The Arkansas Court of Appeals on Wednesday affirmed the conviction and prison sentence of a Pine Bluff man who was accused of trying to hire another man to kill his wife.
Jeffrey Winkler, 58, was convicted in 2011 of conspiracy to commit kidnapping, aggravated robbery, theft of property and aggravated residential burglary. He was sentenced to nine years in prison. Prosecutors made the decision not to charge Winkler with conspiracy to commit capital murder because they lacked sufficient evidence to prove that charge.
On appeal, Winkler argued that Circuit Judge Jodi Dennis erred when she denied a directed verdict motion because there was “no overt act,” refused to require the state to select one offense as the object of the conspiracy, and by imposing a sentence for a “non-existent offense.”
Testimony at the trial showed that on Oct. 21, 2010, Winkler approached Sylvester Jones about doing yard work and Jones gave Winkler his cell phone number. According to testimony, Winkler called him later in the day and agreed to meet on the parking lot of Brookshire’s grocery on U.S. 79 south that afternoon.
Jones testified that at that meeting, Winkler asked him to”rough up,” a man named Stringfellow because the man was having an affair with Winkler’s wife, Pam. Then Jones said Winkler talked about killing his wife, and asked Jones to go to the Dollarway school campus, where Pam Winkler worked, and “just break her neck and drive off in her vehicle.”
Jones said he refused to do that, and Winkler reportedly suggested killing Pam Winkler at the home the two shared. After that meeting, Jones contacted a relative who was a police officer at Altheimer and the relative arranged for Jones to meet with Pine Bluff Police Department detectives.
Jones testified that he was given a recording device by police and arranged to meet Winkler a second time on the parking lot of Brookshire’s the following day. Jones said Winkler drove Jones to his house on Chamberwood Drive where he reportedly showed Jones how to break in, how to take a big-screen television off the wall, and where Mrs. Winkler hid her jewelry.
Although Jones thought the recording device was working, it failed to record the conversation between Winkler and Jones. When they returned to the store parking lot, Winkler was arrested by police, and Detective Bill Wiegand testified that officers found a loaded .38-caliber pistol in Winkler’s vehicle. Winkler had a concealed weapons permit for the gun, and during the trial, Pam Winkler said she had thought about getting a permit but because she worked for the Dollarway School District, she knew it was illegal to carry a gun on school property, with or without a permit.
Pam Winkler currently works for the Pine Bluff School District.
When Winkler was questioned, he waived his right to an attorney and told detectives he was “in love with a woman from his workplace,” (Evergreen Packaging) and wanted someone to “rough up” Stringfellow, who was the woman’s boyfriend.
Wiegand testified that the subject of killing Winkler’s wife was “kind of an afterthought,” and said he “might have implied from the conversation” that he (Winkler) wanted his wife killed.
“I guess I was looking for a way out of my marriage,” Wiegand quoted Winkler as saying. “Winkler said that he had hoped that scaring his wife would cause her to move on in order to ‘free him up” to be with his co-worker.”
The defense contended that Jones was only supposed to scare Pam Winkler so she would leave him and he could continue his relationship with the co-worker.
Winkler also told police he went to work at 6 a.m., and his wife went to work at 6:15 a.m., so Jones had a “short window,” of time to carry out his plan.
“Clearly, Jeff Winkler didn’t want the house broken into while his wife was away,” Deputy Prosecutor Bryan Achorn saud during his closing argument. “He wanted it broken into while his wife was at home.”
Achorn and Deputy Prosecutor Jill Reed represented the state during the trial
In asking for a directed verdict, Winkler argued that he and Jones were at the planning stage of the conspiracy and no overt act had been committed, an argument that Judge Dennis rejected, saying “The testimony provided to the court and the jury not only establishes the planning stage, but that Jeff Winkler desired to have his wife scared away to pursue other interests.”
In the appeals court ruling, Judge Doug Martin said that while the court agreed that planning does not constitute an overt act, the court disagreed with Winkler’s contention that his conduct in taking Jones to his house did not constitute an overt act.
“Winkler showed Jones the route to travel and warned him to avoid being detected by neighbors,” Martin wrote in the ruling. “Once at the house, Winkler gave Jones step-by-step instructions on how to achieve the purpose of their agreement, in that Winkler provided Jones with the means to break into the house, took Jones into the house and directed him to where his wife would be found early in the morning, and led Jones through the house while advising him as to the value of various items he could steal.”
Winkler, who has been free on bond while the appeal was pending, will have to serve 50 percent of his sentence before being eligible to apply for parole, but could reduce that to one quarter of the sentence, or about 27 months, if he earns the maximum amount of good time available.