A Multnomah County jury found Newberg resident James Charles Tooley guilty on Monday of murdering a Gresham couple and hiring a would-be hit man to silence a witness against him.

The jury found Tooley, 37, guilty of five of the six counts against him — two of three counts of aggravated murder, two counts of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder and one count of solicitation to commit aggravated murder.

Jurors began meeting Tuesday in the courtroom of Judge John Wittmayer and shortly after began deliberations on whether to sentence Tooley to death, a life sentence or life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

Victims found executed

As outlined during the two-week trial, prosecutors Don Rees and Chris Ramras said Tooley shot the victims, Melinda Kotkins, 22, and Anthony Cooper, 26, execution style in their Gresham townhouse in the 800 block of Northeast Third Street in Gresham on July 24, 2008.

Both victims, who were newlyweds, died of a single gunshot wound to the brain. Their decomposed remains were not discovered in the tightly enclosed home until Aug. 6, when a bill collector noticed a foul odor and flies at the townhouse.

Gresham police arrested Tooley, 37, after a relative reported Tooley bragged to him about beating a double-murder charge and his desire to become a drug kingpin.


Tooley seeks to become a higher-level dealer

Rees said Tooley worked for the victims selling oxycontin, an addictive prescription painkiller being abused in growing proportions in Gresham at the time of the murders.

In June 2008, while Cooper was in jail, Tooley took over the drug trade for him. It was then that he acted on his plot to take over control of the operation, Ramras said.

"He was desperate for money and he was desperate for the drug," Ramras said during closing arguments. While Cooper was in jail, "He (Tooley) had access to the money he needed and the drugs that he wanted. But to take over he had to kill (Kotkins and Cooper). And that is what he did."

At 2 a.m. July 24, Tooley — under the guise of delivering a backpack containing $22,000 to Kotkins — went to her home. When Kotkins opened the front door, he shot her while she stood in the entryway.

Later that morning, he picked up Cooper upon his release from jail. Afterward, Cooper visited Kotkins' father, who owns a salon in downtown Portland, for a haircut. Her father later testified that when Cooper introduced him to Tooley, his son-in-law's friend wouldn't look him in the eye when he shook his hand.

Wife doesn't answer cell

All the while, Cooper was trying to call his wife on her cell phone, but she never answered. They stopped by her place of work, Ulta at the Gresham Station Shopping Center, but she wasn't there.

Eventually, Tooley and Cooper went to Cooper's townhouse. They entered through the rear sliding glass door. Once Cooper walked far enough that he would be able to see Kotkins' body on the floor, Tooley shot him in the head.

Later that day, Tooley bought more than 100 oxycontin pills for $6,700 from a man in a Damascus grocery store parking lot. Then he and a friend drove to the coast, where he met his family for an annual trip.

Acting on neighbor complaints about heavy traffic to and from the Cooper-Kotkins home, Gresham police placed a surveillance camera at the townhouse on July 28 — not knowing the residents had been murdered.

Video taken on the same day shows Tooley visiting the townhouse for a few minutes.

Before he leaves, he positions his sunglasses over his eyes and saunters off, one hand tucked nonchalantly in his shorts pocket.

Cousin turns in suspect

After the bodies were discovered, a neighbor gave police the license plate information of a vehicle she thought was suspicious. She often saw it parked in the driveway of the vacant townhouse next to the Cooper-Kotkins home.

That license plate information led police to Tooley, who was interviewed repeatedly, police said, adding that his story kept changing.

During a search of his home, police found an empty bottle of oxycontin on his dresser. It had been filled two days earlier for 32 pills. At 80 milligrams, the pills were some of the most powerful prescribed.

At the time, police didn't have enough evidence to arrest him. That changed eight months later when one of Tooley's relatives called police. The relative said Tooley told him he committed the double homicide in order to become a drug kingpin.

"His life was a downward spiral after the murders, swallowed by a vortex of drug abuse and addiction," Rees said.

While Tooley fed his drug habit, his wife was borrowing thousands of dollars from relatives to pay the bills and the $800-a-month tuition for their young daughter's school. Unable to pay the rent on their Canby home, they moved to Newberg. Tooley's truck was repossessed soon after.

Murder for hire plot revealed

Police arrested Tooley in March 2009. Three months later, he offered to bail out a fellow inmate if he'd kill Tooley's cousin, who turned him into police.

In order to get the bail money, Tooley — in a recorded phone conversation made from jail — berated his wife into bringing $2,400 in an unmarked envelope to a nurse at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in Portland. When his wife initially balked, he told her, "This is my life in the balance. Are they going to stick a needle in your arm and kill you?"

The nurse's son, Joseph Cunningham, was in jail with Tooley and had instructed his mother to put the money into his jail account so he could post bail. Once Cunningham was released, he walked directly to a payphone and picked up the receiver.

But two Gresham police detectives tapped him on the shoulder and warned him that if anything happened to Tooley's cousin, they'd come after him. Spooked, Cunningham abandoned the plan, Rees said.

Attorney presents multiple defenses

Tooley's defense attorney John Gutbezahl argued that there was no forensic DNA evidence linking his client to the murders, no murder weapon, no confession and few credible witnesses. Some — namely Tooley's wife, Melissa, and the would-be hit man — testified after being granted immunity for their own criminal acts.

The day the murders took place, Tooley was on the Oregon coast with family.
Gutbezahl argued that the case could be a murder-suicide, or that someone else may have had motive to kill the couple.

As for the hiring of a hit man, Gutbezahl said Tooley was just helping an inmate get out of jail so he could see his ailing father.

"Mr. Tooley should not talk to his wife like that," he said of the phone conversation that prosecutors played for the jury. "But when you make a promise like that to someone who rules the roost, you're not going to go back on that."

Gresham police Det. Jason Servo, lead investigator on the case, said he was pleased that jurors found Tooley guilty on nearly every count.

"He's a dangerous individual," Servo said. "I was glad that the jury was able to see that through the evidence. He needs to be put away."