MEXICO, Mo. (KMIZ)
The trial of a man accused in the death of a Montgomery County reptile dealer began Monday with opening statements and the first witnesses called to the stand.
Michael Humphrey is charged with first-degree murder in the 2017 death of Ben Renick. The trial is being held in Audrain County on a change of venue.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol believes that Humphrey helped Lynlee Renick kill her husband on June 8, 2017, after she tried and failed to kill Ben with a poisonous cocktail.
Assistant Attorney General Kevin Zoellner said Monday that Humphrey was a major part in Lynlee Renick's plot to kill Ben. He said Lynlee and her co-worker, Ashley Shaw, devised the plan to kill Ben after unsuccessfully poisoning him. Lynlee recruited Humphrey to drive them to the farm that day, Zoellner said, and Humphrey gave Lynlee the gun to use.
Prosecutors made an agreement for Shaw to cooperate in the case in exchange for immunity from murder charges, Zoellner said in opening statements.
Zoellner said Lynlee Renick had a financial motive to kill Ben. Ben had a $1 million life insurance policy for Lynlee. An ABC 17 News investigation found Ben was selling many of his snakes to NHL goalie Robin Lehner for $1.2 million, for which he had already received some money. Zoellner called all of this "enough motive for the wrong person to kill somebody."
Crime scene investigators say the shooter hit Ben eight times - four shots to the back, two to the arm and two to his face. Montgomery County authorities initially thought a snake may have killed Ben, but county coroner David Colbert found a shell casing near Ben's body in the snake barn. Troopers found four shell casings in the ensuing search for evidence. A fifth shell casing was found years later when someone moving snake bins out of the barn found it.
Defense attorney T.J. Hunsaker said Humphrey was an unwilling participant in the murder. He laid blame on Lynlee Renick and Shaw for the plot. Hunsaker said Humphrey previously turned Lynlee down when asked to help kill Ben, even advising her to seek out a divorce instead. Humphrey went with Lynlee that day under the pretense he was helping Lynlee get her belongings from the Montgomery County property to move out.
Brandon Blackwell told the jury that Lynlee Renick had confessed to him about the plot months after the murder. Blackwell's interview with highway patrol in January 2020 served as crucial evidence in the state's case against Lynlee and Humphrey. Prosecutors filed charges shortly after he spoke with the patrol while already in jail for allegedly violating a protection order Lynlee took out against him.
Blackwell and Lynlee had met earlier in the week on the dating app Ashley Madison, a platform marketed toward discreet dating for those already in relationships. Blackwell said their relationship grew since their first sexual encounter four days before Ben's death.
Blackwell said Lynlee Renick would ask him to put their phones in other rooms when he would ask what happened to Ben. Blackwell said Lynlee began sharing details of her and Humphrey's involvement in the killing in the fall of 2017.
Humphrey's team pointed out that Humphrey was not at future meetings Lynlee and Shaw had, including one in which Lynlee, Shaw and Blackwell met following an October 2017 interview with troopers.
Jurors came from Cape Girardeau County to hear the case.
Lynlee Renick's trial is set to begin in December.
(Editor's note, 10/18: An earlier version of this story said prosecutors made an agreement with Lynlee Renick to cooperate in exchange for immunity. That agreement was made with Ashley Shaw.)