Trials to start in Knepp murder case

By Emily Mullen, Staff Writer
11/12/00 — Three Rivers Community News


CENTREVILLE - The murder trials of Dale Smith, 42, of Stevensville, Mich., and Lisa Dolph-Hostetter, 42, of Elkhart, Ind., two of the four people charged with the 1996 death of Carol Knepp, will be held Nov. 21 in the St. Joe County Circuit Court.

Ronald John Hostetter, 39, of Plainwell, a third alleged co-conspirator in the murder, pleaded guilty to a second degree murder charge at his Oct. 30 arraignment, naming Smith as Knepp's shooter.

St. Joe County Prosecuting Attorney Jeff Middleton offered Hostetter a reduced plea in exchange for his testimony against Dolph-Hostetter and Smith for murder, and Sherry Dolph-Smith, 41, of Elkhart, for a related perjury charge.

Hostetter was previously charged with conspiracy to commit open murder, which calls for a mandatory life sentence, and with possession of a firearm during a felony. The firearm charge was dropped in the plea bargain.

Middleton said Hostetter's plea agreement does not include any sentence cap or recommendation of sentencing by the prosecution.

"We have yet to actually try to calculate the guideline range for Mr. Hostetter on this charge," Middleton stated in the plea offer. "We did discuss, in general terms, the fact that the defendant's cooperation could be a consideration for the court at the time of sentencing."

Hostetter testified at last month's arraignment that Smith shot Knepp from the passenger's seat while he drove the vehicle the night of the murder.

Knepp died on Feb. 19, 1996, from a 20-gauge shotgun blast to the chest while driving her car on M-103 in Mottville Township near the Indiana state line.

Smith was under independent counsel at the arraignment and given three days to appoint an attorney after he told District Court Judge James Noecker his family was in the process of finding him counsel.

"At least one person has been convicted after four years," Middleton said after Hostetter's arraignment.

Lisa Dolph-Hostetter pleaded not guilty for her participation in conspiring to commit the murder under the counsel of defense attorney George Horn at her arraignment, which was also Oct. 30.

Ronald John Hostetter testified during preliminary examinations that his ex-wife convinced him to author a false letter covering up her role in the alleged murder based on the fact that someone had to care for their children.

He said Lisa Dolph-Hostetter told him she was receiving telephone threats of physical violence from Knepp, who believed her husband, Gary Knepp, was romantically involved with Dolph-Hostetter.

Lisa Dolph-Hostetter soon began discussion on Carol Knepp's murder after approaching her ex-husband, and the four defendants finalized the plot in early 1996.

The trials for Dale Smith and Lisa Dolph-Hostetter will take place within 90 days of the charges, as required by Michigan law.

Sherry Dolph-Smith's preliminary examination was originally scheduled for Oct. 19, adjourned twice, and finally took place last Thursday.

Ronald John Hostetter will testify against all three accused co-conspirators.

He is able to testify against Dolph-Hostetter under recent changes made to the Michigan spousal privilege law, which states the privilege is now with the witness as opposed to the defendant.

He will be sentenced sometime after the trials of Dale Smith and Lisa Dolph-Hostetter, and after that of Sherry Dolph-Smith if she goes to trial.

Middleton said if Sherry Dolph-Smith's case goes to trial, he expects it to occur some time after the first of the new year.

"I would propose that Mr. Hostetter's sentence be set for after the trials," Middleton said. "That will have given Judge Noecker an opportunity to see Mr. Hostetter testify against the co-defendants and be in a position to use that information for sentencing."

All four defendants were arrested on Aug. 28 of this year for the Knepp murder.

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