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Man gets 180 years in ‘98 Hammond triple murder

A Whiting man was sentenced to 180 years Friday in connection with a 1998 Hammond triple murder.

James Higgason III, now 52, claimed innocence and said he would appeal.

Prosecutors alleged he and David Copley, 47, beat Elva Tamez, then 36, Jerod “Buddy” Hodge, 18, and Timothy “Midnight” Ross, 16 to death on Jan. 18, 1998 with pieces of wood or metal pipes, records state. They were trying to get drugs and cash in Tamez’s home, a suspected “crack house” on the 4600 block of Torrence Avenue in Hammond, according to court documents.

The case went uncharged for 23 years.

The victims had their skulls bashed in a drug-fueled “frenzy,” prosecutors alleged. Copley flipped and testified for the prosecution in exchange for a single 45-year murder term.

Tamez’s older sisters Yolanda Tamez and Imelda O’Neill said Friday their sister was an artist, inventor and seamstress who loved animals.

O’Neill said the “sheer brutality” and “animalistic violence” that led to her sister’s death was “incredibly difficult to bear”. She couldn’t watch movies where someone was severely beaten, because it reminded her of Elva’s death.

“Did she cry out in pain … call out to her mother … plead for her life,” she asked. Elva Tamez left behind a family who loved her and parents who “grieved her until their dying day.”

Hodge’s mother Linda Hodge said her son’s beating death with 2-by-4s was the “worst day of my life. My whole world fell apart.”

After his death, she had to quit her job as a city bus driver, because every young man that boarded reminded her too much of him, she said.

“Now that I know it was you,” she told Higgason, “I want you to feel the pain I felt.”

At the hearing’s start, defense lawyers Mark Gruenhagen and Matthew Fech asked for a delayed sentencing date as a newly filed motion was considered.

Judge Salvador Vasquez denied their request, saying if the motion later influenced the case to be reversed, that would also knock out the sentencing.

Higgason “always expressed remorse,” Gruenhagen said after the victim’s family members spoke. He was friends with Tamez, he said.

The lawyers said they advised Higgason not to address the court because of the pending motion and his plan to appeal. They asked for a 45-year term.

“There are no real words for what occurred,” Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jovanni Miramontes said, prosecutors would “honor” the jury’s verdict.

Higgason “valued” the victim’s lives “so little”, he killed the two teens, partly because he wasn’t going to get enough money when he tried to trade them a shotgun. Tamez was killed because she was a witness, he said.

He was “greedy” and was used to getting “what he wants”, the prosecutor said. During a prison stint, Higgason had joined the Saxon Knights, a white supremacist prison gang, he said.

Miramontes asked for 180 years — 60 years for each victim.

Against his lawyers’ advice, Higgason addressed the court for at least 30 minutes, accusing prosecutors, Hammond Police and Vasquez of helping to build a false case against him. He had been at the house, but left before the murders happened, he said.

Tamez was a “very good friend of mine,” Higgason said, noting his DNA extracted from the scene was a far smaller sample than Copley’s.

Copley “admitted (to) this crime,” he said in court. “I am an innocent man.”

While expressing condolences to the victims’ families, he said it was not the closure they sought.

“This is not closure, this is a lie,” he said.

Vasquez cited prior criminal history, noting he had been given breaks on other cases. The murders were a “horribly, horrible violent crime,” he said. Higgason’s character was “very violent” and “very manipulative”.

During his trial, prosecutors argued new DNA evidence linked Copley and Higgason to a lesser extent. Copley made two recorded phone calls in May 1998 where prosecutors alleged Higgason alluded to his involvement.

Copley had gone to police in 1998, he said to clear his conscience and testified during Higgason’s five-day trial because it was the “right thing to do,” he told jurors then.

Gruenhagen and Fech argued the evidence against Higgason was thin and Copley wasn’t credible because he flipped in exchange for his testimony.

They said the prosecution’s case was hobbled when it was reopened around 2020 leaning on the new DNA hit. The lawyers asked detectives why new suspects were not sought or witnesses weren’t reinterviewed.

Hammond Det. Steve Guernsey testified at trial that Lake County prosecutors told police not to reinterview witnesses apart from what they already had in the 1998 case file, because they could remember what happened differently.

Guernsey said he believed the 1998 tapes pointed to Higgason as a credible suspect and believed his voice was the man on the other end. Detectives admitted there were no corroborating phone records nor were police staked out to verify Higgason was at either home when the landline calls were made.

Did you take Copley’s word it was Higgason on the other end, Fech asked.

“Not solely, no,” Guernsey said.

During the call, Higgason made “numerous admissions of being involved with this crime,” the detective later told Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Keith Anderson.

Copley said he secretly taped the two phone conversations with Higgason in May 1998 at the request of police where the latter man both denied and vaguely alluded to possible involvement, according to court documents. He repeatedly asked Copley not to go to the police, according to the tapes.

“The only way out is to get away with it,” Higgason allegedly told Copley in one recording.

At times, Higgason appeared to shift between blaming Copley and telling him to keep his mouth shut, according to the tapes and court records.

“Well, do you think you’d get the (electric) chair if you went and told the police what you did?”, Copley asks, per court documents.

“Yeah, I do,” Higgason responded.

Defense lawyers said there’s no proof Higgason was the other man on the call.

At mid-trial, Higgason’s lawyers asked for a mistrial after Vasquez inadvertently referred to the tapes as a talk between Copley and Higgason, then corrected himself.

“I don’t think you can unring that bell,” Fech told the judge.

Vasquez told the jury he “misspoke” and asked them to disregard it, which he had to trust they would, he told lawyers.

Copley, their star witness, had “played” the police, Gruenhagen alleged to jurors.

In testimony, Copley denied he pointed to Higgason as a suspect to protect his relative’s children’s father, i.e. Higgason’s uncle. Miramontes said the man was ruled out because he wasn’t there.

Both Copley and Higgason were among a handful of early suspects, but were not charged at the time. Back then, DNA tests turned up inconclusive.

Decades later in 2020, as technology became more sophisticated, Indiana State Police linked DNA from Tamez’s fingernail clippings to Copley. A secondary, but much more limited hit came from Higgason, court records show.

Both men were charged in January 2021.

Copley had gone to the police in 1998 alleging Higgason instigated the murders, threatening to kill him if he did not cooperate, court records show.

Charges were presented against Higgason and Copley at the time of the original incident but due to the evidence that could be obtained at that time, charges were not accepted, a Hammond Police news release said previously.

At the time, police said they had no suspects or a motive in the slayings.

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