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Day 9: Trappler on the stand
After 9 defense witnesses, the defendant gets a chance to tell her side of the story
WATKINS GLEN, May 3 -- Alice Trappler took the stand in her own defense Thursday afternoon as her murder trial neared its conclusion in Schuyler County Court. She testified for about an hour at the end of the day, and will resume this morning.
Her testimony came after nine other witnesses took the stand in the first day of defense attorney Susan BetzJitomir's presentation of her case. Among the witnesses was Trappler's mother, Wilma.
At day's end, District Attorney Joe Fazzary said he was pleased, and looking forward to a cross-examination in which he will have "my opportunity to ask questions I've wanted to ask for the last year."
BetzJitomir said it was "a good day. The witnesses said what we needed them to say."
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.
The witnesses Thursday, in order of appearance, were:
1. Nancy Peters of 2992 Pearl St., Town of Dix, a neighbor of the Bennetts. She said that on the night of the murder she heard one door slam shut in a vehicle in front of her residence, not two doors, and that the vehicle -- with a loud exhaust -- then drove away.
District Attorney Joe Fazzary asked Peters if she might have heard two doors slam simultaneously. "It's possible, I guess," she answered. "(But) I heard one sound."
Fazzary also suggested that Peters, who said she was watching TV with her husband, might not have been paying attention to what was going on outside, and was probably talking to her husband, too.
"No, probably not," she said. "Watching TV, though."
2. Mike Buck, an excavator and trucker. He knew Alice Trappler through her father and was "asked (by Trappler) to put my name on a birth certificate as father" of Lily.
"I said I'd think about it," he said. "If we could work things out between us, I'd consider it."
"Did it work out?" BetzJitomir asked.
"No," said Buck.
"Have I got this right?" Fazzary asked on cross-examination. "Were you involved with Alice Trappler?"
"Not involved," said Buck, "just friends. We never dated ... never did anything. Just real good friends."
Fazzary wondered what, if anything, would have prompted Buck to sign the certificate.
"If we dated and been what a couple should've been," Buck responded.
So, said Fazzary, "Alice Trappler was asking you to lie for her."
"Not in my opinion," said Buck, explaining that if he was "going to be with her, I could be the father of the child."
3. Gary Sherwood, a supervisor and co-worker of Trappler's at Doug Gross Construction in Painted Post. He testified under questioning from BetzJitomir that he never saw the defendant with a gun, but did see Brett Bacon, Trappler's on again, off again lover, shooting a Browning shotgun at a game club. Asked Fazzary on cross-examination: "Was the gun you saw at some club, at some time, a sawed-off shotgun with two grips?" Answered Sherwood: "Absolutely not."
4. Travis Barry, an attorney. He is Guardian ad Litem for Trappler's child, Lily, court-appointed to represent her best interests. He testified that the court hearing set for April 20, 2012 involving Trappler and Bennett -- touted by the prosecution as a motive for murder -- was in fact being held "to determine whether a Family Court judge would order DNA testing to determine if Daniel Bennett was the father" of Lily. It was not being held for visitation rights and not for custody.
"This was the first step in the process," Barry said. If testing were approved and Bennett was determined to be the father, another hearing would determine if he would be designated the legal father. If he were, then a third hearing would be held to determine visitation.
When asked by BetzJitomir if Trappler understood this -- that the hearing wasn't about visitation or custody -- he said "I believe she did." He also said he knew that Trappler had someone in her life -- it turned out to be her ex-husband, Borden -- who had signed an "Acknowledgment of Paternity" as a person "willing to play the father role." He would, as such, be able to step into the picture, potentially as the legally designated father, should Bennett's attempt at establishing paternity be turned aside by the court.
Fazzary, on cross-examination, asked Barry if the April 20, 2012 hearing wasn't "a pretty big step."
"It's a first step," said Barry.
4. Sally Madigan, an attorney assigned to custody cases. She knows Trappler through meeting with her on and off over the years in custody cases involving Thomas Borden's daughters Chastity and Autumn, who Trappler helped raise for several years. She was asked if Trappler in previous hearings had exhibited apprehension.
"I think she was appropriately nervous," said Madigan. "It's a normal response to the Family Court process."
Asked if she had ever seen Daniel Bennett, Madigan said "once. It was outside the courthouse. I had seen Alice there, and we were chatting. He walked behind her."
"What was her demeanor?" asked BetzJitomir.
"She appeared to be scared," said Madigan.
5. Ed Merritt, a Philadelphia police officer assigned to the Homeland Security unit. He has land in Steuben County, near Trappler's goat ranch. She is, he said, "a good friend and neighbor." Merritt and his wife also own a landscaping business in Philadelphia. Through discussion with Trappler, her love of landscaping -- she worked for Doug Gross Construction in that capacity -- led to a decision whereby Merritt, his wife and Trappler would establish a landscaping business in the Southern Tier. Papers were being drawn up at the time of the murder of Daniel Bennett.
Fazzary's cross-examination was brief and to the point.
"You don't have any first-hand knowledge about the murder of Daniel Bennett, do you?" he asked.
"No, counselor," said Merritt.
Fazzary turned away, saying: "Thanks for coming from Philadelphia."
6. Thomas J. Gehl, a New York State Senior Investigator out of Canandaigua, where he supervises the forensic identification unit. His testimony had to do with paperwork filed with the Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office, which conducted the autopsy of Daniel Bennett. Gehl felt that information on Bennett provided by the Schuyler County Sheriff's Office was slightly lacking when compared to information normally provided in such cases by State Police. He had "concerns about the level of detail."
Said Fazzary on cross: "How much did they really need other than to know Dan Bennett's head had been blown off?"
7. Alfred Horton, a friend of Trappler's who first met her in the 7th grade and, after not seeing her for 25 years, re-established a friendship. They were not "involved, just friends," he said. He said he met Daniel Bennett when Bennett joined Precision Drilling in Horseheads, where Horton worked. His first meeting with Bennett, he said, "was not a good result." He said they were introduced, and chatted, but that Bennett became "very aggressive ... verbally" when he found out Horton knew and was a friend of Trappler. The conversation, he added, "turned from halfway friendly to exceedingly bitter in about two seconds. We kind of stayed away from each other after that."
"Did you tell Alice about (the incident)?" BetzJitomir asked.
"No," he said, adding that he had been planning to attend the April 20, 2012 court hearing to testify on Trappler's behalf "on the basis of (Bennett's) character and demeanor."
On cross, Fazzary asked Horton how he would feel "if someone was trying to keep you away from your child?"
"I wouldn't be happy about it," said Horton, "but we have a court system for that."
8. Wilma Trappler, the mother of Alice Trappler, who among other things is a Licensed Practical Nurse. She was asked if she had noticed any injury in recent years sustained by her daughter.
"Yes," she said, "a bruise on the lower back, in the tailbone area. She was walking poorly."
She said she had also noticed on occasion several things "not as they should be" at the goat ranch in 2011 -- "broken coffee cups on the floor, a room in disarray, things knocked off a bureau." There was also a broken door window and a broken hatch on the garage. When she asked her daughter about such things, she said, Alice told her: "Mom, you don't want to know."
Eventually, with such incidents as contributing factors, Alice went to live with her mother.
On cross examination, Fazzary asked Wilma Trappler if her daughter had been "very distraught" over the April 20, 2012 hearing as it approached.
"Somewhat," she answered.
"Somewhat?" echoed Fazzary. "Just somewhat?"
"That's what I said."
"Was somebody helping her with the (court) case?" the DA asked.
"You're referring to Wes," said the witness, meaning Borden. She added that Alice had "talked to him. They talked about it."
"Did your husband know they were working together?" Fazzary asked.
"I don't know," said Wilma Trappler.
"Didn't Alice tell you not to tell your husband?" asked Fazzary.
"I don't recall," she responded.
"Did you want him to know?" the DA pressed on.
"I didn't think it was a big deal," said Wilma.
Fazzary asked if Alice had sent Wilma a text message urging her not to tell Alice's father.
"I don't recall that."
When the DA located a sheaf of papers detailing text messages -- which had been entered into evidence earlier in the trial -- and showed her one, and asked if it was "sent to you by your daughter,' she responded: "I don't recall it exactly, but according to that it is."
9. Christine Valkenburgh, an attorney practicing general law, real estate law and Family Court matters. She represented Alice Trappler in "several family court matters regarding a paternity case" involving Daniel Bennett. She detailed how she had needed subpoenas to go out as the hearing neared, since some people who had promised to testify on Trappler's behalf were backing out. Subpoenas that day were being taken to Jill May Dann, Bennett's mother, and Frank Bennett, his father.
There was give and take between competing counsels over admissible evidence and questions pertaining to who picked up the subpoena for delivery to Frank Bennett, although the testimony, finally, seemed to indicate it was Borden.
On cross, Fazzary asked Valkenburgh if, with witnesses backing out of the April 20 court hearing, the defendant was "stressed."
"I don't know," she said.
"April 20th was a very important day, wasn't it?" he asked.
"That's why she asked me to assist her," Valkenburgh responded.
Alice Trappler's Testimony
Finally, with but an hour left in the day's court session, Alice Trappler was called to the stand -- actually twice. When Judge Morris came out to the bench, and nodded toward a deputy posted outside the jury room -- a sign to let the jurors enter the courtroom for a resumption of the case -- BetzJitomir intoned: "Your honor, I call Alice Trappler to the stand," only to realize the jury had not yet entered.
Finally, after the jurors had filed in and found their seats, she repeated: "Your honor, I call Alice Trappler."
Trappler was sworn in, and made her way to the stand. She was wearing a white sweater over a red checkered shirt, and she was sitting upright, poised. In front of her were -- besides the jury and court officials -- a spectator gallery that had swelled to more than 60 people. Word of an important witness draws a crowd.
Asked her age, she responded: "Forty-one today."
She was asked to relate how she had met Thomas Wesley Borden, and then more about their relationship. It boiled down to this.
Borden worked for her brother's logging company and at the family dairy farm when they met in early 2002. They started dating quickly, and got married in August 2002, a marriage that lasted four years. They lived in Philadelphia, where the mother of Borden's two daughters, Chastity and Autumn, resided. Trappler and Borden separated in 2005, and then divorced. While Alice and Thomas were married, Chastity and Autumn -- who had been staying with "their mother's boyfriend's grandmother" -- came to live with them full time in 2003. After she and Borden parted ways, the children continued to stay with Trappler. She looked after them for a total of "approximately four years, maybe five." Then they were returned to their mother.
"Were you happy about that?" BetzJitomir asked.
"Not at all," said Trappler.
BetzJitomir alluded to testimony that said Trappler had called the children's mother "a crack whore," but Trappler said "I don't remember using 'crack whore.' I probably said something like 'welfare rat.'"
Borden was not always with her to help raise the children, "disappearing" for a couple of years. Then he "started gradually coming back to their life." During this period there were custody hearings, and she ultimately ended up with joint custody of the two girls, which she said she thinks she still has. "The last I knew, yes," she said. "But I don't want them coming to the jail at all."
Trappler was asked by BetzJitomir about her relationship with Brett Bacon. She said she had known him years ago because he "lived with my family growing up. He was a friend of one of my brothers, and worked at (our) farm. That was probably 23 years ago."
When asked why he lived with the family, she said the farm was "a catch-all for my brothers' friends. They'd work the farm, go to BOCES together. It was not uncommon." Years later, after she started working at Doug Gross Construction in Painted Post -- where Bacon worked -- the romance blossomed.
Before that relationship, though, was the one with Daniel Bennett, a man she said she "met online" not long after she moved back to Steuben County from Philadelphia. "We talked online," she said, and decided to meet. They knew each other "a week probably" before "a romantic relationship began." It lasted several months, on and off. He would stay weekends at the goat ranch -- a ramshackle place that was more of a camp than a home and which, at first, had no plumbing, although a renovation corrected that oversight.
After she knew she was pregnant, Trappler said, she awakened early one morning between 5:30 and 6. "I don't know why," she said, "but Dan woke up angry ... loud," making verbal accusations. "Things progressed to him shoving things around, busting things," and then to "a verbal argument. He called me a lot of names. I wanted to leave ... he pushed my head and face into a pillow and kept calling me terrible things." But she got free, reached her car and left the property. A safe distance away, she called police "and asked for their assistance. This was a place I didn't want to be."
She said that was one of three times in which Bennett had gotten physically abusive with her. On one occasion, she said, she was "injured, where I was sore and bruised." She didn't seek medical attention, but said her mother noticed the bruising. After the last incident, she got an order of protection.
On the matter of guns, she said she ordered one, a .22 caliber Ruger pistol, from a gun shop in Knoxville, Pa. in 2011. Before that, Brett Bacon had "loaned me, offered me, a .20 gauge long gun." And he eventually presented her with a .12 gauge "short shotgun," ultimately the weapon that was used to murder Bennett.
"Did you ask for it?" she was asked.
"No," she said.
She eventually decided to move to her mother's house not long before Lily was born. One reason: "The (goat ranch) house wasn't livable in time for her arrival. It was fine for camping, but I didn't feel it was appropriate for a baby." Trappler at first had the guns at her mother's, but what with visits by Borden's two daughters and the pending arrival of her baby, Trappler said she moved the shotguns to the goat ranch.
"Did there come a time when you noticed (the .12 gauge) was missing?" she was asked by BetzJitomir.
"Before or after the murder?"
"After. I still had goats and cats" on the goat ranch, and would "go to change the litter pan. I did this the Monday after Dan Bennett was shot and killed. I noticed it was no longer in the corner with the other one," the .20 gauge.
"Before you were arrested," her attorney said, "did you know what had happened to that gun?"
BetzJitomir referred to audio tapes of phone conversations Trappler had with her parents while incarcerated in the Chemung County Jail shortly after her arrest. Several conversations showed the defendant anxious to speak to Brett Bacon -- urging her parents to arrange a talk.
"Did that have anything to do with that shotgun?" BetzJitomir asked.
"Absolutely," said Trappler, explaining that she wasn't sure it was "a lawful weapon."
"I didn't know if he had come and gotten it or if something else had happened to it," she said. In addition, someone with whom she had had a relationship "was shot. I had a possibly unlawful weapon. Brett had full access to the ranch and could've gotten it. But I was concerned someone else might have taken it
"After everything that happened and what happened at the train" -- a reference to Borden's death; and here she choked back a sob -- "I reasonably thought (Borden) might have taken it."
Why did she think that?
"Because he knew where it was; I had told him."
BetzJitomir asked Trappler if she and Borden had ever talked about the children, Chastity and Autumn.
"Always," she said, the subjects being "their school, their health, their safety." It was on the basis of that safety, she said, that she moved the guns to the ranch.
"The location of the firearms was part of the safety conversation with Mr. Borden?" she was asked.
When asked about the Acknowledgment of Paternity document signed by Borden, she said she saw nothing wrong with it; that they had followed instructions on the back of it.
She was then asked if she had been seeing Brett Bacon in the time leading to the April 20th hearing.
"And Thomas Borden?"
That "wasn't more than friendship."
"Were you intending to get back with Thomas Borden?"
"No," said Trappler, "not at that time. We had discussed the possibility before," but "he was seeing other people."
Trappler further testified that she had seen the subpoenas for Jill Dann and Frank Bennett handed to Borden in the office of Attorney Christine Valkenburgh by an office worker named Carol. Borden, she said, was going to serve them.
But serving Frank Bennett posed a potential problem, she said, because she knew Daniel was living with his father. If Daniel was there when the subpoena was served, a fight might result. "Dan was a fighter," she said, and Borden would probably fight if so engaged. To pin down Daniel Bennett's whereabouts, she said, she contacted Jeff Besley, a Bennett friend, and learned from Besley that Bennett had been fishing -- although that later proved untrue. However, she texted the message to Borden, she said -- one of many texts attributed to her in the prosecution's evidence.
Later that day -- which was the day of the murder -- Trappler said she was in contact with Borden in the evening. He had texted her, telling her to call him, and so she did. She was still concerned, she said, about a run-in between Bennett and Borden, and "called him off," telling him not to serve the subpoena. "I told him to go home and not serve it."
Another text shows her saying to Borden that they should stop texting because "towers traceable?"
That, she said, was in response to a conversation she had had with Borden, "to something he said. He said ..."
Here Fazzary objected, one of several objections with which he had peppered BetzJitomir's direct examination.
Moments later, Judge Morris, after a sidebar, ended the day's session.
Photos in text:
Top: Defendant Alice Trappler is led back to jail after Thursday's court session.
Second: District Attorney Joe Fazzary heading back to his office after court Thursday
Third: Defense attorney Susan BetzJitomir speaks to the media Thursday.
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 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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