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Day Two: 8 witnesses
Hand's girlfriend testifies; D.A. builds case methodically
WATKINS GLEN, April 23 -- The second day of testimony in the murder trial of Alice Trappler Monday saw District Attorney Joe Fazzary call eight witnesses to the stand as he continued to establish a groundwork for later testimony.
Trappler faces charges of 2nd Degree Murder, 1st and 2nd Degree Burglary and 2nd Degree Conspiracy in connection with the shooting death of Daniel Bennett at about 11 p.m. on April 19, 2012 at his father's home on Pearl Street in the Town of Dix, where the 30-year-old Bennett resided.
The defendant, of Addison, is alleged to have conspired with her ex-husband, Thomas Wesley "Wes" Borden of Corning, and Borden's stepbrother, Nathan Hand, to have Bennett killed over a custody battle involving a then-5-month-old child born to Trappler and fathered by Bennett. Trappler is not alleged to have been present at the killing.
Borden was subsequently killed when struck by a commuter train while fleeing police in Jenkintown, Pa. Hand -- alleged to have been with Borden at the killing, and to have served as lookout -- later pleaded guilty to a charge of 1st Degree Manslaughter. It was reduced from 2nd Degree Murder as long as he testified against Trappler.
The D.A. on Monday called to the stand:
--Dr. Caroline R. Dignan. As the Chief Medical Examiner of Monroe County, she conducted the autopsy on Bennett. Her testimony dealt with procedural matters and the killing wound, which she said was inflicted by a shotgun blast from close range.
--Steuben County Sheriff's Office Criminal Investigator Donald S. Lewis. He dealt with Trappler and her then-boyfriend, Bennett, in April 2011 in a dispute over some damage on Trappler's farm allegedly caused by Bennett, and over the disposition between the two of some goats whose ownership the two had shared.
--Steuben County District Attorney's Office Lead Investigator Noel Terwilliger, who in 2011 was Chief Deputy of the Steuben County Sheriff's Department Road Patrol. He had dealings with Trappler over the same April 2011 dispute. He said that when he spoke to her in person during her pregnancy, she said she was "going to do anything within her power to make sure Daniel Bennett wouldn't see" the child. "It raised the hair on the back of my neck when she said it," he added.
--Catharine Young, 27, of Corning. She is a single mother who, while working at Sitel, had a relationship with co-worker Hand. She said she was in the company of both Hand and Borden at their Corning home on the evening of the murder before they left for several hours. They told her they had to go out "to hang a turkey stand," which she didn't believe. "We were having a cookout," she said. "Then, next thing I knew, they were inside changing clothes," putting on camouflage pants and black, long-sleeved shirts. She didn't want Hand to go, and told him so. "It didn't set well with me," she said. When they returned after midnight, "Wes (Borden) was wearing flip-flops and said he'd lost his shoes running through the woods." His demeanor "was fine. He was whooping and hollering like everything was fine. He opened a beer and sat on the couch. Nate was kind of quiet. We argued" before retiring for the night.
--Lt. Craig Gallow of the Schuyler County Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigation Division. He was dispatched to the Bennett residence on the night of the murder after the victim's father had called the Sheriff's Office with news of the shooting. He said that in this case and similar ones, investigators "look at who is closest" to the victim because of the "emotional aspects" that sometimes drive such crimes. The shotgun shell hull found at the murder scene, he added, led investigators to the Walmart in Gang Mills while seeking a locale where it might have been purchased. It turned out that a box of such shells had been purchased at the store on the night of the murder, and that the store had video of the purchase and the buyer: Thomas Borden. Attempts were made to contact Borden, Gallow said, but the suspect had departed for Pennsylvania -- where he was finally tracked down by authorities. He fled by car and then on foot through a rail yard in Jenkintown, where he died when struck by a train -- an incident ruled a suicide.
--Vickie Petris, who lives on Catlin Hill Road in Chemung County, about a mile-and-half south of the Bennett residence. The day after the murder she saw -- and reported -- a shotgun shell along the roadside near her home. That live round led investigators to two other live rounds in tall grass nearby.
--Sean Holley, a Captain in charge of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Chemung County Sheriff's Office. He investigated the Petris report, and found the shell she had spotted. He secured the area until State Police investigators arrived.
--Investigator Lee Stonebraker of the State Police Forensic Unit in Canandaigua, who was on the stand for well over an hour, identifying and discussing scores of photos taken by his unit at the crime scene, at the area where the three live shells were found, and at Pinnacle State Park near Addison. It was there where investigators -- led by Hand -- unearthed the murder weapon where it had, according to Hand, been buried by Borden the night of the murder.
The most riveting part of the day came when Fazzary handed to Stonebraker a bag with various notations and various colored seals on it -- each dealing with whichever department had handled it during the investigation. Inside it was the spent shell found near Bennett's body, the shell that had contained the gunpowder and tiny BBs and wadding that make up such a projectile. Stonebraker pulled out a pocket knife and cut through the bag's seal, and removed the shell, holding it up after donning a protective glove. Its red plastic cylinder stood out, as did its silver base -- shining in the day's bright light coming through the windows behind the jury. The jury members all leaned toward the demonstration, looking intently.
The spectators in the courtroom followed suit. All was momentarily quiet.
When the day's testimony was all over, Fazzary explained that he has three major "burdens" in the trial, each of which accounts for the methodical pace at which he is approaching the matter.
"First," he said, "I have to show that Daniel Bennett was murdered. The defense hasn't stipulated to that, so I have to show it.
"Second, I have to prove that Thomas Wesley Borden and Nathan Hand physcially carried out the murder.
"And third, I have to tie them to Alice Trappler. That's the order I have to go -- the murder, who did it, and along the way I'm showing bits and pieces on how Alice Trappler is connected.
"I'm happy," he added, "with the way the testimony is going."
Defense Attorney Susan BetzJitomir had a different take on the progress of the case.
She said the prosecution's case against Trappler is largely based on the word of Nathan Hand, who has given what she described as often-changing accounts of that night. Hand's testimony, she said, is "worthless."
When asked about text messages Fazzary mentioned in his opening statement Friday that were sent between Borden's phone and Trappler's, BetzJitomir shook her head.
"The text messages aren't damaging," she said. "Besides, they might not even get in, since they are basically hearsay. Besides, we know (from Catharine Young's testimony) that Nate (Hand) was using Thomas Borden's phone" (on the night of the murder, when he called his girlfriend around midnight to say he and Borden would be returning home soon).
"This is really an interesting case," she said. "You can't make this stuff up."
Alice Trappler, she said, "wasn't involved. I think I can prove it in the first two minutes of my closing. I know that might be a little bold, but I really think I can prove it."
Testimony resumes today (Tuesday) at 9:30 a.m. The trial will continue through Thursday, then take Friday off due to Drug Court using the courtroom. Then the trial will run five days the following week.
Photos in text:
Top: Defendant Alice Trappler, left, and her attorney, Susan BetzJitomir, after court Monday.
Middle: District Attorney Joe Fazzary, left, leaves court Monday with State Police Investigator Lee Stonebraker.
Bottom: Defense attorney Susan BetzJitomir is interviewed after Monday's session.
The Story from Day 1 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 11 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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