Crime

Disabled man's murder charge dropped in group-home slaying

LANCASTER — In a surprising turn of events, a judge on Monday dismissed a murder charge against an intellectually disabled man after state police said they had turned up new evidence in the June 12 death of another man at a group home.

Garrard District Judge Janet Booth dismissed the murder charge against Chester Watkins, 32, of Paint Lick, who appeared briefly in court before Booth.

"Thank you," Watkins told the judge after the dismissal.

Watkins had been charged in the death of Shawn K. Akridge, 35, of Paint Lick. The two men were residents in a group home in rural Garrard County operated by Community Ties of America of Brentwood, Tenn.

The private home housed no more than three intellectually disabled people at a time, according to the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

A preliminary hearing had been scheduled Monday in which the judge would have decided whether there was probable cause to send the case to a grand jury. But the preliminary hearing was canceled with the dismissal of the charge.

After the court proceeding, Kentucky State Police detectives Monte Owens and Chris Short would not go into detail about why the murder charge was dismissed. Owens said the case will go to a Garrard County grand jury for possible indictment. The next grand jury meets July 20.

"We don't want to jeopardize the investigation," Short said. "New information has come to light, and we're continuing the investigation right now."

The detectives said the dismissal was not related to Watkins' being intellectually disabled.

Asked whether there might be another suspect, Short said, "Could be, yes."

According to an arrest report in the court file, state police said a staff member at the home on Wallacetown Road saw Watkins choking Akridge in the bathroom. The staff member then pulled Watkins off the victim, the report said.

The staff member called for an ambulance and performed CPR on Akridge, but he was pronounced dead a short time later at St. Joseph Berea Hospital.

"What we run into, when we arrived there (at the group home) and we started the investigation, it continued into the next day and the day after that, and new evidence and new circumstances came to light, and we felt like we needed" to get the charge dismissed, Short said.

The state Department for Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities is investigating on behalf of Medicaid because the group home received Medicaid services, said Jill Midkiff, a spokeswoman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The cabinet's Adult Protective Services is also investigating.

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