OKLAHOMA CITY – Grieving family members struggled with their emotions Thursday morning as a burly ex-convict accused of strangling his ex-girlfriend and her four children made his initial court appearance in Oklahoma.
An automatic not guilty plea was entered on behalf of Joshua Steven Durcho, 25, who was arrested in Texas on Tuesday night. He is being held without bail and prosecutors intend to seek the death penalty if he is convicted.
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Durcho is accused of strangling 25-year-old Summer Garas and her four children in their apartment in El Reno, a town of about 16,000 about 25 miles west of downtown Oklahoma City. The bodies were found Monday.
James Franklin, a step-grandfather of the slain children, said emotions were raw, and it hurt to hear the judge mention the victims' names.
"Every time you hear a name, it drives an arrow deeper in the heart," he said after the hearing.
After the court hearing, Garas' former husband, Jason Garas, and Franklin — who spoke amicably before the proceedings began — shouted at each other outside the courtroom and later scuffled outside the courthouse and had to be separated. The argument was over whether Franklin should talk to the media.
Durcho, a tattoo artist, appeared at the hearing wearing a gray jail outfit. Large tattoos were visible on his arms and neck. The heavy-set man — listed in court records as standing 5-foot-9 and weighing 235 pounds — was so heavily shackled he couldn't raise his arm to be sworn in during the proceedings.
Jason Garas took a front-row seat for the hearing, leaning on a retaining wall and tapping his foot throughout the proceedings.
Summer Garas, a community college student, was killed with her three daughters — Kirsten Rust, 7; Autumn Rust, 6; and Evynn Garas, 3 — and 4-year-old son, Teagin Rust.
Durcho waived extradition Wednesday during a brief court hearing in Hamilton County in Texas, where he was taken into custody Tuesday night after his vehicle struck a guardrail and tree, Texas officials said.
As he left that hearing, Durcho told reporters he was sorry "for getting into this (expletive) mess I didn't do."
In El Reno, Special Judge Jack McCurdy II arranged for a public defense attorney to be selected and set a Feb. 25 preliminary hearing date.
According to court documents, Matthew Haire of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System in Norman will serve as Durcho's attorney. Haire did not immediately return a phone message left Thursday afternoon.
Each victim was strangled and had ligature marks around their neck, according to an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation affidavit filed in the case. The exact manner in which the strangulations were done was not clear, spokeswoman Jessica Brown said.
Garas' mother, Susan Rust of Carson City, Nev., told The Associated Press her daughter ended her relationship with Durcho on Sunday.
"I hope he gets the slowest, most painful death because that's what he has earned. Hell is too good for him," Rust said.
Later Thursday, about 300 people huddled together in the bitter cold outside Summer Garas' apartment for a candlelight prayer vigil. Susan Rust arrived late to the vigil and was quickly surrounded by dozens of supporters.
The somber ceremony began with an American Indian memorial song played on a wooden flute and friends and family spoke of Summer Garas as a loving mother, devoted friend and good Samaritan.
After the killings, Durcho reportedly drove to Edmond and told a friend he choked Summer Garas until she was dead and that the children were with Garas' mother in Nevada, according to a court affidavit.
According to court records, Durcho was convicted of car theft as a juvenile and several minor drug charges as an adult. He was sentenced to four years in prison in 2003 for unlawful possession of marijuana and released in February 2007, records show.