Defense: Man accused of Lake Lowell murder wasn't even there

jsowell@idahostatesman.comJuly 10, 2013 

— Deputy Prosecutor Casey Hemmer told a Canyon County jury Wednesday morning that Gregory R. Higgins Jr. lured James Groat to an isolated area near Lake Lowell in Nampa, made him dig a hole and then shot him once in the face and four times in a lower region.

In his opening statement in Third District Court, Hemmer said Higgins told Groat, 27, that he wanted him to accompany him just after midnight on Aug. 27, 2012, as a lookout for a drug deal. Instead, it was a setup as Higgins suspected Groat of being a police informant, the prosecutor said.

Higgins, Hemmer said, confronted Groat while the latter was using a shovel to dig a hole in the ground.

"He pulled out a gun and yelled at Groat 'Who do you work for?'" Hemmer said.

After shooting him, Higgins went and kicked Groat several times, Hemmer said.

Defense attorney Chuck Peterson told the jury that not only is Higgins innocent of shooting and killing Groat, he wasn't even present.

"The defense in this case is that Gregory Higgins was not at that scene," Peterson said.

Peterson said no fingerprints belonging to Higgins were found in Groat's car, which Peterson said was the vehicle taken to the murder scene.

Likewise, no DNA evidence links Higgins to the crime.

Peterson said fingerprints belonging to Christopher "Mikey" Duran and Cruz Flores, who admitted they were at the scene but implicated Higgins in the murder, were found in the car.

Duran is also charged with first-degree murder and first-degree kidnapping in the case; his own trial is scheduled to begin July 24. Flores was charged with being an accessory to murder. However, a judge later sealed Flores' case file and it's unclear whether he is still being prosecuted. No indication was given as to the reason the file was sealed.

Peterson said Duran had a motive for wanting Groat dead. Duran, he said, allegedly had illegal sexual relations with a 15-year-old girl; Groat was aware of it and planned to notify police.

Duran was charged earlier this year with one count of lewd conduct with a child under 16. The events for which he was charged took place on Aug. 1, according to court documents. His trial for that charge is listed as starting July 23.

"(Duran) would rather go to prison as a snitch than as a child molester," Peterson said.

Peterson told the jury of 10 women and four men that Duran changed his story about where the gun used to murder Groat came from.

Initially, he told detectives Higgins persuaded Groat to give him his gun as they drove to the murder scene. Later, Duran said he had the gun and gave it to Higgins and that he also grabbed a speed loader, which allows a gun to be loaded more quickly.

Last Friday, Peterson said, Duran told prosecutors that he found the speed loader in Groat's car after the murder and threw it out. Peterson said it was questionable that the information only came out just before the trial began.

Peterson also said that Duran told police that the five spent cartridges from the bullets that killed Groat could be found outside a Nampa store. They were located there, he said.

Two witnesses were called before the court broke for lunch.

Nampa police Cpl. Jamie Burns said he heard several shots fired just after 1 a.m. on Aug. 27. He was out on another call and heard them coming from an area south of where he was. The Lake Lowell area was about a mile south of where he was.

A Lake Lowell neighbor said he was in his kitchen when he heard several shots at the same time.

After a 20-minute morning break, Third District Judge Molly Huskey admonished the audience against sharing information about the case with witnesses.

She said she had been told that someone inside the courtroom shared information about opening statements with potential witnesses in a hallway outside the Caldwell courtroom.

Huskey said she would bar any future violators from attending the rest of the trial.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

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