For more than a week in an Iowa courtroom, prosecutors laid out the evidence against a “prepper” accused of shooting a deer hunter with an AR-15, stabbing him more than two dozen times, and throwing his naked body into a river.
What they didn’t give the jury was a motive. But that apparently didn’t sow enough doubt; the panel convicted Ethan Davis of the first-degree murder of Curtis Ross on Friday, after 12 hours of deliberations.
“We don’t know why Curtis Ross was killed,” Appanoose County Attorney Susan Scieszinski said in opening statements at the trial in Appanoose County court last week.
But Scieszinski told jurors that authorities were sure that Davis, 27, killed Ross, 31—“the hunter who became the hunted,” she called him—because DNA and ballistics evidence proves “their paths crossed.”
Davis, who testified on his own behalf on Wednesday, claims he was framed for the crime and that his only crime is hiding from his family for 30 hours. He conceded that his AR-15 was “more than likely” used in the attack, but said it was stolen in a carjacking at his Promise City home months ago.
“They’re trying to frame you for Curt Ross’s killing, is that right?” Assistant Attorney General Scott Brown asked Davis on cross-examination, according to the Daily Iowegian. “That’s what you want [the jury] to believe: This is a setup. Right?”
“Yep,” said Davis, dressed in a blue button-down shirt and tie.
Prosecutors tell a different story. They allege that Davis, who lives with his parents more than an hour outside of Des Moines, shot Curtis on Nov. 24, 2017, spotting the deer hunter while hiding from police after a domestic crime.
After shooting Ross 10 times, the killer stabbed him 26 times, with many of the wounds inflicted while the victim was still alive, the doctor who performed the autopsy testified on Tuesday.
Dr. Michele Catellier said Ross had injuries to his lungs, kidney, liver, stomach, colon, and small intestine.
Ross had driven three hours from Cedar Falls to Appanoose County a day before his murder. He was last seen buying equipment before entering the remote Rathbun Lake public hunting ground.
"You immediately felt like you knew him all your life," Preston Frasier, a friend of Ross, told the Des Moines Register at the time of his death. Describing him as an “excellent hunter,” Frasier said Ross easily made friends with everyone around. “He was an all-around good dude.”
When Ross didn’t return to his friends’ house that night, he was reported missing. Hours later, his pickup truck was found near the entrance of Rathbun Lake.
The next morning, after searching over 800 acres, authorities found Ross’s naked body. Ammunition and magazines were found next to the scene, including several shells from an AR-15.
“Curtis Lee Ross was a great brother, uncle, son, and friend. He passed away doing what he loved, hunting and being outdoors,” the family said in a statement on a GoFundMe campaign to cover funeral expenses. “He left behind so many people who loved him.”
The family declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment because the trial is ongoing.
Investigators did not immediately identify a suspect in the crime—friends and family told them Ross did not have any enemies—eventually relying on evidence at the crime scene for leads.
Scott Stocksleger, who works for the state’s criminalistics laboratory, testified that Ross’s blood was found on “the front lens scope” and “butt plate” of the AR-15 found at the scene, along with Davis’s prints.
When authorities searched Davis’s home, his vehicle, which “was attempted to be concealed,” was found about a mile north of his residence, with several blood stains inside.
On Dec. 5, 2017, Davis was charged with “willingly, deliberately, and with premeditation” murdering Ross, according to his arrest warrant. His bond was set for $1 million the next day and he was placed in Wayne County Jail.
When the trial opened on Feb. 6, defense attorney Ken Duker told the jury: “Curtis Ross may have been the hunter who became the hunted—but Ethan Davis is no hunter.”
The defense offered no rebuttal to the prosecution’s case but appealed in closing arguments to reasonable doubt, arguing that the state developed “tunnel vision” after finding evidence that pointed to Davis’s AR-15.
“We’re sure that rifle killed Curtis Ross,” Duker told the jury on Thursday. “The question is who pulled the trigger.”
Jamison Davis, the suspect’s father, testified that Davis had “guns everywhere” that he collected over the years, including shotguns, pistols, knives, and other armament to satisfy his survivalist instincts.
“His hobby—I think the proper term—was being a prepper,” Jamison said adding that his son had “more than one” AR-15-style weapon.
On the day of Ross’s murder, Jamison Davis testified, Ethan was helping him with a “fixer-upper” project but said he needed to “run an errand”—which often meant he needed to buy cigarettes in nearby Seymour.
But Davis revealed on the stand that he actually ended up at his ex’s new boyfriend’s house and took their child, who suffered from a developmental disability.
Though Davis and his ex had “a verbal agreement” that his daughter would be spending Thanksgiving with him, Davis testified, he was driving back to his family’s house on Nov. 24 after buying a pack of cigarettes when he noticed his ex-girlfriend’s car at her new boyfriend’s house.
He went inside the house to question why his daughter had not yet been dropped off at his parents’ house, which incited an argument between the three adults.
He admitted in court that in a fit of rage, he “fired a weapon” and took his daughter. (He was convicted of two misdemeanors in connection with that in June.)
He then drove to see several relatives and friends with the child before finally dropping her off with Joseph Babbitt, one of his best friends.
“He said he went and got his kid out of a crack house,” Babbitt testified this week. “He walked in, fired a round in the air, grabbed his kid, and left.”
Davis was “visibly upset” when he dropped off the child—before he disappeared in his Hummer for another 30 hours.
“I forgot my cellphone at a cousin’s house,” he said on the stand in answer to a question about why no one could reach him after that. He admitted he hid at the north end of his parents’ property.
He testified that he only left the area “for hour or two” to visit Jones Church to pray late that Friday night. On the way, he spotted a sheriff's deputy and picked up his pace because he knew the cops were looking for him.
“I didn’t wanna go to jail,” Davis said.