WICHITA — James Williams will go to trial on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated arson in the death of Rhonda Thomas in January. He pleaded not guilty during a preliminary hearing this morning.
Judge Eric Yost set a tentative trial date for June 14.
At the preliminary hearing today, Sarah Collins, a neighbor, testified that she woke up at 5 a.m. to her apartment filled with smoke and her alarm blaring.
Collins called 911, and dispatchers told her to get out of the apartment with her 4-year-old daughter.
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Firefighters eventually broke down the door of the apartment next door, Collins said.
Jarrod Menges, a Wichita firefighter, was the next witness. He was on the three-man crew that responded to the apartment fire. Menges said he went into the apartment to see if anyone was in there who might be in danger.
Menges testified he went into the bedroom looking for a window to open for ventilation, when he felt something with his foot. He said it was the body of a woman, partially clothed and covered with blankets.
"I yelled, 'We have a victim,' " Menges said.
Menges and other firefighters tried to get the woman out of the room. But she was already dead, Menges said.
Outside, he saw that the woman had some burns, Menges said. But he also noticed a large open wound on the woman's forehead.
Blake Mumma, a detective with the Wichita homicide squad, was the next witness.
When he arrived on the scene of the fire, field officers had already identified the deceased as Rhonda Thomas, who leased the apartment, Mumma said.
Upon entering the apartment, they found a plastic, undamaged gasoline can. They traced the gas can, through the numbers on it, to a nearby QuikTrip. Store security video showed a man buying the gas can. The man also bought gas at the store.
Mumma said neighbors had said Thomas had a friend who matched the description of the man who bought the gas.
Police put out an alert for James Williams, Mumma said. The next day, police received a call from authorities in Topeka who had arrested Williams.
In Topeka, Williams said he and Thomas had gotten into an argument, Mumma said.
Mumma testified that Williams said he struck Thomas in the forehead with a wooden and metal trophy she had received in drug rehab. Williams told police he wrapped the trophy in a cloth, took Thomas' truck and disposed of the trophy. Williams also admitted starting the fire, Mumma said.
Williams said the truck quit running near I-135 and I-235 and he hitched a ride to the QuikTrip, Mumma testified. Williams caught a ride from a Highway Patrol officer and then caught a bus to Topeka.
After hearing Williams was wanted in Wichita, police in Topeka said they found him and chased him along a river. He was injured during the chase, then taken to the hospital, Mumma testified.
On cross-examination, Mumma said Williams told him Thomas slapped him and called him a racial slur. "I just snapped," Mumma recalled Williams saying.
"He was sincerely apologetic and seemed remorseful," Mumma said.
Mumma testified that Williams said he had not planned to do this. He just snapped.
Mumma said the sale at QuikTrip showed that Williams bought the gas can and gas about an hour before the fire was reported.
Prosecutor Justin Edwards then began to argue to the judge about premeditation.
Edwards said the autopsy showed Thomas had several injuries to her head. She also had "defensive injuries" on her hand and forearms.
Edwards said Williams set the fire to cover up the crime, disposed of the murder weapon and left town.
"These are all circumstances you can take into consideration in determining premeditation," Edwards said. "What we have here, judge, is a jury question on premeditation."
Brad Sylvester, Williams' lawyer, said there also have to be other circumstances to show premeditation.
"This is a poster child for someone snapping," Sylvester said. "What he did afterwards does not show premeditation."
Sylvester asked that Williams face trial on charges of second-degree murder.
Judge Eric Yost found probable cause on both original counts. "The premeditation is a jury question."
James Williams is set for a preliminary hearing this morning in Wichita's first homicide of 2010.
Williams is accused of killing Rhonda Thomas in January and setting fire to her house.
Thomas was identified by police Jan. 29 as the woman who was found dead in her burning apartment in south Wichita. Police said she was beaten to death.
Williams suffered frostbite after being arrested Jan. 30 in rural Jackson County in northeast Kansas. Police apprehended him in frigid waters of Cross Creek, where he was to avoid being seen by a Kansas Highway Patrol helicopter, authorities said.
Thomas met Williams in October, her sister, who did not want her name used, told The Eagle earlier this year. Because he was homeless, she would occasionally let him stay at her place at Riverwalk Apartments, 2703 S. Topeka.
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