Two more men have been charged in the killing of a Pierce County couple whose home was set on fire in an attempt to cover up the murders.
Shortly after the May 17 deaths of Ted Ralston and Joanna Gormly, investigators arrested their 26-year-old grandson and his fiancee.
Now, Sean Higgins and Spencer Kleine, both 23, also are charged with two counts of first-degree aggravated murder and first-degree conspiracy to commit murder.
Both men have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.
The victims’ grandson, Ezra Fleming Ralston, and his fiancee, 22-year-old Rebecka Neubauer, already have pleaded not guilty to the charges and are being held without bail.
Ted Ralston, 71, and Gormly, 73, were found dead in their home in Vaughn after neighbors called 911 to report a fire.
Crews arrived to find the house engulfed in flames and the couple dead in their basement.
Ted Ralston suffered stab wounds to the chest, and Gormly suffered stab wounds to the neck.
Investigators were immediately suspicious after finding five gas cans in the kitchen, a bloody mattress and evidence of a propane explosion.
It also appeared the victims, who were lying side by side, were “positioned as if their bodies had been dragged down the stairs,” court records say.
“It was a very complicated investigation,” said Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer. “We’ve had a lot of detectives working this all day and night to get justice for this couple.”
Charging papers give this account of the homicides:
Neighbors told deputies that Ezra Ralston lived with his grandparents and appeared to be missing, along with his grandparents’ Nissan Sentra.
The younger Ralston’s mother expressed concern about her son and urged deputies to find him, saying he was “not mentally well,” records say.
Ezra Ralston spoke with his father shortly before the homicides, telling him his grandparents had fevers and sore throats.
He refused his dad’s request to speak to his grandparents but allegedly agreed to get them to a hospital for treatment.
In an exchange of text messages, Ezra Ralston told his father his grandparents were in a “safe zone” at an area hospital and were being kept overnight for observation, according to charging papers.
It wasn’t long before a neighbor called Ralston’s father to tell him about the fire.
Police found Ralston at Neubauer’s apartment in Lakewood and arrested him.
He told deputies, “I have an excuse for all of it,” when he was taken into custody but later declined to speak to them.
Neubauer initially told detectives she and Ralston only joked about killing his grandparents and tried to make light of her “morbid” personality, records say.
Her mother told investigators she’d heard Neubauer make a joke about Ralston killing his grandparents so the young couple could move into their home.
Ralston and Neubauer allegedly talked on social media about starting a commune, how to cover up the murders and how to dispose of the victims’ bodies.
Several days after being arrested, Neubauer told investigators they’d talked about killing Ted Ralston and Gormly “but she thought it was a joke and never thought he would go through with it,” records say.
But when Ralston would exhibit doubt or frustration in his messages with Neubauer, she would say, “You’re so amazing, you got this,” records say.
It was Neubauer who pointed detectives toward Higgins and ultimately Kleine.
She claimed Higgins broke Gormly’s neck and stabbed Ted Ralston while their grandson held them down.
Phone records, geolocating and messages show Higgins and Kleine drove to the victims’ Vaughn house on the night of the homicides “and stayed for hours without any significant movement before leaving together after the murders,” prosecutors wrote in charging papers.
Text messages from Ralston to his friends included his grandparents’ address, instructions on which stairs to use and warnings against which doors were noisy.
He also allegedly messaged Neubauer that night, concerned that his grandparents were still awake.
Although Kleine tried to delete messages among the four suspects, detectives found references they made as far back as March to being a “team” and killing Ralston’s grandparents “so he could take over the home and they could use it as the group’s ‘base of operations,’” records say.
Ezra Ralston moved from Texas to live with his grandparents, who were well known and well loved in the community.
Ted Ralston was a retired computer security expert who once worked for the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Clinton-Gore White House transition team.
Gormly volunteered with a Key Peninsula health clinic and was trained as a respiratory therapist.
“Ted was often the smartest man in the room,” said Don Swensen, owner of the Blend Wine shop and president of the community council. “He was a political animal, and we connected a lot on that. We sat in here and had hour-long discussions about politics.”
“Joanna was one of the most gentle people I’ve met in my entire life,” he added. “She was quiet, reserved, elegant, intelligent, just a gentle soul.”
News Tribune staff writer Alexis Krell contributed to this report.