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Trappler's attorney: There
BetzJitomir says cops mishandled murder probe
WATKINS GLEN, May 7 -- The attorney for accused murderer Alice Trappler said there was no way her client was involved in a plan to kill Daniel Bennett on April 19, 2012 because "there was no plan."
And Susan BetzJitomir said the police investigation into the Bennett murder was poorly handled, with possible theories and suspects beyond Trappler being ignored.
The police, she said, "twisted themselves and the evidence to fit Alice. Why let the facts and the evidence get in the way of a conclusion you've already reached?"
The trial's Day 11 was expected to include both the defense and prosecution closing arguments, but a delay early in the day, the appearance of two rebuttal witnesses and the length of BetzJitomir's closing argument -- an hour and 45 minutes -- left District Attorney Joe Fazzary with too little time to complete his closing before the mandated court finishing time of 4:30 p.m.
It was decided, instead, that he would present his argument in its entirety the next morning. After he finishes, Schuyler County Judge Dennis Morris will read a charge -- an account of the law -- to the jurors, who will then retire to the jury room to deliberate Trappler's fate.
"I made my best argument," said BetzJitomir, who was suffering from illness and a sore throat.
Fazzary said that "whatever the defense counsel said doesn't change our theory a bit," and that he won't change his closing in reaction to hers. "The evidence clearly speaks for itself. The jury can wade through what's huff and what's puff" and decide for themselves.
Trappler, a resident of Steuben County, is charged with 2nd Degree Murder, 1st and 2nd Degree Burglary and 2nd Degree Conspiracy in connection with the April 19, 2012 shooting death of Bennett -- a former boyfriend with whom she had a child, Lily, in early November 2011. She is alleged to have conspired with her ex-husband, Thomas Wesley "Wes" Borden, and Borden's stepbrother, Nathan Hand, both of Corning, to have Bennett killed at his residence on Pearl Street in the Schuyler County Town of Dix.
Borden, who allegedly shot Bennett, subsequently died when struck by a commuter train while fleeing police in Jenkintown, Pa. Hand pleaded guilty to a charge of 1st Degree Manslaughter, reduced from 2nd Degree Murder in exchange for his testimony at the Trappler trial. Hand, still awaiting sentencing and housed in the Schuyler County Jail, testified last week.
Trappler has been housed in the Chemung County Jail since her arrest more than a year ago. There was never any bail set in her case.
The rebuttal witnesses
Court was delayed at the outset Monday while Fazzary determined whether or not he wished to question Attorney Christine Vandenburgh, who represented Trappler in the Family Court case involving Bennett. The decision to call her to the stand came at 11 a.m., an hour-and-a-half after the scheduled starting time of court. And she was followed to the stand by a State Police investigator to testify about an interview conducted with Trappler on the morning after the murder.
1. Christine Valkenburgh, who first testifed last Thursday. She was recalled by Fazzary to answer whether she had -- as Trappler contended on the stand Friday -- recommended that Borden sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity despite the fact that he wasn't the biological father. She said she had not.
She was also asked if she had told Trappler -- as the defendant contended -- that such a filing would constitute a "Poor Man's Adoption." Said Valkenburgh: "I've never heard the phrase 'Poor Man's Adoption.'"
2. Karl Aepelbacher, a State Police Investigator present during an interview at Trappler's home at about 4:30 a.m. the morning after the murder. He was called so Fazzary could inquire if Investigator Joseph Kelly had asked Trappler during that interview whether she "had" guns other than a pistol on the premises. Trappler said "owned" was the word used, and that she answered in the negative because two shotguns she had on her goat ranch were considered by her to be loaners. Aepelbacher said the word used by Kelly was "had" -- and that Trappler denied having any.
"And you found out differently later?" Fazzary asked him.
"Yes," said Aepelbacher. "Her father told us she'd been given a shotgun."
The closing argument
BetzJitomir moved the lectern used by counsel so that it was facing the jury, and a microphone was hooked atop it. She started by explaining she was not feeling well, and "I'm losing my voice." The throat hurt, she said, so she was asking that jurors not read anything into any pained look she might give.
She then said she would sum up the case in two minutes, but would talk about it for an hour, "because that's my job." She then proceeded to talk for an hour and 45 minutes.
First, she said, there was "no plan or planning involved" in the murder of Daniel Bennett -- a fact made clear by the actions of Borden, who she said was "winging it that night," buying a file at 4:59 p.m. to file off the serial number on the shotgun, shells for the gun at 7 p.m., and a shovel after the murder to dig a hole for the gun in Pinnacle State Park.
If Trappler had been part of a plan, she said, "there would have been no need" to purchase a file, ammunition and a shovel, for she had all three.
Borden "made it up poorly as he went along," said the attorney, noting that such a style contrasted sharply with the planning acumen shown by Trappler in her job with Doug Gross Construction, where she planned and oversaw large landscaping projects. "If Alice Trappler had planned Daniel Bennett's death, we would still be looking for Daniel Bennett and the murder weapon."
If Trappler wanted Bennett dead, said BetzJitomir, "she could have done a lot of things differently -- called Daniel to the goat ranch to see Lily and shot him dead" because of the order of protection that had been issued against him. And she could have used large equipment -- to which she had access -- in order to bury him.
On the night of the murder, she said, while Trappler might have suspected Borden was up to no good, "suspecting someone is going to do something evil or stupid is not a crime ... And I'm not conceding she even suspected." But the defendant, she added, was clearly "not helping or pushing him." If she wanted Bennett dead, "she could have lured Dan anywhere. She would not have planned to kill him in his own home in front of not one but two witnesses."
As for the shovel that Borden purchased around midnight to dig a hole for the gun, BetzJitomir said that Trappler knew, being a landscaper, that the shovel wouldn't dig very deeply into the ground in April. The turf not far below would be frozen.
"The District Attorney," she went on, "proved in the first week and a half that Daniel Bennett died by a gunshot wound to the head. There is no shred of evidence anywhere to prove anyone but Thomas Borden and Nathan Hand did the killing -- and I'm not conceding they did it."
Whether one man or both went inside the Bennett residence, she said, they somehow "got no blood or tissue" on themselves or in their truck despite the fact that testimony showed there was "blowback" of blood and tissue from the gun. How, she wondered, could they "manage to be the only two objects in the room" not struck by it.
Frank Bennett, she added, said he had loaded guns in his house. Was a .12-gauge among them? "Who knows? No weapon there was examined."
And there was testimony by two neighbors, BetzJitomir said, that were alike in that both heard just one car door slam before a vehicle with a loud exhaust drove away after the murder. And one of those neighbors heard just one set of footsteps going to the vehicle. And beyond that, she said, there was no sign of coal dust in the Bennett living room or in the Borden truck or on Borden's or Hand's shoes, even though police maintained they stepped through coal dust to access the Bennett front porch from the right side in order to avoid a motion alarm on a post.
BetzJitomir, who was jumping from subject to subject, also made these points:
-- The Family Court case was in an early stage -- would require a couple more hearings after the one scheduled on April 20, 2012 before Bennett would be able, if then, to acquire visitation rights. To presume that Trappler, a veteran of Family Court proceedings, would kill him under those circumstances didn't make sense. "Murder was pretty premature in this case," said BetzJitomir. "Alice Trappler had no motive for murder. There were at least two more hearings to see if the system would work in her favor. If she were going to commit murder, I suggest she has a high enough IQ to wait until it was necessary." And in a previous case years earlier, when a court took Borden's two daughters from Trappler and returned them to their birth mother, "Alice didn't kill the mother. And she didn't kill Daniel Bennett. She hadn't lost the case to him. She didn't commit this murder."
-- Nathan Hand might have stayed in Borden's truck as he said in his first statement to police -- a statement in which he did not try to incriminate Trappler. "If he ever told the truth, that was it," said the attorney. And his staying in the truck would account for the single set of footsteps and single slamming door as Borden returned from doing murder. Or there was possibly someone else there who, in shooting Bennett, was hit by blowback. Since Bennett's mother testified that her son was into drugs, and he had indicated as much on his Facebook page, said BetzJitomir, then the killing might have been a drug deal gone bad. And there was vomit on the road near the Bennett residence, but "the prosecution didn't even try" to check out whose it might be.
-- The motion sensor alarm, she said, could easily have been spotted by Borden because it was set clearly on the post in a contrasting green color. Besides, "the first officer on the scene said he didn't hear the (alarm) buzzer, which means it wasn't functional. Perhaps Frank (Bennett) disabled it for some reason." The senior Bennett and his son had problems, she said, "but nobody checked his hands, or his guns to determine if he had a .12-gauge Mossberg." She said she wasn't pointing a finger at Frank Bennett, but that the failure to further investigate the premises showed police "did such a poor job of investigating this case. They didn't check out any other thing in the house. They didn't do a very good job of checking out every theory."
-- There was no tire-tread analysis. "They didn't look for type or anomaly," said BetzJitomir.
-- The .12-gauge shotgun "has a tremendous kick. Did anyone check Thomas Borden's shoulder? I didn't hear anything about that."
-- The line in a text to Trappler from Borden's phone saying "Watching TV now; may be asleep in an hour" might not have referred to Daniel Bennett at all, since it was sent at the same time that Borden (or at least his phone, though Hand might have been using it) was outside Lando's nightclub in Corning. Trappler lover Brett Bacon and Borden friend (and Hand's landlord's daughter) Erica Raner were there, in the vicinity of Lando's, at the same time, BetzJitomir said. So Borden might have been using the "watching TV" line to mislead Trappler and prevent her from interfering with whatever he was planning.
-- While state police said the sneakers recovered from Pinnacle State Park -- later identified as Borden's -- had orange on them, pictures of Borden and Hand shopping at the Dandy Mart on Rt. 414 before the murder show Hand wearing sneakers with orange on them, and Borden's showing no such coloring.
-- Hand said in his testimony that he was dropped off at home after the murder by Borden -- but Hand's girlfriend Catharine Young testified that Borden and Hand came into the house together, and that Borden "was whooping and hollering" as though drunk. "For all we know," said BetzJitomir, "Nate Hand dropped off Thomas Borden at a bar" before going up to the Bennett residence himself.
-- The phone call that Trappler made to Hand at 9:10 on the night of the murder was not, as Hand contended, awaited by Borden and Hand, said BetzJitomir. It was instead a response by her to a text message from Borden that said, simply, "Call me now."
-- The jailhouse recordings showing Trappler anxious to speak to Bacon, BetzJitomir said, are snippets of conversation, a few seconds here or a minute and a half there. "I suggest you listen to the whole thing in context," she said, noting that there are about "8 to 10 hours" of recordings.
-- Trappler told Borden in a text message that she was "grateful" to him for all he had done. There was "nothing sinister about her gratitude," said the attorney, for Borden had helped her in her Family Court strategies. "I know he died" in Jenkintown, she said, "but it's not clear if he intended to kill himself. Maybe he was trying to catch onto" the front of the train, an impact that killed him. "I don't know."
-- The message deletions from Trappler's phone -- presented as evidence by the prosecution after being recovered from the records of Verizon -- were "not remarkable," said the attorney. "It would have been remarkable if she didn't (do it). Deleting was her habit," though she kept some texts for her April 20 court case.
-- Police "got a theory in their head" that Trappler, in a Family Court fight with Bennett, was the person to pursue for the murder, said BetzJitomir. "They had blinders on. They didn't look" at other people on the periphery of the case. The quality of the investigation was "poor."
-- "Alice Trappler has been in the Chemung County Jail for over a year for something she had nothing to do with," the attorney concluded. "Please let her go home to her baby and her parents and to be with her stepchildren."
Photos in text:
Top: Defense attorney Susan BetzJitomir speaks to the media after court Monday.
Middle: Defendant Alice Trappler is led back to jail after Monday's court session.
Bottom: District Attorney Joe Fazzary speaks to the media Monday. He presents his closing argument on Tuesday.
The Story from Day 1 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 2 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 3 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 4 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 5 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 6 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 7 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 8 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 9 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 10 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 12 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 13 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 14 may be found by clicking here.
The Story from Day 15 may be found by clicking here.
(All court stories by Charlie Haeffner)
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