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Testimony begins in retrial in Tama cold case disappearance (photos)

TOLEDO – Cora Okonski’s neighbor Monday took the stand for the second time as the retrial started for Tait O. Purk in connection with Okonski’s 2000 disappearance in Tama.

Neighbor Ricky Jo Sanchez told the court Okonski, then 23, had been arguing with Purk, Okonski’s fiancé, on April 16, 2000, and was afraid of him.

“She was very frightened. She had asked me to leave the windows open, she had asked me to keep an eye on the house. She said if I heard any screaming to call police right away, that she thought Tait might kill her,” said Sanchez. She said she made up an excuse about borrowing a vacuum to enter the home Purk and Okonski shared and later walked with her dog past the house.

She didn’t notice anything unusual that night, but Okonski wasn’t home the following day.

Okonski disappeared that night in April 2000, and Purk would later tell police she left for the store to buy cigarettes and never returned. Okonski’s remains have never been found. Authorities argue she is dead because she never sought to reunite with her young child or claim disability benefits she had been receiving.

A grand jury indicted Purk, now 51, on a charge of first-degree murder in 2016. A jury found him guilty following his first trial in May. A former cellmate testified Purk confessed to killing Okonski with a “choke slam,” hiding her body in a bathroom closet overnight and then burying her in a remote location.

Judge Mitchell Turner, who presided over the first trial, overturned the verdict in August and ordered a new trial, ruling the jury’s verdict was contrary to the evidence. Purk waived his right to a jury for the retrial, and the case was assigned to Judge Ian Thornhill for a bench trial.

During opening arguments Monday, Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren said Purk is behind Okonski’s death.

“There is only one truth in this case, and the state’s position is that the one truth is Tait Purk murdered his fiance, Cora Okonski. She is dead. This is not a case about a missing person or anything like that, this is a case about murder,” Heeren said.

Defense attorney Aaron Siebrecht called the allegations in Heeren’s opening statements “made up” and called the state’s case “speculation and conjecture about a man who is universally disliked, especially by a sheriff who decided to revive a closed missing person’s case and has transformed it to what it is today — an expensive, frivolous wild goose chase.”

He characterized Okonski as a rolling stone who moved from Chicago to Tama and then returned to Chicago. He said she had been planning to attend a 4-20 party — a drug festival in an Illinois field scheduled for April 20 — and had been spotted after her disappearance.

Siebrecht also said the father of Okonski’s child wanted her back in Chicago and had made threats against her and Purk. He noted Purk was the only person to report Okonski missing.

State health plans shift costs from state to its workers



DES MOINES — Thousands of state employees, many no longer allowed to bargain collectively for benefits, could face higher health-care costs starting Jan. 1 under a plan that provides sizable savings to the state.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services say they are unable to calculate the total cost of the 2018 state employees’ group insurance program through Wellmark until after enrollment ends Nov. 17.

But a preliminary analysis of executive branch employees indicates the state would save $20.5 million while costs for 18,789 workers would go up at least $11.7 million. The annual cost of the contract is estimated at $312.8 million, nearly $9 million less than now.

The numbers supplied by the state’s Department of Management do not include regent system employees, retirees, public safety officers still covered under collective bargaining and two smaller classifications that likely will push the overall employee cost share higher. There are about 5,800 regents merit-covered employees and about 4,600 retirees in the 2017 plan year. Retirees bear the full cost of premiums.

“It’s going to be a significant cost shift,” said Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, the state’s largest public-sector union.

He noted the 2018 plan redesign replaces five insurance options with two. It could mean much higher premiums and out-of-pocket costs for workers who got a 1 percent raise.

“It’s atrocious,” he added. “They’re trying to balance their budget on the backs of hardworking men and women.”

Higher premiums

Figures from Administrative Services show full-time AFSCME state employees covered under the least expensive option now pay $20 a month for either a single or family plan. That will go to $40 per month under the single rate or $150 per family for the Iowa Choice option; or $93 a month for single coverage and $273 per family under the National Choice option.

Currently, employees can choose more expensive plans with better benefits — ranging up to $335 a month. So it’s possible that despite the overall cost increase, some could see premiums drop if they move from the most expensive family plan in 2017 to either family plan in 2018.

Under both Wellmark options, there would be a $250 deductible for single coverage and $500 for family coverage. Copays for visits to a primary care provider would be $15 or $30 for specialists. Out-of-pocket expenses would be capped at $1,000 for single coverage and $2,000 for families.

While the plans mark a substantial cost increase to many, the premium rates are far less than what the average Iowan pays for health insurance offered through the workplace.

A 2016 employer benefits study by D.P. Lind Benchmark, a research firm in Clive, found average annual employee contributions in Iowa were $1,112 for a single plan and $4,840 for a family plan.

Under the new rates, state employees would annually pay between $480 for the cheapest single plan and $3,276 for the costliest family plan.

In past years, when public employees were allowed to bargain for salary as well as benefits, many chose to forgo larger salary increases to avoid higher premiums.

Administrative Services Director Janet Phipps said state officials did not ask Wellmark Blue Cross-Blue Shield to “re-price” the current group plan because they were looking for a new design with two options — Iowa Choice, an HMO offering access to providers in Iowa and contiguous counties, and National Choice, a preferred-provider organization with a wider provider network.

“Every employee is going to be offered the opportunity to sign up for health insurance,” Phipps said.

Republicans United

Republicans on the Iowa Executive Council — Gov. Kim Reynolds, State Auditor Mary Mosiman, Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate — approved the new design. But State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, the lone Democrat, voted against it.

“The state is offering a lot less,” he said. “There’s absolutely no say for employees. This is really, ‘Here’s what you get.’ It’s take it or leave it — Hobson’s choice. There’s no input from the other side. No consideration at all. I think it’s unfair.”

But Reynolds, according to a spokeswoman, “supports the change as it’s a step in the right direction of having shared cost responsibility between employer and employee on behalf of Iowa taxpayers.”

Up until February, employee fringe benefits such as health insurance were covered under a collective bargaining law that dated to the 1970s. Former Gov. Terry Branstad repeatedly demanded that state employees pay a greater share of their health insurance costs, but his efforts were thwarted by binding arbitration rulings that favored union workers’ bargaining positions that often sacrificed higher wages to keep their health costs down.

During the 2017 legislative session, majority Republicans in the House and Senate revamped the collective bargaining law to remove health insurance and other benefits as subjects for negotiations — except for the State Police Officers Council, whose roughly 600 members still bargain with the state over benefits.

Last month, a Polk County judge upheld the 2017 collective bargaining law rewrite. AFSCME officials are deciding whether to appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Currently, it costs $521.9 million to cover 29,854 public employees through Dec. 31, with the state’s share estimated at $496.8 million and the employees’ share at nearly $25.1 million.

James Q. Lynch of The Gazette contributed to this report.

UPDATE WITH PICTURE Independence woman charged with killing ex-husband

INDEPENDENCE — An Independence woman accused of killing her ex-husband planned out the attack Monday, according to court records.

Prosecutors allege 32-year-old Hillary Lee Hunziker told medics she bought a knife from Wal-Mart, wore special black boots so she could walk quietly and parked down the road from Jason Allen Hunziker’s home before entering through an unlocked door.

On the night before the attack, she also allegedly gave her mother instructions on what to do with her child should anything happen to her or her ex-husband, court records states.

Buchanan County sheriff’s deputies were alerted to the crime when her child called 911 and declared “My mom just stabbed my dad” about 4:34 a.m. Monday.

A second 911 call came moments later from Jason Hunziker.

“My wife just stabbed me and took my child,” he told dispatchers, according to court records.

When deputies arrived at his home at 1933 Henley Ave., they found Jason Hunziker dead in the bedroom with knife wounds to his left arm and left calf. There also was blood on the doorway and on the kitchen floor.

Hillary Hunziker wasn’t at the home, but authorities later located her in Robins in Linn County. She and the child were covered in blood, court records state, and she had a knife on her person and told officers there were other knives and razors on her person and in her vehicle, records state. Her vehicle also contained blood inside and out.

Buchanan County Attorney Shawn Harden said in court records Hillary Hunziker admitted to stabbing her ex-husband.

Hillary Hunziker had a cut on her own hand, and she was transported to a hospital for treatment, records state.

During the investigation, authorities discovered about 6 a.m. Monday, less than two hours after the attack, Hillary Hunziker called her mother and told her to carry out her instructions. When her mother asked what had happened, she responded only “artery.”

Hillary Hunziker was arrested for one count of first-degree murder and is currently in the Buchanan County Jail.

Hillary Hunziker was living in a mobile home on First Avenue in Independence at the time, according to court records. Earlier this year, she listed an address on Juniper Lane in Robins, records state.

The divorce proceedings began in 2011, records state.

In the past year Hillary Hunziker had an earlier run-in with the law and was injured in a vehicle accident.

On Jan. 12, she allegedly used a board to break a large picture window and a door at an Elberon house when she went to retrieve a bicycle from a porch, records state. Less than an hour later, authorities in neighboring Benton County pulled her over for going 83 mph in a 55 mph zone on 73rd Street. She smelled of alcohol, had dilated pupils and failed field sobriety tests, and breath test showed a blood alcohol level of .162, court records state.

She was arrested for misdemeanor third-degree criminal mischief for the Elberon incident and first-offense operating while intoxicated.

On April 1, Hillary Hunziker was a passenger on a motorcycle that crashed on Wapsie Access Boulevard just north of Independence. She was taken to Buchanan County Health Center and later flown to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City for further treatment. The motorcycle driver, Robert James Turner of Fayette, was arrested for operating while intoxicated and has since pleaded guilty.

Later in April, Hillary Hunziker pleaded guilty to her own driving charge and was sentenced to a weekend OWI program or 48 hours in jail, court records state. She also pleaded guilty to breaking the window, and on Oct. 26 was sentenced to 180 days in jail suspended to self probation.