Defense attorneys say Robert Hanford stabbed and killed his best friend and roommate, Mark Bates Jr., last fall because he feared for his safety.

“It was Rob’s life or Mark’s life, and Mark died,” Rebecca Grabski, one of Hanford’s attorneys, said Tuesday in her opening statement in the Twinsburg man’s murder trial. “That’s the tragedy here.”

Summit County prosecutors, however, say Hanford’s explanation for what happened — which changed several times — doesn’t match the evidence, including how Bates was stabbed five times.

“The evolving story just does not add up,” Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Ty Graham said.

Hanford, 29, is charged with murder and felonious assault in the Oct. 1 stabbing death of Bates, 27, at the Darrow Road home they shared in Twinsburg.

The trial in Summit County Common Pleas Judge Tammy O’Brien’s courtroom is expected to last until next Tuesday, with a break on Thursday and Friday.

Graham said Bates’ mother and her boyfriend moved to Florida last summer and allowed Hanford and Bates, who were longtime friends, to stay in their Twinsburg house.

He said Joann Saxton, Bates’ mother, called Hanford and Bates Sept. 30 and told them they needed to move because they weren’t keeping up with the home. The two friends weren’t pleased with this news.

The next morning, Hanford called 911 and said his friend had been stabbed.

Graham said Hanford’s explanation for what happened has changed. First, Hanford said he woke up and found his friend dead. Then, Hanford said the two of them got into a fight, but he didn’t remember what happened. Finally, Hanford said Bates had an arm around his neck and he made a stabbing motion over his neck.

“That is not consistent with the evidence,” Graham said.

Grabski said Hanford and Bates were childhood friends who worked in the same pizza place. She said the incident happened on Hanford’s birthday after the two friends had celebrated with pizza.

“Rob woke up and thought he had a bad dream,” Grabski said. “He was attacked by his best friend. He was forced to make a split-second decision.”

After the openings, neighbors of Hanford and Bates testified.

Nick Perry, who lived next door to the two men, said Hanford acted strange when he came to Perry’s house about 2:15 a.m. Oct. 1. While Perry repeatedly asked Hanford if anything was wrong, he said Hanford sat down and took off his shoes.

Perry said he noticed Hanford had a few specks of blood on his gray hoodie. He told Hanford he needed to leave and Hanford put his shoes back on and told Perry and his wife that they had nice chairs.
Hanford left and turned the wrong way. Perry said he told him his house was the other direction.

Perry said he and his wife talked about whether they should call the police, but opted against it.

The next morning, Linda Rolen said she was sitting at her kitchen table about 10 a.m. having coffee when Hanford came across the street to her home and asked to use her phone to call 911. He said someone had been stabbed.

Rolen said Hanford was distraught and shaking. She handed him her cellphone, grabbed some towels and first-aid supplies and walked with him back across the street while he talked to the dispatcher.

Rolen said police arrived just as she and Hanford went into his house and an officer ordered them to exit the home. She caught a glimpse of Bates’ body on the living room floor as she walked past.

Wesley Buchanan, Hanford’s second attorney, asked Rolen why she was upset during her testimony. She said she was worried about Hanford, whom she’s known for many years and who is the same age as one of her sons.

“This is not something that comes easy for me,” she said. “I think, deep down, he’s a good kid that has made a lot of bad choices.”

Several of Bates’ family members sat in on the trial Tuesday, including Saxton, who clutched a snapshot of her son. She was visibly shaken by photographs of her son’s bloodstained body shown on an overhead projector.

Asked how she was doing after seeing those images, Saxton replied, “Not good.”
Saxton told the Twinsburg Bulletin in October that her son was loving and caring and his kind nature may have contributed to this death. She said he always put others, including Hanford, above himself.

“I think he was too caring and trusting sometimes,” she said.

Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, and on Twitter:@swarsmithabj.