80 years given in strangling case

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@www.southwesttimes.com

 

A Pulaski man may not have received the maximum life sentence for strangling an elderly woman to the point of breaking her neck, but the 80-year term handed down Friday will essentially amount to life in prison.

A Pulaski County jury Friday convicted Ralph Tobias Christian, 58, of the April 4 aggravated malicious wounding and strangulation of Ruth Yowell, who was 89 years old at the time. Yowell, now 90, survived the attack, but was left with permanent injuries, according to testimony.

It took the jury of seven women and five men just 25 minutes to return the guilty verdicts against Christian. It took a little more than an hour for them to set the sentence at 75 years for the wounding and the maximum of five years for strangulation.

“Whatever time you give him is going to be the amount of time before he commits another crime,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Fleenor told the jury during the sentencing phase of the trial. He was referring to the fact that Christian’s criminal record dates back to 1975.

“When he’s been committing crimes for 40 years, do you think he’s going to stop?” Fleenor asked. He pointed out that Christian’s crimes have progressively gotten more serious over the years, starting with unauthorized use of a vehicle and progressing to unlawful wounding of a police officer — then strangling an 89-year-old woman.

Fleenor suggested the only reason there were any gaps between crimes was because Christian was incarcerated.

Yowell, who broke down in tears several times during her testimony, said Christian and his wife, Betty, were at her apartment when Ralph attacked her while Betty was in the bathroom. She said he put his arm around her shoulders, started shaking her head back and forth and then put his hands around her neck and started choking her.

As she tried to get the man to let her go, Yowell testified, “I felt his thumbs pushing back and back and back on my throat. I said, ‘please don’t do this, because if you do, you’ll have to go back to jail for the rest of your life’.”

Eventually, Yowell collapsed to the ground and went unconscious, she said. She said she knows she lost consciousness, but she doesn’t know how long she was “out.”

When she regained consciousness, she scooted to a phone and called a friend. The friend called for an ambulance.

Yowell spent several days at Pulaski’s hospital before being transferred to LewisGale in Salem for surgery on her neck. According to doctor testimony, Yowell suffered a broken neck and foot.

Metal rods and screws had to be surgically placed inside Yowell’s neck to stabilize her spine so that her spinal cord is protected. According to testimony from several witnesses, Yowell’s movement and ability to get around has been permanently impacted by the injuries she received.

Yowell acknowledged initially telling her friend and doctors that the injuries were the result of a fall. She said she did so because she was afraid Ralph would hurt someone else if she told anyone what really happened.

Betty, who acknowledged owing Yowell money, said she was in the bathroom when her husband attacked Yowell. She came out to find them in the floor with Ralph’s arm around Yowell’s neck. At first she thought the woman had fallen, but she realized something was wrong when she saw Ralph’s face, Betty testified.

She described the look on Ralph’s face as being “in a trance,” “out there,” “a strange, far-away look like he’s not there.”

Although Yowell was calling her name for help, Betty admitted she didn’t try to help the woman, leaving instead. She said she was afraid to help. Asked if she regrets having left without helping Yowell, Betty responded, “in a way, yes.”

Betty admitted having a 1996 conviction for murder and that she still has 19 years of her 30-year sentence hanging over her head. However, she denied defense attorney Robert Kanard’s suggestion that she and her husband went to Yowell’s apartment with intentions of harming her.

Kanard told the jury that Ralph “did, in fact, choke (Yowell) out,” but it was in an effort to please Betty, who couldn’t afford to repay a loan to Yowell and had tired of working it off.

Kanard asked Betty if she took a roll of quarters from Yowell’s apartment as she was leaving that day. Betty said she did, but when asked why she did so, she “pleaded the fifth,” refusing to answer on the grounds it might incriminate her.

While being interviewed by Pulaski Police Sgt. J.D. Saul, Ralph repeatedly denied having strangled Yowell or having any knowledge of what happened to the woman. He acknowledged being in the apartment with Betty and Yowell, but contended he and Betty left after a brief visit and nothing happened to Yowell.

Ralph did admit having consumed alcoholic beverages that day and being “buzzed” while at the apartment.

In closing arguments, Fleenor said he thinks it is reasonable to believe Ralph thought Yowell was dead when he left the apartment.

“There’s no doubt he denies it,” Fleenor said of Ralph. “But he admitted he was there, and he had been drinking.”

In order to find Ralph innocent of the charges, Fleenor told the jury, Yowell “has to be lying to you. Did she break her own neck and foot?

“We all know what happened, and soon it will be time for you (jury) to tell Mr. Christian you know what happened,” Fleenor added.

Kanard insisted in his closing argument that Betty instigated the situation and questioned how his client could have been thinking reasonably if he “had a blank look on his face and seemed like he wasn’t there.”

Fleenor said Friday’s case was the first time a new strangulation statute has been tried in Pulaski County. The Virginia General Assembly passed the statute in 2012.

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