Joe Lukaitis Sr. stood and held up a photo of himself, his daughter and his twin grandchildren — all smiles in the frozen image of a family now broken.
Grasping the picture and memories of his daughter, he fought back tears in a Charleston County courtroom Friday.
“It was the last time we got to be together,” he told a judge at the end of a murder trial that was troubled with tribulations and delays.
His daughter, Alexis Lukaitis, was violently killed in 2010, and on Friday the man accused of killing her, Darold Drayton, 35, was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Lukaitis, 27, was the mother of twin boys and was living in Bluffton with her fiance, whom she had been in a relationship with for nearly 10 years. But Lukaitis had a drug problem involving prescription pills, according to court testimony, and it led her to take a road trip to Charleston on Aug. 8, 2010, with Drayton.
She drove her car, and he would pay for the gas and give her a few pills, according to prosecutors.
The two had known each other for about a year, and Lukaitis told her fiance, Michael Bartley, that she would be back that night.
Bartley spoke to her that night at 8:19 p.m., according to prosecutors. She told him she was in the car with Drayton, who they referred to as “D,” and Bartley heard a man say “take a right here.” Her final words to Bartley: She loved him and she would be home in about an hour.
Lukaitis never came home. Bartley became frantic, calling hospitals and jails, even driving along Highway 17 for any signs of her. At 7 a.m. the next day, Aug. 9, 2010, a logger found Lukaitis’ body off the side of a dirt-road area of Old Jacksonboro Road in southern Charleston County.
What happened in the hours in between was argued and picked apart by attorneys and investigators this week in a Charleston County courtroom.
Drayton’s cousin, Steven Edwards, played a key role in the case. He testified against Drayton about what he found outside his Bluffton home shortly after Lukaitis went missing.
On Aug. 11, 2010, Edwards noticed there was trash on his porch. He opened it and discovered several items with blood on them, including a diaper bag, an emergency car kit, a CD case and a spare tire, he said in court.
Those were the same items that had gone missing from the trunk of Lukaitis’ car, which had been found by investigators covered in blood.
Drayton had come to Edwards’ house asking for a ride to a hospital for a severe cut on his finger. Edwards also testified that Drayton asked him to take him to the jewelry store, where he wanted to sell a ring. There he sold Lukaitis’ engagement ring for quick cash, according to prosecutors.
“He was using such force on her, he hurt himself,” 9th Circuit Assistant Solicitor Jennifer Shealy said during her closing arguments. “The act itself was so violent, so excessive.”
Lukaitis had three slits across her neck, severing her trachea and esophagus. She had several other puncture wounds, cuts, bruises and defensive wounds on her hands, Shealy said.
Drayton also tried strangling Lukaitis and tried to burn her body, according to prosecutors. No one knows exactly where this happened, except that it was in Charleston County, according to cellphone records.
Prosecutors presented more than 200 pieces of evidence to the jury, including cellphone data and DNA evidence linking Drayton to the scene. Blood with DNA matching Drayton’s was found inside and outside Lukaitis’ car, which had been driven after she was killed. But no murder weapon was found.
During the testimony throughout the week, delays arose with the jury. First Bartley, Lukaitis’ fiance, was seen by a juror giving Drayton’s cousin, Edwards, one of the key witnesses, money during a lunch break before he was finished testifying. Bartley was called to the stand to explain it on Thursday.
“I gave him $20 and told him ‘thank you’ and to get lunch on me,” Bartley said.
Bartley said he didn’t think Edwards had much money, based on the living conditions he described from the witness stand, and said he had never come in contact with him before.
The juror who witnessed the exchange was excused from the jury to prevent any prejudice. Another juror was let go Friday when the defense claimed the juror had been heard saying the case was “open and shut” over the phone.
The defense argued that the juror seemed to be eager to get back to work. After the judge found out that the juror was asking a court clerk when he could out get of there, he granted the defense’s request to dismiss him.
Despite the hurdles, the jury, including the two alternates that replaced those jurors, found Drayton guilty of murder. Judge J.C. Nicholson sentenced him to life in prison without parole because of a prior conviction for armed robbery.
Drayton’s attorney, Ashley Pennington, who is the county’s public defender, told the jury during opening and closing statements that the state was relying on guesswork and suspicions. He did not want to comment on the case following the verdict.
Outside the court room, Lukaitis’ fiance and her father embraced other family members who patiently waited all week and for the last two years for that moment.
“She was supposed to bury me. I wasn’t supposed to bury her,” Lukaitis’ father said in court. “As crazy as it sounds, she’s finally at peace. He can’t hurt nobody else.”
What remains an unanswered question for Lukaitis’ loved ones is why. Why did Drayton slit her throat three times, try to strangle and burn Alexis Lukaitis?
“He has an open invitation to send me a letter explaining why it happened,” Lukaitis said. “I would want to know, because you would have to be pretty angry to do this. It was an all-out rage.”
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.