MARENGO — On Palm Sunday in April 2000, Cora Okonski argued with her fiancé about money when it turned physical and fatal, a Tama County prosecutor said during his opening statements Tuesday in the first-degree murder trial of Tait Purk in an Iowa County courtroom.
It was April 16 and during the argument, Okonski threatened to call police about Purk’s “criminal activity” after he suggested postponing their upcoming wedding due to financial concerns, Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren said.
“Purk grabbed her in a choke hold and slammed her to the floor,” Heeren said, adding Purk then dragged Okonski’s body to the bathroom and put her in a closet. The next morning, according to Heeren’s account, Purk went back to the closet, touched or slapped her face and said, “You’re not calling the cops now.”
Heeren said Purk then put the body in the back of his pickup and buried her in a remote area.
Purk, 50, is charged with killing Okonski, 23, in a case in which charges were not filed until this past December. The trial, moved from Tama County due to pretrial publicity, started Monday in Iowa County District Court with jury selection. A jury of nine women and five men was seated Tuesday afternoon.
Testimony is to begin at 9 a.m. Wednesday and the trial is expected to go into next week.
Aaron Siebrecht, Purk’s lawyer, in his opening statement Tuesday told the jury the prosecution has no evidence, the prosecutors and family want closure and they simply decided Purk is a “bad guy.”
“Don’t confuse me with facts — I’ve got my mind made up,” Siebrecht said. “Dispense with evidence — direct or circumstantial. There is no evidence — only theories and speculation.”
But Heeren told the jury they will hear from Okonski’s neighbor, Ricki Jo Weber Sanchez, who is going to testify that Okonski told her earlier on Palm Sunday that she was scared Purk was going to kill her and asked Sanchez to leave a window open. Okonski also asked her to call police if she heard screams, Heeren said.
He then detailed how Purk went through the motions of searching for Okonski, beginning April 17, 2000. Purk started talking to friends and relatives, called the sheriff’s office and was advised to file a missing-person report, which he did on April 19, Heeren said. Purk then called Okonski’s parents and told them they had a fight, Heeren continued. He told them Okonski asked him for money to buy cigarettes and went to the store, but never came back.
Heeren assured the jurors they will come back with a guilty verdict after hearing all the evidence in the case.
Siebrecht asked the jury to return a verdict of not guilty because, he said, there is no proof that Okonski is dead or was killed.
He said she had a difficult childhood and issues with her parents. He painted her as a “gypsy, a free spirit,” and said it wasn’t surprising that she would be gone a few nights.
He said a Tama police detective who opened a missing person investigation talked with two people at truck stops who said they had seen Okonski after April 16, 2000, but added the detective never followed up on those leads.
He also reiterated it was Purk who reported Okonski missing.
Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter
Get the latest in local public safety news with this weekly email.