Jury delivers guilty verdict in San Angelo murder, kidnapping, and torture of Abilene man

Alana Edgin
San Angelo Standard-Times
Stephen Jennings

SAN ANGELO  — More than 4 years after an Abilene man was kidnapped, brutally tortured and killed near San Angelo, then dumped near Barnhart, a week-long trial ended with multiple plea bargains in place and two life sentences.

One of five defendants in the case, Stephen Lynn Jennings sat in the 119th District courtroom of the Tom Green County Courthouse. He was charged with the capital murder of Eric Torrez, 41, along with aggravated kidnapping and tampering with a corpse to impair evidence in 2017.

The other co-defendants included his former wife Kristen Dean, his father Garry Jennings, accused drug dealer David Navarro, and the Jennings' occasional babysitter Angella Wray. Dean, Navarro and Wray were offered plea bargains and immunity agreements in exchange for their truthful testimony in Stephen's trial.

About 5:14 p.m., Friday, Dec. 10, 2021, the jury of 9 women and 4 men delivered a verdict of guilty to capital murder, aggravated kidnapping and tampering with a human corpse to impair evidence. They deliberated for 2 hours before reaching a verdict.

Judge Jay Weatherby with the 340th District Court decided on a sentence of life without parole for both capital murder and aggravated kidnapping, as well as 20 years for tampering — the maximum sentences that could be delivered after prosecutors waived the death penalty.

What led to the jury's verdict of Stephen Jennings?

The trial began at 9 a.m. Dec. 6, 2021. Family and friends of Torrez, the Jennings family and Dean filtered into the courtroom, along with law enforcement and community members interested in seeing the trial 4 years in the making come to an end.

Stephen Jennings pleaded not guilty to all charges that morning.

Over the week, the jury heard testimonies from law enforcement, forensic experts, co-defendants and people with relationships to the suspected individuals, all presented by the state.

Eric Vincent Torrez

The defense put no one on the stand during the trial, hinging their argument that "nobody knows what happened. No one can tell you who is responsible," said Kim Brown, attorney with the Regional Public Defenders for Capital Cases, in her opening statement Monday.

John Best, 51st District Attorney, refuted Brown's argument during his closing remarks days later, explaining the state didn't need to prove Stephen pulled the trigger. They needed to prove he was involved.

"Stephen is just as criminally responsible as the others, all involved in this conspiracy," Best said. "It doesn't matter if he pulled the trigger. He's just as guilty as everyone else. He made it all happen ... by providing the house, ruse, all these things."

Co-defendants', officials' testimonies indicate kidnapping plan began before July 21, 2017

One woman, David Navarro's ex-girlfriend, told law enforcement Stephen mentioned wanting to harm "Kristen's ex" and "scar him" a year prior to the murder. She said Stephen Jennings wanted to kidnap Torrez, beat him up, and leave him somewhere, according to testimony she provided Wednesday.

On July 20, 2017, Stephen, posing as "Daryl" contacted Torrez to meet in Abilene about a possible construction job. When Torrez arrived, Stephen said he couldn't meet, then the Jennings attempted to follow Torrez home. Testimony revealed the Jennings weren't able to follow Torrez that day.

Stephen attempted to meet Torrez again on July 21, this time in San Angelo. Law enforcement believed it was a trap, with the goal to get Torrez out of Taylor County so Kristen and Garry could kidnap his 4-year-old daughter.

In a text message at 8:28 a.m. July 21, 2017, sent between Kristen and Stephen, she said "(we) talked about the plan for 4 days."

Cell phone location information placed Garry Jennings and Dean in Abilene, checking daycares for Eric and Kristen's daughter.

Kristen confirmed the plot during court testimony on Thursday, though she stated Torrez wasn't supposed to die.

"The original plan was supposed (to be) lure him to a random house and talk about concrete to keep him away from (his daughter)," Dean said. "Stephen changed that plan."

According to Kristen, Stephen told Torrez instead to meet him at their home in the 7400 block of Duckworth Road, about 6 miles northeast of San Angelo. It was there that officials believed Torrez was tortured for hours in an attempt to get the addresses of his daughter's daycare and home.

"When Eric Torrez stepped into the Jennings home, his fate was sealed," Best said. "Stephen made a choice to kill Eric Torrez."

Through co-defendants' testimonies, Stephen's attorneys pointed out that Dean, Navarro and Wray initially lied to law enforcement. 

"The jury needs to decide if the lies ever stopped," said Dennis R. Reeves, another attorney for Stephen from the Regional Public Defenders for Capital Cases. "Where did the truth start, if it ever did?"

Best responded that the co-defendants' testimonies are backed up by phone records, including texts, locations and store surveillance.

Stephen Jennings, Kristen Anne Jennings (Now last name Dean), Garry Jennings, David Navarro and Angella Rebecca Wray

Torrez tied to chair, punched and beaten

Navarro, who said he supplied drugs to Stephen in the past, arrived at the residence around 12:51 p.m., minutes before Torrez. He helped Stephen restrain Torrez to a chair in the middle of an empty bedroom with a blue tarp on the floor. He punched Torrez in the head and tied him with a red rope, duct tape and wire.

He also helped with "waterboarding" Torrez, according to testimony.

Navarro testified he couldn't remember all the details during the kidnapping after using methamphetamine. His ex-girlfriend testified she and Navarro had been using "small amounts" of methamphetamine daily around that time.

A friend of Navarro saw a video he had taken during the torturing of Torrez, which she later told law enforcement. The two met by the Walmart Neighborhood Market, 1852 Sherwood Way on July 21, 2017 around 6 p.m.

In the video, she heard two men yelling — one of them was Navarro, the other she didn't know. 

"(She) saw a subject step in front of the video recording device and that subject physically struck the victim from the side, and she heard the victim make a grunting type of sound," court documents stated.

That video was deleted and unavailable for the trial.

Stephen Jennings' attorneys pointed out that no blue tarp, duct tape, nor anything implicating him to Torrez's murder had been found at the pasture near where his body was found 14 days later.

Cell phone data, texts, videos build timeline around Eric Torrez's death

Investigators reconstructed a timeline of Torrez's death using phone data collected from mobile devices belonging to Jennings, Navarro, Torrez and Wray, as well as surveillance videos recorded from nearby businesses.

July 21

  • 8:17: Kristen and Garry are in Abilene, checking daycares.

  • 9:48 a.m.: Stephen texts Kristen “(expletive) it, let (Eric) come to the house.” Kristen testified this changed the plan. She did not want Torrez at their house.

  • Before 11 a.m.: Angella Wray said Stephen Jennings called her to ask if her ex could “back him up,” since Torrez was coming. Later, he asks if she could watch Dean's kids.

  • 1:07 p.m.: Eric’s phone indicates he is in the area of the Jennings’ home. The last time his phone appears active is around 5:40 p.m. and had not moved.

  • 2:38 p.m.: Stephen’s phone searches for Pioneer Drive Baptist Church.

  • 2:39 p.m.: David Navarro is seen entering Stripes Convenience Store, 1606 La Folette and leaving at 2:42 p.m.

  • 2:48 p.m.: Kristen and Stephen's phones appear in the Duckworth area. Kristen testified this is when Garry went into the house and returned with the addresses.

  • 4:45 p.m.: Kristen enters Torrez’s home, assaults his mother and takes the daughter. They start to head toward San Angelo. Within an hour, Stephen called Kristen and said Torrez is dead, she testified.

  • 7:51 p.m.: Home Depot video shows Stephen and Garry, and a Chrysler 200, at the store where they purchased heavy duty duct tape, blue self adhesive plastic film/carpet protector, latex gloves and bleach. Stephen was seen later that night in the same clothes at a Little Caesars.

A phone belonging to Stephen was in the area of Duckworth Road for most of the day, while Dean and Garry's phones were shown traveling between Abilene and San Angelo. David Navarro's phone placed him in the Duckworth area for a few hours. 

From the afternoon until the pre-dawn hours of July 22, Wray testified Kristen and her two children were at her house. Kristen had the 4-year-old and her younger son.

July 22:

  • 2:24 a.m.: Stephen and the Chrysler are seen on video at Stripes, 5655 Sherwood Way. Video shows Stephen gets gas and a passenger door appeared to open, indicating a passenger, officials said.
  • 3:30-4:15 a.m.: Phone information shows Stephen on State Highway 163, south of Barnhart. This is the area Torrez's remains would be found on Aug. 4, 2017.
  • 10:14 a.m.: Garry and Stephen enter the Ballinger Stripes on Hutchins Ave., according to video surveillance. Stephen’s phone also shows him on this road through 10:23 a.m.
  • 10:22 a.m.: Video from Jehovah Witness Church in Ballinger shows a gray pickup matching Torrez's driving toward the Walmart, followed by a silver car.
  • It was the first day law enforcement arrived at the residence in search of Eric Torrez. No one answers.

Investigators searched the Duckworth residence three times — July 25, 27, and Aug. 11, 2017. During those searches, Torrez's hair and blood were found on walls and in part of a mop bucket. 

Reeves stated anyone could have entered the house and property between those searches. He also noted law enforcement officials on the stand did not have an exact count on how many officials entered the property.

Tom Green County Sheriff Nick Hanna, who was a Texas Ranger at the time, said the home was locked and sealed in response to Reeves' question.

On Aug. 4, 2017, more information and interviews led officials to Torrez’s remains in a pasture south of Barnhart in Crockett County, 289 feet from a fence.

Dr. Thomas Parsons, South Plains Forensic Pathology, performed the autopsy on Aug. 7, 2017. The body's condition made it difficult to pinpoint the type of bullet or distance of the shot that killed Torrez, he said.

Torrez family gets final word in Jennings trial

For a week, Torrez's family had sat in the courtroom as the final moments of Eric's life were presented to the jury. On Friday afternoon, his sister and his mother took the stand a final time to speak to Stephen Jennings.

"I'm not sure what was worse," Torrez's sister said through tears. "Wondering what happened in Eric's last hours, or sitting in this courtroom with his killer and piecing it together."

"Losing Eric is one of the hardest things we've had to go through. There were so many opportunities for you to stop. You have left his children as orphans. You are a monster with no heart. I hope Eric haunts you."

Torrez's mother, who testified earlier in the trial, gave a short statement after Stephen was sentenced.

"Mr. Jennings, you have caused me great pain. My family had to experience Eric's absence. Eric's children didn't get to know their father because of you."

What happens next for Dean, Navarro, and Wray?

Dean, Navarro and Wray were offered plea bargains in exchange for testifying at Stephen's trial. Each received an immunity agreement in which the state would not pursue additional charges.

Court documents show Navarro’s plea bargain includes 25 years in jail, and the capital murder charge will be waived. His plea hearing will not happen until Kristen Dean and Garry Jennings’ cases have been resolved.

Dean's plea bargain suggests 30 years for pleading guilty to a lesser murder charge and 20 years for aggravated kidnapping.

Wray's offer recommended 10 years deferred adjudication for engaging in organized criminal activity. This is a type of probation that could help Wray avoid conviction if she adheres to conditions dictated by the state. The kidnapping charge could also be waived.

Court dates for Dean, Navarro, and Wray have not been set as of Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. A presiding judge will hear their charges, as well as the state's recommended sentence. The judge can decide to follow the recommended sentence, or not. If the judge disagrees with the recommended sentence, the defendants can withdraw their pleas.

As of Saturday, Dec. 11, judicial records did not show the next court date scheduled for Garry Jennings.

Case coverage timeline:

March 7, 2019:Court makes crucial ruling on DNA testing of 5 charged in murder, torture of Abilene man

Dec. 7, 2018:DNA continues to stall trials for five people accused in Abilene man's killing

July 30, 2018:Trials in Abilene man's slaying could take years as court grapples with scant DNA evidence

July 18, 2018:San Angelo man in court over brutal torture, kidnapping and execution of Abilene resident

Oct. 5, 2017:Five indicted in connection with Abilene man's death

Aug. 9, 2017:Two men charged with murder in Abilene man's death

Aug. 4, 2017:Body of missing Abilene man believed found near Barnhart

Aug. 3, 2017:Missing Abilene man believed slain, investigators say

Alana Edgin is a journalist covering Crime and Courts in West Texas. Send her a news tip at aedgin@gannett.com