TOLEDO — The toddler left behind when Cora Okonski was murdered in 2000 has grown, but still looks for her after all these years and can’t give up “what might have been,” his adoptive mother said Thursday during a sentencing hearing for convicted killer Tait Purk.
Deb Calvert, who adopted Austin in 2000 when he was 19 months old, said in her victim’s impact statement she and her husband have tried to fill that void, but Austin — now 19 — continues to “mourn for a mother he barely knew.” She told the judge Austin has profound mental health issues including “extreme” anxiety and low self-esteem, and Tourette syndrome neurological disorder.
Every day of his life has been affected by his mother’s death, she said.
“He won’t let anyone get close to him. … He’s an angry and confused young man,” said Calvert, who lives in Missouri with Austin and their family.
Calvert said she’s relieved Purk finally will be punished for the murder, but doesn’t know if Austin will ever bond with her and her husband or form other lasting relationships.
Thursday, 6th Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill sentenced Purk, 52, to 50 years in prison for killing his 23-year-old fiancee on April 16, 2000.
The sentencing went quickly. The conviction did not. The on-again, off-again verdict represents one of the rare cases in Iowa where a murder defendant has been found guilty without authorities ever finding the victim’s body.
Thornhill ruled Purk guilty of second-degree murder last December in a non-jury trial in Tama County District Court.
Purk must serve a mandatory 35 years, or 70 percent of his sentence, before being eligible for parole. Thornhill also ordered Purk to pay $150,000 in restitution and granted no contact orders for Austin and Okonski’s parents and her brother.
Thornhill, in his December ruling, said there wasn’t sufficient evidence to conclude Purk “acted willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and with a specific intent,” which is required for first-degree murder — the original charge.
However, there was enough evidence to find Purk was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt for second-degree murder,” he said.
The prosecution proved Purk grabbed, choked and slammed Okonski to the floor that day, that she died as a result of it and Purk acted with malice aforethought — which is required for the lesser charge.
Purk’s first trial before a jury in May had resulted in a guilty verdict for first-degree murder. But 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner tossed out the verdict, citing a lack of evidence presented at trial, and even then some of it contradictory. He granted a new trial.
Turner recused himself and Thornhill presided over the second trial.
Purk didn’t show emotion during Calvert’s statement, but became indignant when he addressed the judge.
“I’m innocent of this crime,” Purk said. “I didn’t kill Cora. I didn’t hurt Cora. I would have never hurt her.”
Purk said he did everything right back in 2000, and reported Okonski missing to the police. He reiterated his version of events that night, asserting Okonski went out to get cigarettes and never came back.
Purk, banging his hand on the defense table at times, said his conviction was based on “hearsay, speculation and innuendo.” He blamed his attorneys for not calling more witnesses.
“This is a miscarriage of justice,” he said. “I’ll wait for the appeal process. I want to know where Cora is, too.”
The Iowa County jurors who found Purk guilty in the first trial told The Gazette they found the witnesses to be credible and they thought the witnesses corroborated each other.
Jurors were “perplexed” by Turner’s actions, some of them said.
Thornhill ultimately viewed the evidence and came to much the same conclusion as the jurors.
Thornhill said the prosecution presented credible evidence of material facts that when taken together corroborate the testimony of former prison cellmates who said Purk had confessed to killing Okonski.