Sentences announced for two convicted in Hightower murder
The three defendants convicted in the 2016 murder of Apache Hightower appeared in Columbia County Circuit Court on July 16.
Two of the defendants received sentences for crimes they pleaded guilty to, but the third defendant is now contesting his 2017 plea.
Hightower's body was found on the side of Pittsburg Road in St. Helens in September 2016. She had been reported missing after she put her baby to bed, told her parents she was heading out with friends for the evening, and never returned.
Jesse Allen Lane, Hightower's ex-boyfriend, 29 at the time, was charged in the murder, along with Charles Vernon, 29, and Stephanie Toney, 20.
At the time, Vernon was dating Toney and had met Lane in jail. Hightower lived in Portland and had not previously spent time in Columbia County, her family said, while Vernon and Toney both lived in St. Helens, and Lane lived in Medford.
Both Lane and Toney previously received sentences as part of individual plea deals before last week, but the court delayed sentencing on other charges until Vernon's case was resolved.
Vernon pleaded guilty to reduced charges in March 2020 and was sentenced July 16 to a 23-year sentence on charges of manslaughter, kidnapping and hindering prosecution. With credit for time served, Vernon's earliest release would be in the fall of 2039.
"It's just incomprehensible to me how this crime came about," Judge Ted Grove said before announcing the sentence. "A seemingly innocent woman who thought she was with friends was taken to a deserted road and murdered."
Vernon declined to make any statement at his sentencing.
Prosecutors agreed to a plea deal because Vernon's 23-year sentence was only slightly shorter than the likely sentence he could have received if the case had gone to trial, Columbia County District Attorney Jeff Auxier said earlier this year. In Oregon, murder is punishable by life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.
Vernon's case was also complicated by a new state law passed last year. He had been charged with aggravated murder, but the new law changed the standards for what qualifies as aggravated murder, forcing prosecutors to downgrade the charges to murder.
In 2018, Toney was sentenced to four years in prison for criminally negligent homicide. Last week, she was sentenced to an additional five years of probation on the charge of hindering prosecution. Probation will begin after she is released from prison.
Lane allegedly blamed Hightower for sending him to jail after Hightower acted as a witness in a criminal case.
"My daughter died because you couldn't accept blame for your own actions," Hightower's mother, Nonnie Bradley, said to Lane in court. "You stole her life. You left a whole family broken. You left a baby motherless, basically an orphan."
Hightower's daughter was less than year old at the time of her mother's death.
"According to all three of you, no one wanted her to die, but yet she was kidnapped, tortured and murdered and left by the side of the road," Bradley added.
Lane pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping in 2017 and was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years, but this month, his attorney filed motions to essentially re-do Lane's plea deal.
The motion "seeks to modify defendant's plea agreement with the state or to withdraw his pleas of guilty due to the disproportionate disposition of his case in comparison to his co-defendants," Lane's attorney, Scott Leonard, wrote to the court.
The court did not address the motions at the July 16 hearing.
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