Roaring up to the Ki-Be Red Apple Market in a Dodge pickup truck, Dalton Pullum and Matthew Phalen had no idea they were about to watch a poorly conceived murder plot unravel before their eyes.
The two high school seniors just wanted to grab lunch in between classes in Benton City, a farming community in the rural eastern half of Washington. But when they pulled up to the grocery store on Nov. 15, 2017, they noticed a strange man skulking around the parking lot in broad daylight. He kept crouching down to hide between parked cars, and, even more suspiciously, was wearing a hoodie and a mask that looked as if someone had cut eye holes in a red T-shirt.
"It was like he didn't have time to get a real mask," Pullum, then 18, told the Tri-City Herald. "Like it was hastily done."
As it turned out, the teens had inadvertently stumbled into a bungled attempt to execute one of their own classmates. A group of fellow students at Kiona-Benton City High School had hatched an ill-fated plot to kill 18-year-old Ryan Vaughn with a kitchen knife during their lunch break, only to be thwarted by freshmen on scooters. The bizarre saga culminated on Monday, when Fe Hadley, Vaughn's ex-girlfriend, was found guilty of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
The half-baked plan started out as a joke, the Herald reported. Several weeks before the failed murder attempt, a group of teenagers were sitting around, griping about their dislike of Vaughn, then a senior. "What if he died?" someone asked facetiously.
A few members of the group took the question seriously. Hadley, then 16, had briefly dated Vaughn. And Jeremiah Cunningham, who had once dated Hadley, still harbored feelings for her.
Vaughn would later tell detectives that he broke up with Hadley because Cunningham was too protective and overbearing, putting a wedge in their short-lived relationship. Cunningham, who was also 16 at the time, resented Vaughn for his role in the breakup. Testifying in court last week, he said that he wanted to defend Hadley's honor.
A plan soon emerged, though the teens disagree about who was the mastermind behind it. Hadley would convince Vaughn to meet her behind the Ki-Be Red Apple Market, which is located across the street from the high school. Once the two were in place, Cunningham would sneak up from behind and kick Vaughn's legs out from under him. Then, he would stab the 18-year-old in the chest - not the neck, because it would get too much blood on Hadley, he thought. Another teenager, Gabriel Pfliger, would stand guard so that Vaughn couldn't escape.
Pfliger also helped Cunningham in scoping out the locations of the store's security cameras. It's unclear how he came to be involved in the plot, but authorities initially said that Vaughn was targeted in part because he was new at the school and other teens felt that he disrupted the social order.
Once they had killed Vaughn, the teens planned to drag his body into the apple orchard next to the market and conceal it with branches, Cunningham later testified. Snow was in the forecast, which they believed would buy them some time before the corpse was found.
Hadley reportedly bragged about the murder plot to her friends, claiming that she was dating an older man named Lea, and that he had offered to kill Vaughn as a birthday gift to her. When the school's principal first got wind of the threat on the day of the attempted murder, he was skeptical. The teens involved were "drama" students with a reputation for making outrageous claims, he told the Herald.
But the plan had already been set in motion. Evidence presented at trial showed that Hadley spent several days messaging Vaughn on Facebook, insisting that he meet her behind the market during lunch on Wednesday. "Why?" he asked. Initially, she claimed she just wanted to hang out. Not wanting to become a subject of rumors, he refused. But she persisted, suggesting that they could have a "little fun" and "do what you want." Eventually, he gave in.
On Nov. 15, 2017, Cunningham tucked a large kitchen knife into his hoodie, the Herald reported. Pfliger came prepared with a wooden stake. At lunchtime, Hadley met Vaughn at school, and the two walked to the market, where Vaughn bought an iced tea. Almost immediately, the plan began falling part.
First, Pfliger failed to show up at the market on time. Then, some freshmen rode up on scooters and noticed that a suspicious-looking character was loitering around the parking lot, his face covered by a red mask. It was Cunningham, who later testified that the homemade disguise was actually a repurposed bandanna.
Just then, Pullum and Phalen pulled up. The scooter-riding freshmen warned them to watch out for a strange man who was hiding behind cars, the Herald reported. Temporarily putting their lunch plans aside, the two seniors watched as the masked man peered into the tall windows fronting the store and tried to conceal himself behind a soda machine. They chased after him in their truck, yelling at him until he fled into a nearby field.
When Hadley and Vaughn left the store and began walking to the loading area in the back, they came across a commotion. The seniors were shouting into what initially seemed to be an empty field, while freshmen zoomed around on scooters. Then, Vaughn noticed a man in a red mask crouching behind a bush. The man stood up, gesturing at Vaughn to come closer.
In his trial testimony last week, Vaughn said that he decided following the masked stranger would be a bad idea, the Herald reported. He headed back to school instead.
Their plot foiled, the other teens also made their way back to campus. For reasons that remain unclear, Cunningham didn't bother taking off his disguise, and the school's security cameras captured him striding down the hall in his red mask and hoodie.
By then, reports of a masked man and a deranged murder plot had made their way to the principal's office, and school officials requested to take a look at the market's surveillance footage. As it turned out, the teens hadn't done a very thorough job of finding all the cameras: One had captured Cunningham talking with his accomplices behind the market, then pulling the sharp-edged knife from his hoodie.
When questioned by detectives from the Benton County Sheriff's Office, the teenagers confessed to the plot, but their stories later shifted in court.
Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder in April and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, claimed that he lied about his involvement during initial interviews with police "because I was looking out for two of my friends, that I thought were friends." His only role was to provide "brute strength," since the other teens weren't strong enough to kill Vaughn, "a big guy," he said. He described Pfliger as the real mastermind behind the murder plot, and Hadley as the "lure and leader."
Now 18, Cunningham also said that he had been harboring doubts about the plan all along, the Herald reported. If the scheme had gone according to plan, he testified, there was only a 50 percent chance he would have gone through with the murder.
When Hadley got her turn in court last week, she claimed that she hadn't really sent the messages to Vaughn. Someone had hacked into her Facebook, she insisted, saying that she wouldn't have made so many grammar and spelling mistakes or used abbreviations like "LOL." She denied having a hand in the plot, and said that while Cunningham had told her he planned to kill Vaughn, she hadn't believed him.
According to the Herald, Pfliger was the only one of the teens to be charged and tried as a juvenile. Over the summer, he pleaded guilty to second-degree assault with a deadly weapon and received a 30-day sentence with a year of supervision and mandatory community service. It's unclear why prosecutors chose to apply assault charges when no attack actually took place.
Hadley, who is now 18, will be sentenced next month, the paper reported. Meanwhile, Cunningham is facing a new set of equally bizarre charges: While in juvenile detention, he allegedly claimed to run a crime syndicate in a small Idaho town, and threatened to put one of his jailers on their "hit list."