by: Karen Hopper, KTLO
The two defendants in a Boone County homicide case where the victim was discovered in a church parking lot in Bergman in January have entered not guilty pleas to charges including first-degree murder. Online court documents indicate a jury trial for 28-year-old Mark Edward Payton Jr. and 23-year-old Lauren Ashley Smith both of Boone County has been scheduled to be held beginning Sep. 27 in Boone County Circuit Court.
According to recently filed probable cause affidavits, the arrest of Payton and Smith followed the discovery of the body of 34-year-old Justin Lee Brown in the Bergman Church of Christ parking lot on Jan. 16.
Bergman Police Chief Fred Starnes observed a car in the parking lot about 9:30 that evening, noting it was an unusual time for a vehicle to be at the location and leading him to stop down the road to monitor the location.
Chief Starnes pursued the vehicle when it left the lot traveling south on Arkansas Highway 7, providing him with an opportunity to see the license plate. He then returned to the lot and found an unresponsive Brown who had been shot in the head. He was transported to North Arkansas Medical Center, where he was determined deceased.
A Harrison police officer located and stopped the suspects’ vehicle in the Durand Center parking lot in Harrison with Payton and Smith inside.
Smith reportedly told law enforcement Payton had thrown something from their vehicle just prior to the stop. Payton said the location where the item was tossed was near a bridge a short distance away. As officers prepared to search for the weapon, a semi-automatic 9mm-caliber pistol was found on the parking lot where the suspects’ vehicle had been stopped. One live round was in the chamber. No additional bullets were in the magazine.
At the crime scene, law enforcement learned from nearby residents that Brown had been residing in a nearby RV. The same residents had a home surveillance camera system reportedly that captured the shooting incident.
A review of the footage shows a male approaching a vehicle in the church parking lot. As the individual nears the vehicle, a flash consistent with the discharge from a weapon can be seen. The car can be seen immediately driving away.
Residents in the area reported hearing two gunshots, just prior to the officer’s arrival. Two 9mm-caliber shell casings were recovered from the scene, along with the victim’s ball cap, which reportedly had a bullet hole in its top.
At the medical center, law enforcement documented Brown sustained gunshot wounds to the top of his head, right forearm and upper torso.
During a post-Miranda interview, Payton declined to make any statement, invoking his right to an attorney.
Smith, however, reportedly provided a statement to investigators. From the statement, Smith acknowledged having been in a prior relationship with Brown. She allegedly said Payton and Brown disliked each other.
She then told the investigators details of the evening involving her returning property to Brown. After leaving the victim’s residence, Payton picked up Smith. Later Brown allegedly called Smith accusing her of not returning all of his property.
A verbal dispute reportedly followed between the two, with Payton interjecting. She said Payton ordered her to turn their vehicle around and return to Brown’s residence to settle the disagreement with a fight.
In a second interview, Smith reportedly told investigators Payton moved to the rear seat of their vehicle. She said she instructed Brown to come out of his residence to the parking lot. When he did, Payton exited the vehicle, and she heard two shots fired.
Payton is a convicted felon and was on active probation at the time of the incident. He was on supervision following a felony conviction for an aggravated assault involving a firearm.
The firearm recovered from the parking lot where Payton and Smith were arrested was identified as being reported stolen to the Marion County Sheriff’s Office in 2018. It was noted the primary suspect in the investigation of the stolen firearm was a relative of Payton’s.
In addition to the first-degree murder charge, Smith faces a count of felony hindering apprehension. Payton also faces an enhancement of felony with a firearm, possession of a firearm by certain persons, meaning he is a convicted felon and theft by receiving.