In a nearly empty courtroom Friday morning, Christopher Esry, 21, pleaded guilty to the murders of two Columbia men in a drug robbery outside of a Moberly bar in late 2018.
Esry pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder for the deaths of Columbia residents Darren Tharp, 51, and Shane Hare, 24.
Circuit Judget Scott Hayes sentenced Esry to 20 years in prison on each count, to be served concurrently. Esry was initially charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree robbery, but charges were reduced as part of the plea deal.
Though Esry’s case was finalized as part of a plea deal, there likely was enough strong evidence to get a conviction had the case gone to trial, Randolph County Prosecuting Attorney Stephanie Luntsford said.
"Obviously, when you try a case and the ultimate decisions are up to a jury or judge, there is no guarantee as to what the outcome may or may not be," Luntsford said. "However, I was confident that the state had a strong case."
Esry and three other men, Aaron Bloss, Travis Koenig and Steven Bell, were arrested in connection with the case in early 2019. Esry, Bloss and Koenig went to meet the victims outside of Bud’s Place, a bar in Moberly, early on Dec. 29, 2018, to buy methamphetamine, court documents state.
They drove in a truck owned by Bloss’ stepfather and Koenig stayed in the vehicle while Bloss and Esry went to meet with the victims who were parked in a car behind the bar.
When interviewed by police after his arrest, Bloss told investigators that Esry was the lone gunman and that he had been coerced by Esry into committing the robbery that led to the murders. However, statements from Esry’s hearing paint a different picture.
Before Esry and Bloss left the truck to meet with Tharp and Hare, Bloss gave Esry a pistol "in case the dealers were planning to rip them off," Esry’s attorney, Public Defender Edward Guinn, said at the hearing.
At some point during the drug deal, Bloss pulled out his pistol and shot Hare in the face, Guinn said. Esry then attempted to strike Tharp with his gun, but it discharged and a bullet struck Tharp in the back of the head, Guinn said. After the murders, Bloss grabbed the drugs and both men reportedly went back to the truck where Koenig was waiting.
Later that day, Bloss reportedly met with Bell who helped him burn the clothes he had been wearing during the murders and the truck used as a getaway vehicle. All four men were arrested Jan. 1, 2019.
"The outcome we had today was the result of over a year’s worth of work," Luntsford said. "Given the totality of the circumstances, all of the developments and everything we learned, I think it was brought to an appropriate resolution."
Bell pleaded guilty in July to tampering with physical evidence and was sentenced in September to four years in prison. Bell was released after serving 120 days and is now on probation.
Bloss and Koenig’s cases are ongoing and each face two charges of second-degree murder and a charge of first-degree robbery. Luntsford is working with their attorneys to see where the cases will go from here.
"There are discussions with those attorneys to see if we are in a position where we can resolve their cases or if we’re going to look at setting them for trial," she said.
Bloss and Koenig have hearings scheduled May 13.