Michael Rolle rushed back to Wichita from a business trip on June 25, ready to surprise his girlfriend with a night out to a jazz concert.
He last talked to 27-year-old Ciera Ray by phone shortly after midnight that morning.
After three months of dating, it was a custom to go immediately to her home at 2401 N. Green when he returned to town. She was expecting him.
But when he knocked on her locked front door between 6 and 7 p.m. that evening, only Ray’s toddler answered. After releasing the latch, the girl told Rolle her mother was alone in the bathroom.
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“When I opened the door and looked straight ahead I noticed her in the tub,” Rolle said, recalling his girlfriend’s condition. “At first glance I thought she was in the tub dyeing her hair because her hair looked really dark and black to me.”
“I said ‘Hey, baby,’ and I got no response.” He tapped her shoulder. She did not move.
“Then I realized what I thought I saw I didn’t see.”
Rolle’s fear later would be confirmed by paramedics. His girlfriend had been dead for hours, the victim of more than 30 stab wounds.
Rolle’s account came from the witness stand Thursday morning in Sedgwick County District Court during a preliminary hearing for Marvin Lee Gray Jr., who is charged with her killing.
Prosecutors allege Gray, an acquaintance of Ray’s, broke into her home through a window sometime after 1:30 a.m. on June 25, sexually assaulted and murdered her while her young daughter slept in a nearby room. They say he then cleaned up the blood with chemicals and tried to wash evidence of the rape from her body.
An autopsy report documented 37 stab wounds on Ray’s body, all on her lower chest and abdomen.
It also showed hemorrhaging on her head and neck consistent with asphyxiation and bruising on her abdomen and legs.
When she was found, she was nude from chest down.
After hearing nearly three hours of testimony from Rolle, Wichita police crime-scene investigators and the lead homicide detective assigned to the case, Sedgwick County District Court Judge Jeffrey Goering ruled that there was enough evidence to try Gray on charges of first-degree premeditated murder, aggravated burglary, rape and aggravated criminal sodomy.
Gray, 27, is scheduled for a jury trial Nov. 9, though it’s likely the date will moved to give attorneys more time to prepare.
Through his defense attorney Bradley Sylvester, Gray pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday after Goering’s ruling.
He has maintained in police and media interviews that he and Ray engaged in consensual sex at her home after shopping for shoes and going to a party on June 24. He claims when he left her home around 2 a.m. on June 25 she was fine and breathing.
He remains in Sedgwick County Jail in lieu of $500,000 bond.
Police have narrowed Ray’s time of death to sometime before dawn June 25 using cellphone data, statements from Rolle about his last conversation with her and surveillance video that captured Gray walking from and back to the apartment near Kellogg and Woodlawn where he claims he stayed the night Ray died, according to testimony Thursday.
Wichita police Detective Christian Cory testified that initially authorities had no leads on Ray’s killer.
But, he said, a small sample of blood collected at her house and handprints and fingerprints on some window glass eventually linked Gray to the crime scene.
A cellphone tower ping also put Gray in Ray’s neighborhood at 4:48 a.m. June 25, Cory said.
Cory told the judge he interviewed Gray twice about Ray’s death: once on June 26 before he was a suspect and again following his arrest on July 2.
During the first interview, Cory said, Gray acknowledged that he was with Ray leading up to her death. He claimed he helped her pick out shoes at Towne East Square for an upcoming vacation with her boyfriend, took her to a party at a friend’s apartment in the 2600 block of Cottonwood Lane, and had sex with her in an alleyway before she went home alone.
But confronted with DNA evidence, the video footage and the cellphone ping, Gray changed his story and claimed he was invited to Ray’s home for a sexual encounter.
“He said she was fine. Just fine” when he left the house, Cory testified.
Assistant Sedgwick County District Attorney Angela Nelson, in asking for Gray to be bound over for a trial, told the judge that Gray “engaged in overkill when he murdered Ciera Ray.”
Sylvester, the defense attorney, acknowledged during the hearing that prosecutors had given the court sufficient reason to proceed with trying Gray on a count of first-degree murder.
But, he argued, the state lacked the evidence needed to show the sex wasn’t consensual and said he soon would be filing a motion challenging the rape and sodomy charges.