KERRVILLE, Texas -- The presiding judge in the central Texas 'slave ranch' case said Thursday the three defendants could receive maximum sentences of life in prison for their conspiracy convictions, surprising attorneys on both sides.
Final arguments and deliberations in the sentencing phase of the trial were scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday before Judge Tom Blackwell, despite last-minute efforts by defense attorneys to stop the hearing.
'We claim that's crazy. The jury returned a verdict of second-degree felony,' Defense Attorney Dan Cogdell said before leaving for Austin to file a request with the state Court of Criminal Appeals to interpret the proper maximum sentence.
Blackwell said the appeals court refused to hear the defendants' request.
'They (the court) said I was right,' Blackwell said.
Testimony proceeded without interruption on the punishment phase, with three witnesses testifying for the prosecution and 13 for the defense, including Leona Ellebracht, 84, the mother of defendant Walter Wesley Ellebracht Sr., who had to be helped to and from the witness stand.
Lawyers for both sides thought the complicated wording in the jury's verdict meant the conviction had been reduced from a first-degree felony, punishible by life imprisonment, to a second-degree felony, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
'The option (of life imprisonment) is still open,' Blackwell said in his written instructions on sentencing for the jury.
The new dispute over the sentence even confused District Attorney Ron Sutton, who said the case 'gets curiouser and curiouser.'
The jury on Wednesday, after deliberating 23 hours over three days, found Kerr County rancher Walter Wesley Ellebracht Sr., 55; his son, Walter Wesley Ellebracht Jr., 33; and former ranch hand Carlton Robert Caldwell, 21, of Alamogordo, N.M., guilty of engaging in organized criminal activity by conspiring to commit aggravated kidnapping or murder on Ellebracht's ranch.
The 3,500-acre ranch is north of Kerrville.
But the jury also issued a finding saying there had been an agreement by the defendants to release any victims of aggravated kidnapping in a safe place.
The prosecution claims the men were lured to the ranch with the promise of work and then tortured, and that Anthony Bates, 28, of Huntsville, Ala., was tortured until he died and was cremated on the ranch in March, 1984.
Tape recordings allegedly of Bates' torture -- containing screams and groans and the shouted obscenities and occasional laughter of his tormentors -- were played often during nine weeks of testimony that attracted daily crowds of spectators. Witnesses identified the voices of Bates, Caldwell and the younger Ellebracht from the tapes.
Caldwell, the only defendant to testify, said he participated in the torture of Bates and later helped burn the body, to avoid being tortured himself.
Six others, including the younger Ellebracht's wife, face organized crime charges in the case and await trial. A former ranchhand faces murder charges.