Trial Begins for Vaughn Couple Murdered in 2020

Four suspects were arrested for the Ralston-Gormly murders. Two pleaded guilty; two go to trial.


Jury selection began May 1 in the trial of Ezra Ralston and Sean Higgins for the murders of Ted Ralston, 71, and Joanna Gormly, 73, in their Vaughn home in 2020. Testimony began May 11. The trial is expected to last until July.

The married couple were violently killed and their house later set on fire on the night of May 17, 2020, to cover the crime, according to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. The quick reaction of neighbors who turned garden hoses on the fire was instrumental in preserving evidence of the murders, including blood stains, propane tanks and gasoline cans, according to the Key Peninsula Fire Department.

Four people were arrested: the couple’s grandson Ezra Ralston, then 26, who lived with them at the time; his girlfriend, Rebecka Neubauer, 22; and Sean Higgins and Spencer Kleine, both 23.

Ezra and Neubauer were found within 24 hours of the crime at Neubauer’s mother’s apartment in Tacoma, where deputies spotted the elder Ralston’s vehicle, which Ezra had taken. Kleine and Higgins were arrested May 30 and 31, respectively, at their homes in Roy and Fife after being implicated by Neubauer, according to the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office.

All four were charged with two counts of first-degree murder and first-degree conspiracy to commit murder and were held without bail.

At the time of his arrest, Ezra reportedly told deputies, “I can explain all of the details,” but later declined to do so.

If convicted, he and Higgins both face life in prison without possibility of parole.

Neubauer avoided trial by pleading guilty to her part in the crime April 20. She was not present during the murders but is thought to be a motivator behind them, as she and Ezra planned on somehow taking possession of the property after the deaths, according to over 35 pages of text messages sent between her and her accomplices.

Neubauer was sentenced to 33 years in prison.

Cell phone records revealed that when Ezra expressed hesitation about the plan in his texts with Neubauer, she would reply with encouragement, saying at one point, “You’re so amazing, you got this.” Texts from Ezra to Higgins and Kleine contained details about the best dates to commit the crime, the house, instructions on which stairs to use, and warnings against which doors were noisy.

Kleine, who was present during the murders according to his phone records, accepted a plea deal in exchange for testifying against Ezra and Higgins. His sentencing is scheduled for June 2.

Ted was a retired computer security expert who once worked for the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Clinton-Gore White House transition team. He was also a frequent contributor to the Key Peninsula News and a board member and volunteer for the KP Civic Center.

Joanna helped run the Key Peninsula health clinic, was trained as a respiratory therapist, and was a longtime volunteer for the civic center. Her parents originally owned the house where she and Ted lived. The couple were married there in 1969.

Read about Ted and Joanna’s lives online at (“A Song for Ted and Joanna,” July 2020).