Ashland man sentenced in torture, maiming case
An Ashland man was sentenced Tuesday to 7½ years in prison for torturing and maiming another man with a sledgehammer and other tools and threatening to eat the brains of the victim's dog.
Ronald Ledell Harris, 51, pleaded no contest Tuesday to charges of second-degree assault and coercion for the Oct. 18, 2016, attack that went on for hours. A charge of attempted aggravated murder was dropped after Harris agreed at the last minute to a plea arrangement. His two-day trial was scheduled to begin Tuesday.
The aggravating factors in the attempted murder charge were that Harris intentionally maimed or tortured the victim, Christopher Toughill, according to an indictment.
"I would have been dead — and quickly — if he didn't enjoy torturing me so much," Toughill said.
Toughill used to run an eyeglasses shop in Ashland and gained fame for making glasses for Hollywood movies and stars, including Tom Hanks and Julianne Moore. With bones in his index finger now shattered and other lingering injuries to his hands and other parts of his body, he is no longer able to carry on the delicate work of making glasses and he can no longer play his guitar.
After failed gallbladder surgery weakened his health, Toughill said he moved away to Crescent City, California, then came back to Ashland. He found a place to stay on property at 675 Eagle Mill Road that was controlled by Harris.
Investigators said Harris was running a flophouse for transients, many of whom were using drugs.
A few days after he started to move his belongings to an outbuilding on the property, Toughill said he was shopping in Medford when a woman he recognized asked him for a ride back to Ashland. The woman was Harris' girlfriend. Toughill dropped her off at her vehicle at Bi-Mart, and she drove to the Eagle Mill Road property, according to Toughill and investigators.
When Toughill arrived back at the property after the woman, he was met by Harris, who was in a jealous rage. Harris struck Toughill on the head with a mallet, Toughill said.
Harris then confined Toughill in a bathroom and beat his feet with golf clubs. Harris also beat him with his fists, a tire iron and hammer, Toughill said.
Harris poured hot cooking oil on Toughill's back, causing a burn, and also doused him with white gas, said Jackson County sheriff's Capt. Eric Fox.
"He poured gasoline on me and threw a cigarette butt at me," Toughill said.
Toughill said Harris demanded that he and the girlfriend write confessions.
"He promised to keep me alive for days and make each day worse," Toughill said.
Harris forced Toughill to place his hands on the bathroom counter and then struck his hands with a sledgehammer, breaking his bones, said Jackson County Senior Deputy District Attorney Allan Smith.
Toughill said Harris told him the last thing he would see while he was still alive would be Harris eating the brains of Toughill's dog.
"There was a visceral enjoyment that he had in doing it. He promised many, many times I would not make it out alive," Toughill said.
Eventually Toughill saw an opportunity to escape and ran to a truck weigh station along I-5, where law enforcement was called. He was taken to a hospital for treatment. Toughill lamented that he was unable to coax his friendly, elderly dog to run away with him, but they were reunited later.
Harris' court-appointed defense attorney Rosalie Matthews said the story Toughill told was so bizarre it was almost unbelievable. She said there are discrepancies between evidence and Toughill's accounts, and Harris has maintained his innocence. She faulted investigators for not doing fingerprint and DNA testing of tools and golf clubs found at the property.
She said Harris plans to make the best of his time in prison, taking courses and working in the kitchen or library.
Harris said in court he wished he had committed the actions Toughill described because then he would be serving prison time for something he had actually done.
Fox said investigators did not run DNA and fingerprint tests on the tools used in the attack. He said if DNA or fingerprints were found on the tools, it would prove nothing because Toughill and Harris both lived on the property.
Fox said blood was found in the bathroom and investigators found the tools Toughill described, a pan of cooking oil on the stove and white gas. Toughill also had broken bones, burns, marks on his head from being hit by a hammer and linear marks on his back, perhaps from being whipped by the shaft of a golf club.
"Everything he talked about was there. His injuries were consistent with what he described," Fox said.
Fox said Harris liked to walk around the house on Eagle Mill Road doing martial arts kicks and intimidating others with his machete.
Harris has a long history of violence stretching back more than 30 years, according to court testimony.
Jackson County Circuit Judge Patricia Crain told Toughill she believed his account of what happened.
"It must have been a horrifying experience, and I believe you," Crain said.
She noted Toughill likely will suffer from post traumatic stress disorder from the ordeal and she urged him to get counseling.
Toughill said before the incident he believed the world was generally a good and special place, but he now feels he came face-to-face with evil. He said he is struggling to hold onto a positive world view so that Harris does not defeat him.
"I haven't been able to wrap my mind around this thing yet," Toughill said, tears welling in his eyes.
Fox said Harris may have attacked other people at the property and he encouraged anyone with information to call the Jackson County Sheriff's Office at 541-774-6800.
"I believe there are other potential victims who have experienced similar crimes and incidents," Fox said.
With the trial canceled, investigators and prosecutors picked up a tire iron, a machete, a sledgehammer, a hammer and golf clubs stored as evidence inside clear plastic bags and cardboard boxes and carried them from the courtroom.