Denham set to appear in Platte County court

Accused murderer Grayden Denham will have a day in court later this week, with prosecutors expected to present evidence to seek the death penalty.

 Grayden Denham

Grayden Denham

Denham is scheduled for a trial setting hearing at 9 a.m. Thursday, April 12 before Platte County Circuit Court judge James Van Amburg. Whether or not Denham himself — who is in custody in the Platte County Detention Center — will attend the hearing is up in the air, as his attorney filed a notice stating Denham would not attend. The prosecutor’s office has objected to this notice.

Last May, Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd issued a statement that he planned to pursue the death penalty in the case against Denham, who is accused of the 2016 murder of four of his relatives and arson of the family home in Edgerton. A hearing on that plan has been delayed several times, in part due to an ongoing feud between Zahnd’s office and Denham’s defense attorney, John O’Connor.

O’Connor has sought to have Zahnd and his staff disqualified from the case — twice — but a Tuesday, March 13 order issued by Jackson County judge John Torrence has denied O’Connor’s request.

In September 2016, Zahnd’s office offered Denham a plea deal, to which no response was filed. Instead, O’Connor filed the first motion to disqualify the Platte County Prosecutor, which was denied by retired Nodaway County judge Glen Dietrich.

When Zahnd announced his intent to seek the death penalty last summer, O’Connor filed the second motion to disqualify, which was ruled upon by Torrence last month.

“Whether or not the members of the Platte County Prosecutor’s Office have acted in ways that give rise to an appearance of impropriety or create doubt of the impartiality of the prosecutor toward John O’Connor’s previous clients is not the issue before this court,” Torrence wrote in his ruling. “Although the attorneys may have legitimate reasons for distrusting each other personally and professionally, the evidence is clear that these reasons have not manifestly restricted defendant Denham’s right to the fair treatment to which he is entitled.”

The 12 charges against Denham, which were filed after a grand jury indictment, include four counts of first degree murder and four counts of armed criminal action in the homicides of his sister Heather Ager, 32, his three-month-old nephew Mason Schiavoni, his grandmother, Shirley Denham, 81, and his grandfather, Russell Denham, 82. Denham is also charged with felony arson for destruction of the family home, a felony for tampering with evidence and a misdemeanor for animal abuse. The felony charge of stealing his grandparents’ vehicle also remained on the indictment.

The four victims and the accused were residents of the same house at 4170 Buena Vista Road in Edgerton, although Grayden Denham has been called only an occasional occupant. When authorities responded to reports of a house fire at that address late on Friday, Feb. 19, they found four victims shot with the bodies still burning outside of the house. Three of the victims were found in the front yard, while Russell Denham’s body was located near an outbuilding with a red plastic gasoline container found nearby. A family dog was also found shot and burning at the scene.

Authorities apprehended Denham two days later while he was walking naked in Seligman, Ariz. They also located a brown 2012 Nissan Versa at a nearby hotel. The vehicle, belonging to Russell and Shirley Denham, was discovered missing during the fire/homicide investigation. Denham was not a registered guest at the hotel, and authorities also found a pile of clothing outside of the vehicle.

Denham was charged in Platte County with the theft of the Versa, which when it was found bore Oklahoma license plates taken from a rental car. He remained in custody in Yavapi County, Ariz. until an extradition process on that theft charge brought him back to Platte County. Denham remains in custody at the Platte County Detention Center in lieu of a $4 million cash-only bond.

In the March filing, Torrence did condemn Zahnd’s actions in the case of Darren Paden, a Dearborn man sentenced to 50 years for sexually abusing a young girl over the course of a decade. Zahnd issued a press release after Paden’s guilty plea, naming members of the community who supported Paden. While The Citizen did not run the names, many local media outlets did, which led Paden’s attorney, O’Connor, to file an ethics complaint against Zahnd. Accused of bullying witnesses for the defense by naming them publicly, among other actions, a disciplinary hearing was held last fall. Zahnd was found at fault, but has appealed the finding. The case is now in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court.