoberts said he returned to the scene on March 27. The snow in the area was receding, and water running in the ditch was receding, but they were still unable to locate Woodworth’s cell phone.

While they were on the scene, a vehicle driven by Chester Davidson stopped, and Davidson said he might have observed something pertaining to the homicide case, the sergeant said. 

Davidson said he is employed by Eau Claire Transport, and on March 22, he was eastbound on 430th going to work just after 1:20 p.m. when he came over the hill and a vehicle was taking up the whole lane to turn onto the dirt road. Davidson told the deputies the vehicle was a small sedan, and that as he drove around it, he saw two people in the front seat, one male and one female that appeared to be in their mid-twenties, Sergeant McRoberts said.

On March 29, Sergeant McRoberts said he returned to the scene again, and a cell phone was found in the ditch with grass over it, indicating it had been in flowing water. The cell phone was located 150 feet east of the knife and the phone cover, he said. 

Sergeant McRoberts said he had contacted Woodworth’s father to obtain the serial number of Woodworth’s cell phone, and the serial number matched the phone that had been found. 

Cutting

Nelson asked Sergeant McRoberts to again describe the wounds on McCandless’s body.

Some of the wounds were scratches where the skin was broken and others were puncture wounds, although not deep puncture wounds. In the groin area, there were multiple marks. McCandless had been wearing blue jeans and tights with feet, and the tights had cuts in them. The wounds were consistent with wounds made by a knife, Sergeant McRoberts said. 

Nelson asked the witness if he was familiar with self-harm and “cutting.”

Judge Peterson stepped in and said the preliminary hearing was not the place to get into behavioral health and issues like cutting.

Back seat 

Since Woodworth was found in the back seat, Nelson asked Sergeant McRoberts if the struggle had occurred in the back seat of the vehicle.

Blood also was found in the front passenger area, and shoes were found outside the vehicle on the driver’s side, Sergeant McRoberts said, describing them as work boots.

March 22 was not a typical day to go without shoes, and was it possible McCandless took off her shoes because someone wanted to have sex with her in the back seat, Nelson said.

Sergeant McRoberts said he had never talked to McCandless and was not aware if she had told other officers about why she had taken off her shoes.

Cause of death 

Nelson also asked Sergeant McRoberts about the cause of death for Woodworth.

“Exsanguination,” Dufour interjected.

Nelson claimed not to be familiar with the word and then wondered if one particular wound had caused the blood loss.

Sergeant McRoberts said he was not aware of which wound, or if all of them, had caused Woodworth’s death.

Would it have been the first stab wound, the last stab wound, or one in the middle? Nelson asked.

The witness “said he did not know already,” Dufour said.

Sergeant McRoberts reiterated the cause of death for Woodworth is that he was stabbed but he did not know which stab wound had caused Woodworth’s death.

The 15th stab wound might have been needed to stop Woodworth, Nelson said.

Judge Peterson again indicated Nelson’s questions were going beyond the scope of a preliminary hearing.

Nelson said women often are accused of not fighting back hard enough when they are being attacked.

The marks on McCandless were not consistent with someone moving at the time, Sergeant McRoberts said.

The questions and the testimony “are not an indictment of whether someone was fighting hard enough,” Dufour said.

Some women freeze and then the inference is they were not fighting hard enough, Nelson said.

Judge Peterson again reminded Nelson the hearing was a preliminary hearing.

Earlier in the hearing, Nelson noted McCandless had told investigators Woodworth had attacked her, which is prima facie (accepted as correct until proved otherwise) evidence of self-defense, he said.

In a “prima facie” case, often described as “open and shut,” evidence before the trial is sufficient to prove the case unless substantial contradictory evidence is presented at the trial.

Self-defense is an element of the case the state must disprove, Nelson said.

Bind over 

After Dufour moved to ask the court to bind over McCandless for trial, Judge Peterson said he questioned whether McCandless is competent to stand trial.

During the course of the preliminary hearing, Judge Peterson said he had cause to believe McCandless was not competent to proceed and ordered a competency evaluation.

A status conference is scheduled for May 22 at 8:30 a.m.

By May 22, Judge Peterson said he hoped to have a report on the competency evaluation so the court would know whether to go forward with a competency hearing for McCandless.

Medical examiner 

Dufour said Woodworth’s body is still being held by the Ramsey County Medical Examiner’s Office and asked that the body be released to the family.

Or, if Nelson is going to ask for an independent autopsy, then a “date certain” for the release of Woodworth’s body would be appropriate, Dufour said.

Nelson said he did not know if he was going to ask for an independent autopsy and objected to the release of Woodworth’s body.

Asking for an independent autopsy is usually done in “a reasonable amount of time” out of respect for the family, Judge Peterson said.