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Day 8: The prosecution rests
3 witnesses, audio recording wrap up Fazzary's case
WATKINS GLEN, May 2 -- "The people rest, your honor," District Attorney Joe Fazzary announced early Wednesday afternoon in Schuyler County Court in the murder trial of Alice Trappler -- the conclusion to a case that was laid out by the DA across eight days and featured dozens of witnesses and more than 250 items entered in evidence.
Wednesday's session was the shortest thus far, terminated shortly after noon following the appearance of three witnesses and the airing of an hour-long collection of recordings featuring Trappler talking to her mother and father in more than two-dozen conversations taking place a year ago, shortly after the defendant was incarcerated in the Chemung County Jail. That is where she has been residing since because Schuyler County lacks facilities for female inmates.
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 death of Daniel 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 Tuesday.
With the conclusion of his case, Fazzary had little to say to the media, other than "I got all my evidence in. I'm pleased with the way it went. Now it goes to the defense, and hopefully to the jury next week."
Defense Attorney Susan BetzJitomir opens her case this morning (Thursday), and expects it to go for two days, culminating in an appearance on the stand by Trappler. Should testimony wrap up Friday, closing arguments would likely be Monday, with the 10-man, 2-woman jury deliberating afterward.
The witnesses Wednesday included:
1. Erica Raner of Corning, a 21-year-old who works at Pudgies Pizza and has known Nathan Hand for years, because Hand resided in an apartment owned by Raner's father. She said she knew Wes Borden, too, since he lived with Hand for a couple of months before the Bennett murder.
Raner was called to the stand to clarify that her old cell phone was the one that contained a seemingly mystery phone number that popped up from time to time in the phone logs and text messages entered into evidence by the prosecution. That phone number, 607-661-2339, was "referenced," Fazzary noted, in text messages with Borden on the night of the murder -- texts that referred to Lando's and the 2339 owner's expectation of meeting Borden there. Lando's is a Corning night club..
That meeting didn't happen that night, said Raner, because she could never get Hand and Borden to go there. "It was me trying one more time to get them there," she said. "They didn't want to."
Even so, after she texted Borden, saying "Almost to Lando's," he responded -- after she had arrived -- that he was "out back." But Raner said that since she had to pay to get in the place that night, she wasn't about to go outside and see if Borden was there and have to pay to enter again.
Her number had also come up in a text message telling Borden to "put my stuff in a bag" and leave it in his room. That, said Raner, was sent because she had used Hand's washer and dryer "and I left my clothes in" the dryer. And the number surfaced again after the murder in reference to a message Borden sent asking that his "stuff" be put in storage -- which Raner said she did for him, although "I had to take a TV and TV stand back to Rent-a-Center."
"Did you have anything to do with the murder of Daniel Bennett?" she was asked by Fazzary.
"No," she said.
"Did you even know Daniel Bennett?"
"Did you even know Alice Trappler?"
"No," said Raner. "This is actually my first time seeing her."
2. Joseph C. Trappler, the father of Alice Trappler. Since he had been resistant toward authorities investigating the Bennett murder -- "You don't want anything bad to happen to your daughter, correct?" Fazzary said -- and had declined to meet Fazzary in the DA's office before the trial, he was deemed a hostile witness by Judge Dennis Morris.
Accordingly, Fazzary verbally hammered at him on a couple of occasions when the elder Trappler gave answers that veered from what he had said in an earlier grand jury appearance.
After reviewing Alice Trappler's history, including the birth of her daughter, Lily, in November 2011, and the paternity battle in which she was engaged with Bennett -- Lily's father -- Fazzary asked the witness if the defendant was "extra nervous, anxious" as an April 20, 2012 hearing approached in Steuben County Family Court. "Yes," answered the witness. That hearing has been touted by the prosecution as a motive in the murder.
The elder Trappler also said he had known Brett Bacon, Alice Trappler's lover after her relationship with Bennett had ended -- had in fact met Bacon years earlier. Bacon, he added, often helped out at Alice's goat ranch in the Town of Addison. It was in the months before the murder that Bacon, by his own testimony, provided a .12-gauge Mossberg shotgun to Alice for protection. That was the weapon ultimately used by Borden to kill Daniel Bennett.
When Fazzary asked Mr. Trappler if the defendant, while she was in Chemung County Jail shortly after her arrest, had asked him "to meet with a potential witness" -- Bacon.
"Yes," said Mr. Trappler. "She suggested we go and see how he was doing."
"Really?" Fazzary said loudly, striding away from the lecturn both attorneys normally use as their base of operations when questioning witnesses. "She didn't ask you to 'calm him down, quell his fears'?" After a moment, the witness answered that he had been asked to do that, adding: "She was concerned about Brett. He was a ... good friend."
"So," said Fazzary, his voice still raised, "you had to go 'quell the fears" of a good friend. Is that what you're telling the jury?"
"Yes," said Mr. Trappler.
"It was urgent that you go to see him, true?" asked Fazzary.
"Yes, that's correct."
Fazzary then played part of a phone conversation between Alice Trappler and her father, recorded a year ago in Chemung County Jail. It contained the reference to "quelling the fear" of a potential witness who the defendant said "is fearful to the max, I'm sure." It was clear within the context of that and other messages that she was referring to Bacon -- a fact confirmed on the stand by Mr. Trappler.
"Your daughter was telling you to go find Brett Bacon, to calm him down, 'quell his fears,'" said Fazzary. "It didn't have anything to do with the goat ranch, did it?"
"That particular time," said the witness, "all of us were scared."
"That's not what I asked," said Fazzary.
"I need to express myself," Mr. Trappler said.
"You must answer the question put to you," said Fazzary, agitated. "Not express yourself to the jury."
The witness agreed. "I will," he said.
"It had nothing to do with the goat ranch, correct?" said Fazzary.
"I believe so, yes," the witness said ambiguously, adding that part of the suggested visit to Bacon was "just to calm him down. He was afraid to go anywhere."
"Are you telling me he needed to go to the goat ranch?" asked Fazzary.
"You know, I can't remember, sir."
When BetzJitomir reached the lecturn for cross examination, Mr. Trappler smiled and said, "I'm glad to see a smiling face."
At her prodding, he told how "we were all afraid at that time ... with the scenario going on."
He said he knew Daniel Bennett before Bennett dated his daughter -- and had employed Bennett as a combine operator on his farm. He had no particular feeling when he found out Alice was dating Bennett, he added.
BetzJitomir elicited from him that Alice Trappler had dealt with other Family Court hearings over the years -- had overseen two of Borden's children for several years. "Did she tend to get nervous before court dates?" he was asked. "Yes," he responded. "It was visible."
"At the time Alice was asking you to talk to Brett (Bacon)," the attorney asked, "were you aware the gun Brett gave Alice might have been the murder weapon?"
"No," said the witness.
BetzJitomir referred to a statement that Mr. Trappler had made regarding his offer of a gun to his daughter. She had rejected the offer, saying she already had one.
"Why do you think she needed a shotgun?" the attorney asked.
Mr. Trappler said there had been damage done to a door and a window at the goat ranch, and he pointed to the fact of her pregnancy during that period. "My suggestion was she needed security."
3. Joseph Kelly, a New York State Police investigator out of the Horseheads barracks who patrols Schuyler County and was assigned to the Daniel Bennett murder case.
He said he interviewed Alice Trappler at her mother's home in Rathbone about 4:30 a.m. on April 20, the morning after the Bennett murder. The defendant was staying there, at her mother's home, along with baby Lily. Trappler was not, at that point, considered part of the murder, Kelly said, but authorities knew she was a former girlfriend of Bennett's "and had a child in common" with him.
Kelly said there was a pistol in plain sight in that residence, and that he asked Trappler if she had any "long guns," or rifles, "and she said she did not." When asked if someone might have killed Bennett "on her behalf without her knowledge," Kelly said, she answered in the negative and said that she "was not in a relationship and had no boyfriend."
She also wrote out a schedule of where she had been on the day of the murder. The list checked out, Kelly said.
BetzJitomir pressed him on whether he had asked Trappler if she "owned" or "had" any long guns, and Kelly said "had."
"Did you ask if any were in her possession?" she asked.
"The inference was if she had access to long guns," Kelly responded.
"Did you ask (specifically) if she had access to long guns?" BetzJitomir asked.
"No," he answered.
Kelly also said he was the investigator to whom Thomas Wesley Borden confessed to the killing of Daniel Bennett. Kelly said he had interviewed Borden's stepbrother, Nathan Hand, and had left a business card with his phone number on it, asking Hand to pass the number along to Borden when he next spoke to him.
Borden called early on the morning of April 23, he said -- the day upon which Borden would die.
Kelly said the call came in on his cell phone at 1:20 a.m. He asked Borden how he was doing, and Borden answered: "Not very good." Kelly suggested they get together to talk about it.
"That will probably never happen," said Borden, adding that he knew Kelly had talked to Hand.
"What he said was all bullshit," Borden told Kelly. "I acted alone."
The audio recordings
The disc containing recordings of conversations Alice Trappler had with her mother and father after she had been incarcerated in the Chemung County Jail in April 2012 was used by Fazzary as his final dose of evidence in the case -- excerpts from more than two dozen calls over a period running from April 27 to May 20. It took an hour to play in court Wednesday, and since some of the conversation on Trapplers' parents' end was often difficult to understand, the jury was handed transcripts with which to follow along.
Said Judge Morris to the jury: "The tape itself -- the CD actually -- is the evidence. The papers (transcript sheets) are not going into evidence. This is only to assist you in listening to these tapes."
Among the excerpts was a pattern of conversation showing Trappler repeatedly seeking a chance to talk to Brett Bacon, although there were other entries, such as an early one in which her mother had told her she and Alice's father would be visiting the jail that day.
Alice: Okay. Who's watching Lily?
Mom: Well, that's just it. Can she come?
Alice: She can't come in, no.
Mom: She can't? Okay, maybe I'll just leave Dad home and I'll come in.
Mom: He's been up here every day. He's been great.
Alice: I'm so glad, Mom.
Mom: So maybe I'll leave her home, and I'll just go do what I gotta do.
Alice: She can't come. (Voice quavering) I can't touch her anyway. I don't want her to come.
The thrust of the selections, though, dealt with Alice trying to get her parents to contact Brett Bacon because she wanted to talk to him.
In one, she said:
"I need to go through some things with Brett that I know he'll do for me at the goat ranch -- things that, you know, he's capable of. I need to have that conversation with him."
In another, she said:
"I know that someone is probably scared, and I can't ... stress enough how important it is that I talk to him about a couple of things that need to be done at the goat ranch...Do you think Dad would go and see him and tell him that there is no reason why he can't come and see me for my birthday, maybe, tomorrow night... I can't stress to you enough how much I would like to see him for my birthday."
"One of the things that I need to stress is that they are now going back and re-interviewing everybody, and still gathering evidence, and still trying to get things. Do you know what I mean? I know certain people are fidgety and nervous. They are probably scared, and I am very, very fearful that they will be pressured, and be told things ... My great apprehension ... is ... this person is going to be shown, told things, threatened and therefore coerced into saying things that are way out of the realm. I can't stress to you enough how much a calm-down visit is needed to this person. It could be my demise if that doesn't happen. Do you understand? It has to happen."
"I just met with the attorney, and I want to shout and scream right now, and tell you I told you so. Brett Bacon made a statement and is fully cooperating with the Schuyler County prosecutor, saying ... something about some weapon, and is cooperating fully with them. So I feel like they pressured him and threatened him, and I told you so."
In another, there was give and take between Alice and her mother:
Mom: I know what they found in your house and they got nothing.
Mom: They found an old .20 gauge that hadn't been shot in years. That's nothing.
Alice: My attorney doesn't believe this, but Fazzary, the prosecutor for Schuyler County, is saying they have the murder weapon.
Mom: Well, good for them. It doesn't mean it has anything to do with you.
Alice: That's where they are saying Brett Bacon comes in.
Mom: Well, I really believe they got nothing.
After the court session was over, BetzJitomir addressed the issue of Brett Bacon and the murder weapon -- a .12-gauge shotgun that had belonged to him and which he had given to Alice Trappler for protection.
Trappler, said BetzJitomir, "shall testify that she went to the ranch and noticed the Mossberg (the murder weapon) was missing." After she had been jailed, "she was frantic to talk to Brett Bacon to see whether he took it. Remember it was illegal because it was sawed off. Also, Brett Bacon was her boyfriend. She wanted him to know their relationship was okay. She's gonna explain it.
"I see why (law enforcement) thought what they thought, but anybody in that situation would be frantic. Sitting in jail, 24/7, things go through your head."
Her defense strategy, she said, will also include witnesses "who need to explain where we were at in Family Court," a place where change often takes place slowly. "It's a long process. There was no danger of custody or visitation (for Daniel Bennett) that next day," at a scheduled hearing on April 20, 2012. "(Trappler) had custody experience before; she knew nothing was going to change the next day. We'll have witnesses to verify that" -- which would bolster a contention that the hearing provided no murder motive.
And she said the defense would address Trappler's "my demise" statement uttered in the jailhouse recordings. BetzJitomir in her opening statement had alluded to Trappler's tendency toward flowery language. Now, she said, after hearing an example of that language on the recording, "I wrote her a note. I called her a drama queen."
Photos in text:
Top: Defendant Alice Trappler is led back to jail after Wednesday's court session.
Second: District Attorney Joe Fazzary after completing the prosecution's case.
Third: Defense attorney Susan BetzJitomir speaks to the media Wednesday.
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 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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