SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It was one of the most brutal and disturbing murders in Sioux Falls history. 

In 1995, a young mother was stabbed to death with steak knives by two men as part of a contract killing. In all, five men, ranging in age from 18 to 22, went to prison. Four of them were sentenced to life without parole, for their roles in the conspiracy. 

This KELOLAND News Investigation looks back at the details of this horrific case and discovers that even though all confessed to the crime, one now has a chance of getting out of prison early. 

25-year-old Mary K. Ross was studying to be a paralegal. She had a 14-month-old baby girl. 

Mary K Ross with her daughter (1994)

Mary K. was living in these apartments with her best friend, Aimee Enright Power. She was helping Aimee escape an abusive marriage to Robert Power. 

“Power wanted Ross killed because she was interfering in his marriage,” Former KELOLAND News Reporter Jessica Armstrong said in 1995.

Former KELOLAND News Crime Reporter, Jessica Armstrong, covered the case from start to finish in 1995. 

Power asked Michael Lee Smith to kill Mary K. for him. 

“There is evidence that one of the conspirators provided money, provided a diagram, provided an automobile, and provided a key in order for other members of the conspiracy to enter the apartment of Mary K. Ross and commit her murder,” Former Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson said in 1995.

Former Minnehaha County State’s Attorney Dave Nelson prosecuted the case. 

“It was a particularly brutal murder. Certainly, one of the most violent crimes I was involved with in my 24 years in the state’s attorney’s office, Nelson said. 

Smith wasn’t the one who carried out Mary K.’s murder. He got his roommates from this Sioux Falls apartment, Eric Coon and Robert Poppen to do it. 

“Methamphetamine was a big part of this case. The murder-for-hire was Power agreed to pay these two contract killers a pound of methamphetamine and $10,000. And he didn’t have either one,” Nelson said.

“Power gave Eric Coon the map, an apartment key, car keys to get there, and $50 for Coon and Poppen to buy knives and gloves,” Armstrong said in her 1995 report.

Details of the horrific murder were laid out in court documents. 

“How Coon and Poppen bought camouflage gloves and steak knives hours before the murder, let themselves into Ross’ apartment with a key, with all the lights off in Ross’ apartment, held up a cigarette lighter, watched for a moment as she slept and then stabbed her until their cheap steak knives bent and broke. Ross followed the men out of her bedroom, told them to get out, but instead, they went to her kitchen, took out more knives and stabbed Ross again,” Armstrong said in 1995 report.

“Go into her bedroom as she slept with her one-year-old child into the bedroom next to her and basically jump onto her bed, wake her up and begin to stab her repeatedly to death and that’s exactly what they did and they did it for money and for drugs. That’s a contract killing.”

Former Minnehaha State’s Attorney Dave Nelson

Perhaps most horrifying in all of this was when Coon explained how he felt during the murder. 

“Coon told her they were pumped up, but not nervous or scared. She says Poppen told her at first when he was stabbing Ross it felt weird and then he got an eerie feeling and started to like it and talked about how much blood there was. Poppen said Ross felt like a rag-doll, throwing her around; but she wouldn’t stop struggling,” Armstrong said in a 1995 report.

Mary K.’s last act was to call 9-1-1.

“Ross told the dispatcher, ‘I need help. I’ve been stabbed. When asked where she had been stabbed, Ross said, ‘all over.’ I’ve been stabbed to death.’ The last words the dispatcher could make out: ‘I have a baby,'” Armstrong read 9-1-1 transcripts in 1995. 

Mary K. was stabbed 16 times. 

Three of the defendants who plead guilty in 1995

Michael Lee Smith’s case went to court. His taped confession was allowed in his trial and Smith was found guilty.  

Coon, Power and Poppen all plead guilty in order to escape the death penalty and got life in prison without a chance for parole. 

“Coon and Poppen got their second chance. They got it when the death penalty was taken off the table. They were charged with first-degree murder. It was clearly a death case because it was murder for hire,’ Nelson said. 

Walter Craft Jr. flipped off our news camera in 1995. He was charged with accessory to murder for throwing away Ross’ clothing.  He was sentenced to less than three years in prison. 

Smith’s appeal was denied by the South Dakota Supreme Court in 1998. In 2002, justices also rejected Coon’s and Poppen’s request to get a new trial. Coon and Poppen claimed their confessions to police shouldn’t have been used as evidence because they were under the influence of drugs or suffering from withdrawal when they were questioned.

Now Eric Coon will go before the South Dakota Board of Pardons and Paroles to ask that his sentence be reduced, making him eligible for parole. Should the board recommend it, it would be up to the governor to commute his sentence. 

“And these guys want a second chance. Mary K. Ross never got one. And her daughter never got a second chance to be with her mom. So when it comes to second chances, I think we should be pretty narrow-minded about these violent offenders who want another break, particularly after they’ve had such a terrific break in getting away from the death penalty,” Nelson said. 

The family of Mary K. Ross has organized a letter-writing campaign to the Board of Pardons and Paroles protesting any chance of Coon or the other perpetrators’ sentence he lessened. 

They issued KELOLAND Investigates the following statement:

“If we could bring back our amazing and much-loved Mary K., our world would be filled
with the joy and laughter she brought to all our lives. We miss her more than anyone
can imagine. She has been absent a lifetime with her precious daughter and never had
a chance to know her grandchildren. The inmates responsible for her brutal murder
on July 9, 1995, were given tremendous mercy when they were sentenced to life in
prison without any chance of parole instead of the death penalty after admitting to,
contemplating, and pleading guilty to their heinous crimes. We appreciate the love
and support from so many around the country who share our desire to uphold Justice
for Mary K. Ross. We request privacy at this time.”

The family of Mary K. Ross

Members of her family are coming in from around the country to attend Coon’s hearing for commutation on Wednesday at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. KELOLAND Investigates will be covering the hearing and will bring you the decision. 

The other men in the case, Poppen, Smith and Power have all requested commutations of their sentences, but none were advanced to a full board review like Coon is getting.