MARENGO — A former co-worker of Tait Otis Purk said he didn’t believe it at first when Purk told him he had killed a girlfriend when she threatened to expose him for a stolen Chevy pickup and a convenience store burglary.
“It just seemed too far ‘out there,’” Chad Rogers, 49, told jurors Thursday as testimony continued in the state’s case against Purk.
Purk, 50, is charged with killing Cora Okonski, his fiancee, who went missing in April 2000 in Tama. Prosecutors allege Purk killed Okonski, who was 23 at the time, following an argument. The defense said there is no evidence Okonski is even dead.
The trial was moved to Iowa County because of pretrial publicity.
Rogers said he met Purk at a halfway house following a stint behind bars. They also worked at the Swift meat processing plant with Tait Purk’s nephew, Jeremy Purk, and continued to hang out after their half-way house time was up, he said.
According to Rogers’ account, that involved meth use and other criminal activity at a friend’s house in Alden, in Hardin County.
Once, while working on Tait Purk’s Chevrolet S-10 pickup at the Alden house, Tait Purk said the vehicle almost cost him a life sentence, Rogers testified. Tait Purk went on to explain the
Chevy was stolen and the plates had been switched to conceal the fact.
Another time at the Alden house, Tait Purk told Rogers he had to kill his girlfriend because she was going go to authorities, Rogers said.
“He told me that he had to kill his former girlfriend because she was going to turn him in over a stolen truck and a burglary,” Rogers said.
Rogers, who said he didn’t know Okonski, told jurors at the time he didn’t believe Tait Purk had actually killed anyone, and he interpreted as a warning that he should keep a lid on activity they were involved in.
“I felt it was a threat to me to keep quiet, or else. ... Not telling, not being involved with law enforcement, not exposing what we’re doing,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he later offered the information about Tait Purk’s statements to authorities in 2004 when he was trying to catch a break on numerous theft charges he had accumulated. He said he didn’t receive a written deal for the information, but he believes he was given a lighter sentence on charges in Marshall County.
Under cross examination, the defense questioned him about discrepancies in his accounts regarding when the conversations happened, who else may have heard and how long it took him to leave the state afterward. Rogers also admitted he has trouble with his memory because of drug abuse.
The nephew, Jeremy Purk, shed some light on the store burglary allegations. He said he, Tait Purk and Okonski broke into Jiffy South, a convenience store on the south end of Tama, in September 1999. He said they entered the building by smashing through a cinder block wall. No one was arrested in the case.
A former Tama police officer confirmed he investigated Tait Purk and Okonski in connection with the Jiffy South break-in. Knives, cigarette lighters, pseudoephedrine pills and other other items were taken, said John Carr, who retired from the force in 2012.
Carr also testified how he was called to Tait Purk and Okonski’s home on East Fifth Street three times for “relationship issues” in the months leading up to Okonski’s disappearance.
Twice, Okonski was upset but denied anything physical had happened, and the officer gave her a ride to an acquaintance’s house. On one of the calls, Carr arrived to support another officer after Purk had called 911 to report Okonski had attacked him with a knife. Carr said he was told Okonski had planned to kill Purk and then herself, and Purk had restrained her with duct tape.
Nephew Jeremy Purk said during one of the couple’s rough times, Okonski left to stay with a friend in Marshalltown. He said Tait Purk loaded her belongings in plastic bags, dumped them on the lawn of the Marshalltown house, poured gas on the pile and set it alight.
Okonski came out of the house upset and jumped on Tait Purk’s back, but he shrugged her off and they left, Jeremy Purk said.
In the days after Okonski was reported missing in April 2000, Carr and Purk had frequent contact, the officer said. He said he was at the home but saw nothing out of place and didn’t conduct a search. He said Purk was emotional.
Two months after the disappearance, Carr traveled to Chicago where Okonski had family to show her photo around. He said Purk suggested she had left to reunite with the ex-boyfriend in the Chicago area.
Carr told jurors he found the ex-boyfriend’s apartment, and a restaurant owner nearby reported seeing him but not Okonski. Later, a waitress and manager at the Stockyards Truck Stop in Chicago identified the photo of Okonski as a woman they had recently seen. The woman had been cleaning up in restroom and became upset when staff told her she couldn’t do that. The witnesses said the woman looked thinner and more strung out than the person in the photo.
Carr said he told Okonski’s parents about the sighting as evidence she was still alive. There was another Okonski sighting in Chicago, this time by someone who knew her and had talked with her, he said. He said he believed she was alive at that time but later changed his mind.
Okonski never claimed her Social Security disability checks or conducted any banking since the disappearance, Carr said.
The officer also testified about a 2004 search of the Fifth Street home after authorities obtained a warrant. He and an agent with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation searched the house with the help of a police dog. He said the dog didn’t alert to the scent of decaying human flesh, and no evidence was collected.
He said the home didn’t have a basement, but a small access hatch in the bathroom led to a tight crawlspace under the home. He said the crawlspace was packed dirt and showed no signs of being disturbed.
Police also searched a salvage yard in the Belle Plaine area that belonged to a Purk relative, Carr said.
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