Man pleads guilty to murder of disabled Melrose man

Published: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.

One of two people accused last year of staking out a Melrose home before killing its disabled resident will be sentenced later this week after entering a guilty plea to first-degree murder.

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Toby Lee Lowry, 23

Putman County Jail

Toby Lee Lowry, 23, of Putnam County, faces life in prison without parole for the slaying of 66-year-old James Thomas Stewart.

After agreeing to a plea on charges of murder, burglary and robbery Friday, Lowry now could be called to testify against his teenaged codefendant — his girlfriend, Morgan Amanda Leppert, 16.

Officers arrested the pair two days after finding Stewart dead at his Putnam County home on May 1, 2008. The older man had physical disabilities, including being hard of hearing. After the couple’s arrest, authorities said they believed the two saw Stewart as “an easy mark” and targeted Stewart because they thought they could quickly overpower him.

In a timeline of the case, officers reported Stewart was robbed and murdered the evening of April 25, 2008. Stewart died from suffocation but also had been beaten and stabbed. The man’s pickup and cash had been stolen.

An Amber Alert was issued for Leppert, who had been living with her mother and stepfather in San Mateo when she was reported missing. On May 3, the wanted couple were located panhandling in El Paso, Texas.

Leppert will be tried as an adult for Stewart’s death and faces life in prison without parole if convicted as charged. Prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty against her because of her age.

Last year, the State Attorney’s Office for Putnam County had reported that prosecutors planned to seek the death penalty for Lowry.

Lowry’s defense attorney approached the prosecution about his willingness to plea to a life sentence, said Assistant State Attorney Chris France. The victim’s family agreed to accept his guilty plea, the prosecutor said.

About a month after Lowry’s arrest, he apparently tried to hang himself in his Putnam County jail cell, the Sheriff’s Office reported.

Lowry’s sentencing is scheduled for Friday morning at the Palatka courthouse.

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