Jason Mark Mills, 33, of Camden is facing indictment for first degree murder in the death of his estranged wife, Ryan Bennett Mills, 29, of Bruceton, whose body was found in the burned out remains of her home during the early morning hours of February 8.
Judge Larry Logan bound Mr. Mills’ case over to the September term of the Grand Jury during a preliminary hearing Friday in Carroll County General Sessions Court.
Ryan Mills was found dead near the front door of her house at 151 South Spruce Street after firefighters responded to a blaze that destroyed the home.
Jason Mills was arrested later that day by agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI).
The two were separated, according to testimony given during the hearing, and Ryan Mills was about to start divorce proceedings. She had also filed for a court order of protection against her husband about a week and a half before her death.
Ryan Mills’ two children were away staying with grandparents on the night of the fire.
Giving testimony during Friday’s hearing were special fire investigator Ryan Shanklin, special agent Ronnie Faulkner, and special agent Adam Mathis, all with the TBI.
Presenting the state’s case was Assistant District Attorney James Webb, and DA Matt Stowe was also present at the prosecution table.
Jason Mills was represented by public defender Billy Roe.
Shanklin testified that when he arrived at the scene at around 4 a.m., firefighters were still working to put out the fire.
Shanklin said that during the course of his investigation, he ruled out lightning or faulty wiring as possible causes for the fire, and it was determined that the fire was likely caused by someone igniting the contents of a trash container in the kitchen.
Shanklin also testified that medical examiners found no traces of soot in the victim’s airways or lungs or evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning, which he said indicated that she was killed before the fire started.
According to Shanklin, he spoke with Mr. Mills, who was already at the scene when he arrived, and Mr. Mills told him that he had communicated with his wife electronically between 9 and 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 7 and had hung out at a local bar with a friend before arriving home in Camden at around 11 p.m.
Shanklin said he participated in interviews with neighboring residents, and two said they saw Mr. Mills at the home before the fire was first reported at around 2 a.m.
Faulkner testified that he was called to Bruceton to conduct a polygraph examination of Mr. Mills at the Bruceton Fire Department, and though he started the examination with Mr. Mills’ signed permission, TBI agents at the scene decided to cut the polygraph test short and question Mills directly about his wife’s death.
According to Faulkner, Mr. Mills admitted to killing his wife during that recorded interview, saying that he went over to his wife’s house to talk, and they got into a verbal argument that turned physical.
Faulkner said that Mr. Mills claimed that his wife injured him first and showed agents a mark on his arm, and Mr. Mills then detailed how he got his wife in what he called a “rear necked choke hold” until she passed out and then used a cigarette lighter to ignite a fire in a garbage can.
Mr. Mills, said Faulkner, told agents that he had consumed about 12 beers during the course of the day before going over to his wife’s house.
According to Faulkner, Mr. Mills told agents he wasn’t certain whether or not his wife was still alive when he set the fire.
Mathis – who is an expert in digital forensics, cellular tracking, and computer technology – detailed how he used investigative techniques to place Mr. Mills’ cell phone at his wife’s residence at 11:18 p.m. on Feb. 7.
During cross examination by Roe, Mathis said that he looked into text messages and other social media communications sent from Mr. Mills to Ms. Mills in the months leading up to her death, and he did not find any messages in which Mr. Mills threatened to kill his wife.
In his closing argument, Roe asked Judge Logan to reduce the charge to a lesser degree of homicide because “the state hasn’t shown any evidence of premeditation.”
The judge, however, disagreed, pointing out that legal precedence has shown that “premeditation can be formed in an instant.”
“Strangulation is not quick,” said Logan. “It’s a very personal way to kill somebody.”
Mr. Mills is currently being held without bond at the Carroll County Jail.