Guilty of murder in the first degree — around 12:30 p.m. October 11, Judge Kenneth Hayden read out the verdict from the 10 women and two men who made up the jury in the capital murder trial of Martin Dean Priest.

Guilty of murder in the first degree — around 12:30 p.m. October 11, Judge Kenneth Hayden read out the verdict from the 10 women and two men who made up the jury in the capital murder trial of Martin Dean Priest.

Sandy Kuchan cried out briefly at the outcome, but comforted by her son, Donald, and surrounded by families and friends in the audience of the Laclede County Circuit Court Room A.

“Either the defendant is lying or everybody else is,” summed up Assistant Attorney General Monty Platz for the prosecution in the capital murder trial of Martin Priest in rebuttal during closing arguments Thursday morning.

Priest is charged with the rape and strangulation of missing Eldon teenager Tammy Rothganger on May 16, 1984. The 15-year-old went missing that morning before school after getting into a car with two males in a blue car, telling her buddy Theresa Baughman that she would be back but never returning.

In his closing argument October 11, 2018, defense attorney Matt Willis pointed out major inconsistencies between stories told by David Nicholas, the State’s central witness, over time to authorities after he was identified by Baughman in 2010 as the male passenger in the car that day. 

Thirteen-years-old at the time, David testified that “Marty” took him by the school the morning of May 16, 1984 and talked Tammy into skipping school to hang out with them. Traveling to a remote location south of Eldon, he said Tammy got scared and tried to run but David talked her back, believing everything was ok. Martin Priest made the two teenagers have sex in the backseat, then when she got back in the front seat, hit her in the back of the head with a wrench, began raping her and then strangled her to death while David hid in fear in the backseat. They took the body back to David’s home where it was seen by other family members and hidden inside the trailer that day before the two took it to the Rocky Mount area to hide the body.

David said he lied about the incident for years, scared that he, his brother and his mother would get in trouble and go to jail.

Calling David’s story “depraved fantasies” that didn’t match up to anything because it wasn’t true, Willis claimed both David and his brother Michael Nicholas had started the lies after David was picked up on federal weapons charges, hoping to make a deal. Even though the State assured that no deal was ever made, and David Nicholas is now out of jail after adjudicating the case on his own, Willis insisted that the lies persisted, ever changing.

He also raised a red flag over the inability of law enforcement to recover Tammy’s body despite Nicholas’ testimony that he was present where Martin Priest disposed of her body the night of May 16, 1984.

Willis attempted to cast doubts on other prosecution witnesses as well and shore up Martin Priest’s own testimony from Wednesday. 

Martin claimed not to know Georgeanna Erdahl, a woman who testified that she lied to police later in 1984 claiming she had seen Tammy in town and Tammy had said she was staying with friends. Erdahl recanted in 1987, telling police she had lied at the behest of Martin Priest, having previously dated him. She said he wanted her to help throw the police off his trail, providing the story. 

Willis claimed her testimony was not to be believed because her story didn’t make sense.

He attempted to raise more doubt from the testimony of Tammy’s brother and mother regarding what boys Tammy was seeing or interested in. Both family members had never heard of David Nicholas from Tammy, but did know of David Birdsong and Gary Webb.

But Willis didn’t address differences in the stories of Martin Priest and Trobey Priest, his ex-sister-in-law, then married to Priest’s brother and living on a farm in the Rocky Mount area where it has been alleged Tammy’s was at least initially hidden.

Platz, however, drove home the differences in Priest’s stories to all the other witnesses’ stories, the Nicholas brothers but also Trobey Priest, who along with Baughman was one of the most reputable witnesses supplied by the State.

Priest said he arrived at the Rocky Mount farm that morning to dig worms for fishing, bringing his own plastic container and taking 10 minutes to dig worms before driving to Osage Beach to fish and think about his failing romantic relationship with Tammy’s mother Sandy. 

Trobey Priest though said he arrived a little after 9 took the shovel but not the can they kept by the door for worms, apparently not noticing Priest’s container or it wasn’t there. In testimony October 10, she said he went out to get worms, but came back 15 to 20 minutes later saying the ground was too hard to get any worms, then he stayed watching TV and pestering her about helping him fill out and cash a blank check from Sandy, making her late for work at 10 a.m. 

Priest’s testimony that he saw Tammy that afternoon in the park along the main route through town was also scrutinized, Platz poking holes in the believability of no other witnesses ever coming forward in 34 years about seeing Tammy in the park that afternoon while she was out in plain sight, supposedly in the company of other kids.

Willis also didn’t address testimony from Sandy regarding Martin Priest’s suspicious behavior after Tammy’s disappearance, at one point telling Sandy she would only find Tammy through him. 

Closing arguments wrapped up around 10:30 a.m. Thursday, and the jury was dismissed to deliberate, deciding Martin Priest’s fate in the disappearance of Tammy Rothganger, a girl described as a person not afraid to stand up for her friends, to help out other kids being picked on. 

According to the Nicholas brothers, that was how they met Tammy as she saw the new kids at school being confronted by a swarm of other kids.

In testimony Wednesday, October 10, Michael Nicholas said Tammy had “took up for us” and it was “time I took up for her.”