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.