EVANSVILLE − An Evansville man accused of killing James Christopher McClernon last year rescinded his not-guilty plea on the first day of his trial and instead struck a deal with Vanderburgh County prosecutors.
Rickey Allen Kiper Jr., 34, was arrested and charged with murder on July 27, 2022, the same day he allegedly shot and killed McClernon, 41, at a West Side mobile home park where both men lived.
Just after 3:05 p.m. Monday, Kiper's defense attorney announced his client had forfeited his right to a jury trial and would instead plead guilty to one count of felony murder, as well as a habitual offender sentencing enhancement.
Original Story:Evansville shooting suspect reportedly killed man for being a sex offender
In exchange, Vanderburgh County prosecutors agreed to dismiss a firearm sentencing enhancement.
The announcement capped off a dramatic, but short, murder trial. Vanderburgh County sheriff's deputies had to escort Kiper out of the courtroom earlier in the afternoon after he repeatedly shouted profanities at the lead prosecutor, who he called a "punk a** b****."
Kiper's outburst occurred as prosecutors questioned his sister, who was under subpoena to testify at the trial. She refused to implicate her brother in the murder.
"I have nothing to say on the state's behalf," she said. "That's my blood brother. ... He's a damn good man."
As prosecutors continued to question her, Kiper interjected, telling them to "leave my sister alone."
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After being admonished by Vanderburgh County Circuit Court Magistrate Celia Puali, Kiper was allowed to return to the courtroom. He kept quiet for the rest of the day.
'He felt no regret'
According to an affidavit, Vanderburgh County Sheriff's deputies responded to the 5900 block of Maggie Valley drive at approximately 3 p.m. July 27 after a resident called 911 to report that a man had been shot.
Deputy Justin Chambers was the first law enforcement officer to arrive on scene. He testified Monday that he quickly determined McClernon had been fatally shot inside a mobile home. Chambers said he checked for a pulse, but found none.
Eyewitnesses said they observed a "short" and "stocky" white male fleeing southbound shortly after the shooting, according to Monday's testimony. Deputies would ultimately arrest Kiper for the killing after a brief search.
From there, deputies transported Kiper to the VCSO's headquarters for questioning. According to the affidavit filed in Kiper's case, he agreed to speak with detectives.
VCSO Detective Matthew Elrod, the lead investigator for the case, said Kiper directly implicated himself in McClernon's murder multiple times during a police interrogation, adding that Kiper "felt no regret."
"He admitted to killing the victim by shooting him twice," Elrod testified Monday.
Prosecutors played a portion of Kiper's interrogation at Monday's trial in an effort to explain Kiper's motivation for the shooting. At one point in the footage, Kiper can be heard telling Elrod he sought "retribution" against McClernon for his status as a registered sex offender.
"He felt justified in his actions," Elrod concluded.
In legal filings, prosecutors confirmed that McClernon was a registered sex offender. The filings sought to confine any discussion of that fact to testimony that would illustrate Kiper's motive.
During the short trial, prosecutors also played phone calls Kiper made from the Vanderburgh County jail in the days after his arrest. In one call, Kiper can be heard saying he "ain't getting no bond."
"You would've if you'd just shot right below or something," the other party can be heard replying.
"No, they don't need to live," Kiper said.
Shortly after the phone calls were admitted as evidence, the court went into recess. When the trial resumed, Kiper's attorney, Barry Blackard, announced that his client wished to plead guilty.
Sentencing scheduled for late February
Members of Kiper's family attended the trial, as did members of McClernon's family. Both sides appeared shocked that a plea agreement had been reached. A court official said they expected a multi-day trial and, according to a list of witnesses and exhibts, prosecutors only questioned seven of the 17 witnesses scheduled to testify.
Prosecutors also never got to present Kiper's entire interrogation or additional audio and video evidence, according the list. Including time allotted for jury selection, the trial lasted just seven hours.
As the proceedings ended, Kiper hugged his family before a deputy escorted him out of the courtroom.
Kiper will remain in custody at the Vanderburgh County jail until he is sentenced Feb. 23. Pauli said the court could sentence Kiper to serve between 45 and 65 years in prison for the murder charge. The habitual offender sentencing enhancement for Level 1 felonies carries a sentence between six and 20 years.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named the trial judge. The article was updated at 10:15 p.m. Monday.
Houston Harwood can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas and questions. Twitter: @houston_whh
This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Rickey Kiper of Evansville pleads guilty in murder of James McClernon