John Meredith Hodges told detectives he strangled Franchesca Brown during a spontaneous argument inside her room at an Overland Park hotel, according to court testimony.
But Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe said the trail of Hodges’ Internet activity on the night the South Carolina pediatrician was last seen or heard from suggests a more calculating scenario.
Howe theorized that Brown was bound inside the room, forced to reveal her bank account passwords and PINs, and then killed in a premeditated plan so Hodges could pay off his daunting debts.
Arguing that Hodges should be tried for first-degree murder, Howe offered that scenario Wednesday at the close of a preliminary hearing in Johnson County District Court. Even without that scenario, the very act of strangulation and the several minutes it takes to kill a person was sufficient to establish premeditation, he said.
Hodges’ attorney, district defender Michael McCulloch, argued that Howe’s premeditation theory was based on “a lot of inferences” not supported by the evidence. He countered that, at best, the evidence supported a charge of second-degree murder.
But District Judge James Franklin Davis ruled that based on preliminary hearing testimony there was sufficient evidence for Hodges to stand trial on a charge of first-degree murder and a number of financial crimes related to taking money from her bank account and using her credit cards after her death.
Brown, 39, traveled to Overland Park last September on business. Hodges, 45, is also from South Carolina. He and Brown had met through an online dating service and he joined her at her invitation, according to testimony.
Brown’s family reported her missing after she failed to return home from the trip. Her body, wrapped in a tarp and multiple layers of plastic, was found several days later in woods near the College Boulevard hotel where she had stayed.
Authorities tracked Hodges to Colombia in South America, where he frequently traveled for business, and he was arrested.
When he was returned to Overland Park, Hodges agreed to talk to police.
Overland Park detective Justin Russell testified Tuesday and Wednesday that Hodges said he attacked Brown after she caught him going through her purse looking for drugs. Hodges said in the interview that he was addicted to pain medication.
Afterward, he went to a store and used her credit card to buy rope and other items to wrap up her body, according to testimony.
He told the detective that he made a second trip to buy plastic zip ties to bind her limbs, but Howe said there was no evidence that the ties were purchased from the store during that time.
The district attorney suggested that Hodges already had the zip ties that he used to bind Brown before she was killed.
“It is our belief that he detained Dr. Brown in that room,” Howe said. “He then forced her to provide that (banking) information.”
The Internet browser history on a laptop computer allegedly belonging to Hodges showed him using her personal information to move money out of her bank account. Those transactions occurred over a period of several hours.
“She was alive in that room,” Howe maintained.
Only after that were searches done using terms such as “How long does it take to choke someone to death?”
“Why make that search if she is already dead?” Howe said.
Several hours later, other searches were conducted using terms such as “How to wrap a dead body not to smell.”
“He had now killed her and was in the process of disposing of the body,” Howe argued. “This was an orchestrated act by him under financial pressure.”
McCulloch said there was no evidence to support the theory that Brown had been tied up in the room. He said Hodges was heavily abusing drugs at the time and couldn’t remember details of the attack that “happened instantaneously.”
After the judge ordered Hodges to stand trial, McCulloch entered not guilty pleas on his behalf.
A trial date was not set. Hodges is being held in the Johnson County Jail on a bond of $25 million.