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Denton testifies, claims innocence, blames grandfather

J. H. Osborne • Jan 18, 2019 at 11:06 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — Robert Seth Denton took the witness stand Friday as his trial on triple murder charges draws close to an end. Denton, in fact, was the last witness called. He proclaimed his innocence in the shooting deaths of his mother, stepfather and grandmother. The three were killed at the home of Denton’s grandparents on Aug. 29, 2015. Denton said his grandfather, Curtis Rose, committed the murders.

Denton is charged in the deaths of Lena Marie Rose, 57; Toshya Milhorn, 39; and James Milhorn, 36. Six children were in the home at the time of the shootings, five of which are Denton’s siblings. The sixth was a visiting friend.

Rose testified earlier this week and said he did not shoot his wife, daughter or son-in-law.

Some of what Denton said on the witness stand:

• Yes, that gun belonged to him — the M1 Garand .30-caliber rifle found outside the home and identified by ballistics experts as the weapon used to shoot the trio.

• Yes, the camouflage jacket found outside the murder scene alongside the gun was his, but he hadn’t seen it in over a year and did not take it from his grandparents’ home when he left for the military. “My grandfather bought it for me sometime when I was in middle school.” He said the last time he would have worn it would have been sometime in high school. He said he did not wear it on the day of the shootings. He agreed the military dog tags found in a pocket of the jacket appeared to be his — “They have my name on them.” But he said when he came home from the military he’d put his dog tags in the pocket of his uniform and put it in a closet at his apartment. He said he did not put the tags in the jacket.

• He said he doesn’t recall seeing his mother or grandparents that summer. If he did, “We didn’t speak much.”

• He had $2,000 to $3,000 in savings when he returned from the military and he used it to rent an apartment and live on. He got a job at a gas station, didn’t like the conditions there, quit and got a job at a fast-food restaurant.

• He spoke regularly with his maternal aunt, Amanda Vance.

• Yes, he told people, including his roommate, he hated his mother. “I made several statements I hated my mother. We never got along. We had a poor relationship.But I never said I wanted to go on a rampage.” That last comment contradicted testimony earlier this week from the former roommate.

• He did drive to his grandparents’ house that day. He hoped to rekindle a relationship with his grandfather, but did not want to chance running into his mother. “I had a strained relationship with my grandparents. I had a better relationship with my grandfather than other people in my family. And I wanted to repair that relationship.”

• He was planning to sell the M1 Garand rifle — “a somewhat expensive rifle ... I could pay two months rent. That’s why I was thinking of selling it.” His roommate had recently moved out. He wanted to go to the shooting range with his grandfather before he sold the gun. 

• He parked at the bottom of the 600-foot uphill driveway because his car’s brake line had been damaged in a wreck and he didn’t want to come back off the hill in it. He called Vance at the bottom of the driveway, before he started up the hill, to ask if she knew where his mother was because his mother had lived with the grandparents before and he didn’t know where she was living then and he didn’t want to see her. “I didn’t want to run into her because we had a lot of arguments in the past and I didn’t want to have an argument on this day. I was under the impression my mom was not there.” He said his aunt had told him his mother wasn’t living there. That aunt testified earlier this week that she did receive a call from Denton that afternoon and she told him his mother was living with his grandparents.

• After talking to his aunt, he walked up the driveway with the rifle and two clips loaded with eight rounds each. He found his grandfather in an outbuilding, but not the trailer the grandfather has testified he was working in. “I approached him and told him I was sorry for all the arguments we’d had.” After saying he wanted them to go to the shooting range together, Denton said he put one clip in the rifle and one clip in his hand before handing the gun to his grandfather and asking if his grandfather had any ammunition to fit the gun. After this two to three minute conversation, they began to walk toward the house and approached the back door. “I was walking beside him until we got to the door and I got behind him as we started to go through the door. I heard a little click. ... I stepped in the house and then I heard the gunshot go off. When I heard the first shot fired, he was in the laundry room.” He doesn’t know what happened next. “I turned around and ran. When I heard the first shot fired, I could see my mother sitting at the table. I couldn’t see anyone else. I heard screaming and assumed it was my grandmother.” He ran down the driveway to his car and called 911. Then he called a friend. That friend testified earlier this week that Denton said, “I snapped” and began telling him he wanted him to have certain of is belongings and might not see him for awhile. Denton testified what’d he told the friend was “he snapped,” meaning his grandfather, he did not say he wanted the friend to have the  items, and he was in shock and thought his grandfather was going to kill him — thus, the comment about not seeing the friend for awhile. “I thought I was going to die. I thought I my grandfather was going to kill me. I’d just seen him shoot my mother.”

Denton, 22, is charged with three counts of first-degree murder, aggravated assault, assault and reckless endangerment. Denton entered a plea of not guilty in February 2016 and the next month prosecutors announced they would not seek the death penalty. He was 19 years old at the time of the shootings.

At the time, the case was scheduled to go to trial in October 2016 and Sullivan County District Attorney General Barry Staubus said the decision not to seek the death penalty came after careful consideration of the case, conversations with the family, Denton’s age and a review of case law.

The trial will pick up Monday morning with closing arguments from the prosecution and defense and the judhe instructing the jury about the guidelines it must follow in deciding the case.

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