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Louisiana Hay Farmer Killed In Twisted Murder-For-Hire Plot Masterminded By His Family

The slaying of a farmer, Ernest Luttrell, led investigators to a home-grown conspiracy involving his family. 

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An Exclusive First Look into the Murder Case of Ernest Luttrell
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An Exclusive First Look into the Murder Case of Ernest Luttrell

A retired farmer thinks he’s struck gold after natural gas is found on his property. When he’s found dead and a family feud breaks out over his estate, detectives uncover a tale of lies, deceit and manipulation orchestrated by someone close to home.

When an elderly farmer was found shot to death, authorities scrambled to discover who could have wanted him dead -- and discovered a whole bevy of potential shocking suspects.

On July 25, 2010, Loretta Luttrell returned from church to her home in Keithville, Louisiana and found her husband, Ernest Luttrell, a 73-year-old hay farmer, on the floor. He’d been shot five times.

While processing the crime scene, where a gun cabinet had been ransacked, investigators turned up a distinctive boot print, they told “Mastermind of Murder,” airing  Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. Detectives believed that whoever killed Ernest also stole the firearms. Asked by authorities if anything else was missing, Loretta said that Ernest’s truck was also gone. 

A BOLO -- be on the lookout -- was put out on the vehicle, and officials interviewed people close to Ernest. They began with Loretta, who told them she’d gone to church as she always did, except this time she left earlier than usual, she said, because it had been raining. Her recollection about precipitation struck investigators as odd because there hadn’t been rain in the area. 

 

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Despite her strange memory of the morning’s weather, which could be associated with her age, Loretta’s responses didn’t make her a person of interest, investigators told producers.

Detectives also interviewed live-in handyman Chris Tope. He resided in a trailer on the Luttrell property with his girlfriend, Tina Vanmoerkerque, who worked as a housekeeper and an assistant to Loretta. Each denied knowing anything about the crime. Tina added that she’d been at a store and had a receipt to back that up. 

Before the housekeeper’s alibi was confirmed, Loretta’s daughter, Katey Passaniti, arrived from San Antonio to help her grieving mom. She was upset that Loretta, who she said was battling dementia, was being questioned. 

Passaniti added that Ernest, her stepfather, had also been grappling with Alzheimer’s. Ernest’s friends confirmed that his mental grip had shown signs of slipping.

Detectives theorized that Ernest’s fragile mental state may have made him prey for a robbery and murder. Officials released Loretta into her daughter’s care and amped up the search for the victim’s truck. A story about the murder and the search for the vehicle along with a tip hotline aired on local news stations. 

On Monday, a day after the murder, investigators responded to a call about the truck from a witness who’d seen the story on the news. The tip led officials to the home of Erick Crain, 28, who lived in a Shreveport trailer park. He had had previous scrapes with the law, including DUIs and a drug charge. 

After a standoff with authorities, who’d secured a warrant to search the residence, Crain was taken to the sheriff’s office for questioning. Ernest’s truck was found within walking distance of Crain’s trailer. The vehicle was swabbed for DNA and fingerprints in search of evidence, detectives told producers. 

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Crain denied any involvement in Ernest’s murder and offered up an alibi. He said that he’d been working at an auto-body shop, an excuse that crumbled when detectives checked it out. Investigators subsequently leaned on Crain for a confession. Crain didn’t cave, but during the questioning, a detective observed the unique pattern on the sole of the suspect’s boots. 

When the crime lab matched the boots to the crime scene, Crain was booked for murder. The investigative team continued to build their case and to see if Crain had worked alone.

As officials sought an answer for that question, they learned that Crain’s first phone call from lockup was to his boss at the auto-body shop, asking him to back up his alibi. During that conversation, Crain admitted to pulling the trigger but didn’t know that a news reporter was sitting across from his boss, according to “Mastermind of Murder.” Crain’s stunning live confession was caught on tape via a speaker phone and broadcast two days after Ernest’s brutal murder.

Detectives dug deeper to confirm that Crain had not been working alone, and learned Crain’s second call from behind bars was to Vanmoerkerque. 

She and her boyfriend were brought in for questioning and interrogated in separate rooms. Tope informed them that the night before the murder, he and his girlfriend argued and she went to a hotel. Security footage from the hotel showed that Crain had also been there.  

Vanmoerkerque, 44, said after she and Crain had sex she offered him a proposition. If he’d kill Ernest, he’d be paid $1,000. Crain said he needed the money and agreed to do the hit. Vanmoerkerque was subsequently charged with murder. Investigators, however, questioned why she would want Ernest, who employed her and Tope, dead. Had someone else commissioned the killing?

Vanmoerkerque’s stunning statement was that Loretta actually called the shots. The housekeeper said that Ernest had made a fortune worth $400,000 by selling drilling rights to a natural gas company. Vanmoerkerque claimed that Loretta was furious enough for murder because Ernest went back on a promise to fund college for his granddaughterVanmoerkerque had to play the role of middleman or she and her boyfriend would be kicked out of their jobs and home, she said.

Detectives were unsure if she was telling the whole truth or saving her own skin. To find out, they had Vanmoerkerque telephone Loretta to say that Crain wanted his $1,000 payment. Loretta said she’d get the money together. 

Authorities questioned Loretta’s ability to mastermind a murder plot with her diminishing mental capacity, but she admitted knowing about the murder plot. The 70-year-old widow was charged with murder. 

With three people already charged with Ernest’s murder, the case took another twisty turn involving Loretta’s daughter when some things came to light: One was that Passaniti had a marked influence on her mother. The other was that documents giving control to Passaniti over Ernest’s estate were determined to be fraudulent forgeriesAuthorities believed Passaniti masterminded the plot to gain control of Ernest’s finances, reported The Daily Advertiser

Prosecutors looked to Crain and Vanmoerkerque to turn on Passaniti and to implicate her in the murder. Once those deals where in place, Passaniti was arrested in San Antonio for murder, conspiracy, and forgery

Loretta was ruled not competent to stand trial and was placed in a mental facility where she stayed until she died, according to “Mastermind of Murder.” 

Crain pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life without parole. Vanmoerkerque, who could have faced the death penalty, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a life sentence. Passaniti was sentenced to life, plus 60 years


To learn more about the case, watch “Mastermind of Murder,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen,or stream episodes here

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