When the verdict came Thursday, Cara Jo Roberts’ family gasped with relief and leaned to each other for hugs.
Her husband, Jeff, fell into his mother’s arms.
Minutes later, they all cried. Photos of Roberts, who was murdered five years ago by an intruder in her home, loomed on a large projection screen in the Harrisonville courtroom.
They showed Roberts on graduation night, at her wedding, at her sister’s wedding and, mostly, with her toddler son, Carter. One in a pumpkin patch. She smiled big in all.
Watching these photos, too, was Jeffrey Moreland. The former Grandview police officer sat at the defense table with his elderly parents sitting just behind in the front row. A jury had found him guilty of murdering Roberts. He will spend the rest of his life in prison with no chance of parole.
Moreland listened to Roberts’ mother speak from the witness stand.
“Every time Carter comes to my house, we go through the pictures and find one of his mom for him to take home,” Theresa Matthews tearfully told the court. “That’s all we have. Just pictures.”
The jury of seven men and five women needed only an hour and 20 minutes to find Moreland, 54, guilty of first-degree murder. Authorities say he interrupted Roberts, 30, in her Harrisonville home on Nov. 5, 2008, while she was putting together a “big boy” bed as a surprise for Carter while he was at the baby sitter’s.
She was sexually assaulted and, after being forced into a full bathtub, shot in the back of the head.
Her father, Roger Keefer, told the court how 1,500 people came through the line at Cara’s visitation. There was never any closure for him, he said. No getting past it for a parent.
“There’s a hole ripped in your heart,” Keefer said. “Every time the phone rings, I think it’s going to be her.”
In closing arguments, Assistant Cass County Prosecutor Jamie Hunt asked jurors for a first-degree murder conviction, asserting that Moreland acted with cool reflection. “When Jeffrey Moreland arrived at Cara Roberts’ house, he knew that she was never coming out,” Hunt said.
Evidence during the trial showed her killer put the gun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger.
“He didn’t just kill her, he executed her,” Hunt said.
Zip ties and a roll of duct tape found at the scene provided investigators with DNA and a fingerprint that matched Moreland.
In a closing argument for the defense, attorney Jeff Martin asked why the killer would have left those things.
“Why did he leave them? Because it wasn’t cool reflection,” Martin said.
Earlier Thursday, a DNA analyst testified that a DNA sample that Moreland had submitted to detectives matched that of a man who had been dating Moreland’s daughter.
On Wednesday, the boyfriend and a former colleague of Moreland’s in the Grandview Police Department described how Moreland had used them to provide investigators with the phony DNA sample.
The defense rested Thursday without calling any witnesses. Moreland did not take the stand.
Nor did he show any reaction at the verdict.
For nearly three years, Moreland was the “unknown man” in Roberts’ murder. Investigators had DNA and the fingerprint but no one to match them to. That changed in 2011 when Moreland became a suspect in the murder of 75-year-old Nina Whitney, who was strangled and stabbed in her home.
Moreland is charged in Jackson County in that case.
Michelle Morris, a longtime friend of Roberts, said in court how the murder affected everyone who knew Roberts. For a long time, they were scared. They kept a closer eye on children. They worked hard to keep the case in the public eye.
“Now, just knowing he was in our town for two and a half years,” Morris cried. “We watched her family struggle and there was nothing we could do.
“But we never gave up.”