St. Helens woman pleads guilty to criminally negligent homicide
Stephanie Jeanne Toney, one of three defendants arrested in connection with the 2016 death of Apache Hightower, was sentenced to 48 months in prison Friday, Jan. 19.
As one portion of a plea deal with the Columbia County District Attorney's Office, Toney, 21, of St. Helens, pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, which came with a four-year sentence, with credit for time served since her arrest in October 2016.
Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said Toney's hearing is not the end of the road.
Friday's sentencing hearing was the first part of sentencing for charges. She still faces charges of murder, aggravated murder, kidnapping and hindering prosecution. She is scheduled to reappear in court at a yet-to-be-determined date for additional sentencing on outstanding charges.
"The more meaningful sentencing will be after [Charles] Vernon's trial," Auxier said, referring to one of two codefendants in the murder case.
Toney appeared in Columbia Circuit Judge Ted Grove's courtroom Friday morning in an orange striped jumpsuit, flanked by attorneys who all but shielded her from view until the hearing began.
Seated in pews behind her were family members of Toney's and the family of Hightower.
Toney began to cry as her defense attorney, Emily Elison, expressed remorse and apologized to Hightower's family on her client's behalf.
Elison told the victim's family that Toney wanted them to know "how very sorry she is for the loss of their daughter, their family member, their loved one, for the loss of Ms. Hightower."
Toney hung her head in her hands, clasped in a prayer-like position, as she wept.
"Sorry, it just makes me emotional," she whispered to her attorneys.
Hightower, 24, of Portland, was found dead near an embankment in St. Helens on Sept. 20, 2016. She left behind an 11-month-old daughter at the time.
Three suspects— Toney, along with Jesse Allen Lane and Charles Vernon— were later arrested for charges ranging from murder, strangulation, kidnapping, and hindering prosecution.
Lane took a plea deal for the crime last year and will serve a life sentence. Vernon still awaits trial.
"While I am aware that you were not the primary actor or planner of this horrendous event, I also do not believe it would have occurred, at least not on that date, without your involvement," Grove told Toney.
Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said investigators believe Toney was driving the car that was used to carry out Hightower's murder on Sept. 20, 2016.
Grove said Toney is also suspected of destroying evidence including a cellphone, clothing and cleaning supplies, to cover for Vernon, who reported he was engaged to Toney in a 2016 court hearing.
"I hope that you are able to make the necessary changes in your life, given that you are 21 years old," Grove added. "I hope you never find yourself in a situation such as this again."
Criminally negligent homicide carries a maximum sentence of five years, Auxier said.