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Conley found guilty

Former Grambling fire chief faces life sentence
Caleb Daniel
Saturday, April 2, 2022
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*Content warning: graphic accounts of rape, sexual battery, domestic abuse*

Former Grambling fire chief Patrick Aaron Conley raped and sexually brutalized his wife Kimberly Danforth over a period of at least three years.

That’s what a 3rd Judicial District Court jury concluded late Friday night as they convicted Conley of two counts of second-degree rape, two counts of second-degree sexual battery, one count of aggravated second-degree battery and one count of domestic abuse battery with child endangerment.

The eight-man, four-woman jury handed down the unanimous verdict around 10:30 p.m. Friday after about four and a half hours of deliberation and two days of witness testimony.

Conley faces prison time of up to 123 years. District Judge Bruce Hampton will determine his sentence on May 10.

After the word “guilty” rang six times across the mostly empty late-night courtroom, Danforth sobbed into the shoulders of investigators and Assistant District Attorney Mike Smith, who prosecuted the case.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told the Leader. “I’m happy he can’t ever hurt another soul again.”

Conley appeared unaffected as the verdict was read.

He was arrested on April 21, 2021, after raping Danforth twice the previous night.

He was also accused of putting a bit in Danforth’s mouth and raping her a year earlier; beating her bloody with a rhinestone belt as a “punishment” for not paying the gas bill; tying her naked to a coffee table and sexually battering her with a spoon, even involving his dog in one incident; and carving the letter “A” for Aaron into her lower back with an X-acto knife, which he would later “freshen up” by biting the skin off.

“I think justice was definitely done,” Smith said. “The maximum on these charges is 123 years, and I think that’s what he deserves.”

The trial went through many twists and turns throughout the week: graphic photo evidence from both sides, a change in lead prosecutor, children as young as 11 taking the witness stand, other witnesses blocked from giving testimony, a lawyer being found in contempt of court, and damning phone call recordings showing Conley conspiring with defense witnesses during trial.

Find below a summary of the highlights.

Victim testimony

Much of the case for both the prosecution and defense centered on Danforth’s testimony.

The state portrayed her as a victim who stayed in an abusive relationship under threats of violence and separation from her children, while the defense attempted to discredit her testimony by casting her as a “sexual deviant” who initiated and craved the acts Conley performed on her.

Danforth had many photos depicting the belt wounds, the coffee table incident and the “A” on her back, which she also displayed to the jury in person.

Defense attorney Robert Sharp made consent the core issue of Conley’s case.

“The question is not, ‘Did it happen?’” Sharp said in his closing argument Friday. “The question is, ‘Did she consent?’”

Danforth was 19 when she married Conley, who was in his 40s. He brought two daughters into the relationship, and Danforth and Conley had two children together.

She testified that the abusive behavior began soon after the birth of their first child together, in the first year of their marriage. Threats were a common occurrence.

“He would run his hands on my neck and said with his medical knowledge, he could kill me just by pinching a nerve in my neck and make it look like an accident,” Danforth said. “Nobody would suspect.”

She was also fearful that Conley would keep the children if she told anyone about the abuse or tried to leave, saying he boasted of his “track record” of keeping his kids from their mothers.

According to Danforth’s testimony, Conley employed several other textbook domestic abuse tactics to control her, including isolating her from her family.

“I was kept from everybody,” she said. “He kept records of my phone… he had a tracking device on my phone and my car.”

Her sister, Kristen Wiggins, backed up the isolation story, saying she didn’t see Danforth once over a seven-year period, despite living in nearby Haughton.

And the one time Wiggins and other relatives paid a house call, Danforth met them in the yard and appeared “terrified” that Conley would find out.

Danforth’s composure broke a few times while recounting the various incidents. Her hands trembled while leafing through photo evidence presented by the state, and she was visibly shaken while displaying the “A” on her back to the jury.

“He was obsessed with that mark,” she said. “He called it his mark, because I was his property.”

She said Conley took photos of the coffee table incident from all angles and sent them to her “to remind me.”

“He said he needed to break me,” Danforth said. “Because I was a defiant wife.”


Sharp produced roughly 800 photos as evidence for the defense, all of which depicted Danforth posing for the camera in the nude or scantily clad. Conley took some of them, and Danforth took others and sent them to him.

Only some of the photos were allowed to be admitted into evidence on the basis of redundancy, but Sharp said they all the same illustrated that Danforth was not a victim but a willing participant in the “kinky side” of their relationship.

“At what point in your 10 years of him terrorizing you did you feel like sending him nude photos of yourself?” he asked on cross-examination.

Danforth said she posed for and sent the photos to appease Conley, who she said would have punished her otherwise.

Sharp repeatedly asked Danforth and the jury why Danforth didn’t ever leave the home, contact her family, or call the police until April 2021.

“What woman in her right mind would do this to herself?” he asked in his opening statement.

“She can’t retroactively go back and say, ‘I didn’t consent to all that,’” he said, this time in closing arguments.  “What he did was not necessarily pretty, but it wasn’t crime.”

Witnesses banned

The defense’s “star witnesses,” as Sharp called them, were Raven Walden and Makara Jones, Conley’s eldest daughter from another relationship and her best friend, whom Conley also considers his daughter. Both women are now adults.

It’s likely they would have testified that they never saw any signs of abuse in the home, but they were unable to do so.

First, Sharp inadvertently broke the rules of court by instructing Walden and Jones to remain in the courtroom during opening statements — after they had already been sworn in as witnesses.

Witnesses are supposed to be present in the trial only when they are giving testimony.

For this infraction, Hampton found Sharp in contempt of court and ruled that he must pay a $500 fine by April 13 or face jail time.

Then the prosecution invoked an apparently little-known section of Louisiana’s criminal code to have Hampton exclude Walden and Jones as witnesses because Sharp didn’t give the state the proper kind of notice about his witnesses before calling them.

“The state is nitpicking,” Sharp said.

But the law is the law, and the witnesses were barred.

Sharp ended up calling two of the younger children to the stand instead: Conley's 14-year-old daughter by another relationship and the 11-year-old son of both Conley and Danforth. Danforth has adopted the 14-year-old.

They both briefly testified that they were happy living with Conley and Danforth and never saw any evidence of abuse.

Conley testimony

Short on witnesses, Sharp called the defendant to the stand on Friday.

Conley testified that soon after he and Danforth had their first child together, things were “taking a kinky turn.”

He said he wasn’t a fan of the roleplaying, fetishes, and constant posing in skimpy outfits — they were all her idea. But he didn’t stop her.

“That’s her business,” he said.

But then “It got darker. I followed along… until it scared me.”

Eventually he said he threw away the box of bondage materials he claimed Danforth kept under her bed. Danforth said those were all his items that he forced her to use, and he only threw them away when he discovered photos she had taken of them.

Conley testified that he “never” hurt Danforth beyond spanking her on the rear and “rough caresses” on her neck during sex, both of which she wanted.

On cross-examination, Conley denied carving the “A” on Danforth’s back, saying he didn’t know how it got there. But later in questioning he said he assumed it must have been self-inflicted.

“So she looked in the mirror, reached around and carved an ‘A’ into her own back?” Smith asked incredulously. “And you expect the jury to believe that?”

Another tense exchange between Conley and Smith came when Conley denied causing the belt wounds on Danforth’s back, saying he didn’t discover them until “a week later.”

“A week later than what?” Smith asked.

“I guess when she got (the wounds),” Conley replied.

“How would you know it was a week later if you didn’t do it, and you didn’t see them?” Smith asked.

The phone calls

Smith capped off his cross-examination of Conley with some new evidence Friday afternoon: recordings of phone calls Conley made to Jones from the Lincoln Parish Detention Center throughout the week the trial was going on.

Earlier in testimony, Conley had said he didn’t talk to any of his children or other witnesses about the case.

But the recordings Smith produced quickly showed otherwise.

Conley changed his story.

“We had an issue with somebody lying,” he said, referring to a call with Jones.

Jones could be heard saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say your name,” when she apparently forgot to use the code words Conley appeared to have set up.

Conley seemed to be checking if Jones and Walden had instructed his younger children on what to say when testifying. Jones said they “got the point across.”

“The issue y’all were discussing — if that comes out, it’s over with,” Conley said on one call.

In addition to apparently trying to manipulate witness testimony, it’s against court rules to discuss the case with sworn witnesses in the first place.

Conley said he was unaware of the fact that Walden and Jones had been sworn in as witnesses directly behind him in the courtroom.

“He lied to you in front of your face about that phone call,” Smith later told the jury in his closing arguments.

While some of Sharp’s apparent procedural slip-ups may lay the groundwork for an appeal for Conley, Smith said Conley’s phone calls made him more confident that the verdict would withstand any challenge.

“I feel really good about it,” Smith said Saturday. “It’s going to be clear to anyone who reads the record that this guy was a proven liar. He lied about things that he testified happened in the relationship, and he lied to the jury when he said he hadn’t talked about the trial.”

An appeal on the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel is less convincing when the defense’s mistakes fall on the defendant, rather than the attorney, Smith said.

Prosecutor change

Leading up to the trial and throughout jury selection, Assistant District Attorney Tracy Houck was the lead prosecutor in the case, with Smith assisting.

But on Wednesday, just after a final jury had been named, Houck received word that his father, longtime Lincoln Parish sheriff Wayne Houck, had died of a heart attack.

From then on, Smith led the prosecution, with Assistant District Attorney Lewis Jones, who hadn’t worked on the case, assisting.

It was Smith’s first jury trial. He credits Tracy Houck with laying the groundwork for the case.

“Tracy is so organized and prepared with these things that even though I was going to have a minor role, I was prepared for everything,” he said. “It was a little nerve wracking, but I knew it well enough that I could handle it.”

Moving on

As Conley returns to prison without bail until his sentencing, Danforth will go back to her new home in Haughton, near her family, where she lives with her three children.

“We’ve just got to heal and start over,” she said after the verdict. “Be free — live a free life without control.”

Edit: Names of the minors who testified have been removed as a courtesy.