PINE KNOT — [UPDATE per KSP: Further investigation into this incident by KSP Detective Billy Correll has led to the other two males being identified and warrants for their arrest being issued. On Tuesday February 12, 2013 the Pulaski County Sheriffs Office, assisted by the United States Marshall Service, located and arrested Antonio A. Turner, 21, of Somerset and Joseph Denning, 19, of Somerset. Both men have been charged with Conspiracy to Commit Murder, Complicity to Commit Robbery 1st and Unlawful Imprisonment.]
Local authorities are trying to piece together the bizarre puzzle of a foiled murder for hire scheme.
The story begins in the early morning hours of Thursday when neighbors spotted a suspicious vehicle, a faded gold Honda, near the home of Larry and Debbie Taylor on Richard Stephens Road in Pine Knot. According to lead investigator Kentucky State Police Detective Billy Correll, the car had been in the area on more than one occasion.
With Mr. Taylor away on his trucking job, the neighbors went to check on Mrs. Taylor and found her in the company of three men dressed in black who identified themselves as FBI agents but refused to show any identification. When the neighbors refused to leave and made to call the local police, the men fled the scene in that Honda.
Upon arrival, officers learned that Mrs. Taylor had been accosted on the way to her car to go to work, handcuffed and stunned with a taser. The neighbors’ description of the suspicious vehicle led officers to Timothy Prater, 30, of Somerset.
Prater told police that he was paid $1,500 to kill Mrs. Taylor by Regina Stephens of Pine Knot. Detective Correll indicated this may have been a “down payment” with more money possibly involved had the would-be murder been committed.
Prater was arrested Friday afternoon by the Kentucky State Police and charged with Impersonating a Peace Officer, first-degree Robbery, first-degree Unlawful Imprisonment and Conspiracy to Commit Murder.
An arrest warrant was also obtained for Stephens on a charge of Conspiracy to Commit Murder. According to McCreary County Sheriff Gus Skinner, police found her vehicle in her garage but had to make entry into her home on KY 92 in Pine Knot at approximately 8 p.m. Friday night. She was found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gun shot wound.
Det. Correll said that while the investigations into both Taylor’s assault and Stephens’ death are still open, “the public should not have any grounds for concern” relating to further occurrences.
Neither Det. Correll nor Sheriff Skinner could name the motive behind the murder-for-hire. Prater, a bartender, worked with Stephens, a waitress, at Guthrie’s River House, a popular Burnside restaurant. Though Stephens knew the Taylors as well as Prater, Det. Correll noted there was no apparent connection between Stephens and the two men who accompanied Prater during the Thursday morning attack.
“We have leads on their identities,” Det. Correll said.
Sheriff Skinner expressed to the Record his shock at how the investigation unfolded. Not only did he know Stephens, a local who also cut hair out of her home, but the sheriff was also marginally acquainted with Prater as a patron of the River House.
“It’s sad. She would always come over and talk with us,” Skinner said of Stephens’ waiting on tables at the restaurant. “The few times I saw the bartender…he didn’t seem like the type.”
In a jailhouse interview Sunday with WKYT/WYMT, Prater claimed he was involved only to “help” Debbie Taylor.
“My intent was to protect her. The guys I thought could help actually had a different intent and now I’m in here because of it,” Prater is quoted as saying. “I thought if I was in the hot seat then no one else would have been considered to hurt her.”
A man identifying himself as George Lay contacted the Record late last evening to protest Prater’s interview. Lay said he was one of the neighbors who went to help Taylor.
“I do believe with all my heart that he [Prater] intended to kill her,” Lay said. “The only thing that stopped him was that he thought I had a gun.”
Lay went on to describe how Prater tried to convince him that the men were investigating a drug case involving a murder in Pulaski County two years ago.
“You could only see their eyes,” Lay said of how they were dressed, adding he told them they looked more like crooks than law enforcement.
“We are going to protect our community,” Lay said. “We have to take care of each other.”
Sheriff Skinner stressed that Thursday’s attack was not random. “The public can rest assured that people aren’t just hitting houses,” he said.
At press time, authorities continue to search for the two remaining suspects. Det. Correll described them as two black males in their 20s, between 5’9” and 6-feet tall.
Prater remains lodged in the Laurel County Correctional Center.
Stephens’ obituary can be found in this week’s edition.