TOLEDO — After a judge last summer disregarded a jury’s verdict of first-degree murder in the April 2000 death of Cora Okonski and granted a new trial — a move that confused the jury — a second judge Friday found Tait Purk guilty of second-degree murder in the killing of his fiancee.
Sixth Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill said there wasn’t sufficient evidence for him to conclude Purk, 51, “acted willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and with a specific intent,” which is required for first-degree murder.
However, there was sufficient evidence, he said, to determine Purk was guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt for second-degree murder.”
The prosecution proved Purk grabbed, choked and slammed Okonski, 23, to the floor that Palm Sunday 17 years ago in Tama County, that she died as a result of it and that Purk acted with malice aforethought — a fixed purpose or design to do physical harm — which is required for the lesser charge.
Purk showed no visible emotion when Thornhill gave his verdict or during his explanation of the verdict and points of law. Purk was taken out by deputies following the hearing.
His lawyer, Scott Hunter, declined to comment after Purk left the courtroom.
Purk faces 50 years in prison and will have to serve a mandatory 35 years or 70 percent before being eligible for parole. Sentencing was set for Feb. 1 in Tama County District Court.
“We are so thrilled for the Okonski family, Cora’s parents and her brother Jeff, and son Austin, who is close to 20 years old,” Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan said after the hearing. “It’s taken way too long to achieve justice.”
Okonski’s parents, Jerry and Cecelia Okonski, and her brother didn’t attend the hearing Friday.
Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren said the “verdict is a death certificate for the family. They haven’t had one.”
An Iowa County jury had found Purk guilty of first-degree murder in a trial this past May. The jurors said they found witnesses who said Purk confessed to them about killing Okonski were credible.
But Judge Mitchell Turner overturned the conviction and granted Purk a new trial. Turner, in his August ruling, said he did not find the witnesses credible and even had doubts Okonski, whose body has never been found, was dead.
Jurors said they were “perplexed” by Turner’s action.
“I’m dumbfounded, to be honest with you,” Ben Macumber, an Amana school principal who had served as jury foreman in that trial, said at the time. “I’m frustrated. ... There’s no words to describe how I feel. But I have no doubt about our verdict.”
On Friday night, Macumber said he was “glad Judge Thornhill saw the same things the jury saw. Justice is served. I will forever be baffled by Judge Turner throwing out our verdict.”
Thornhill was appointed to the case after Turner recused himself when Purk asked for a bench — or non-jury — re-trial.
Thornhill told the defense and prosecution he would make his own ruling and hadn’t read Turner’s ruling.
Thornhill said the prosecution presented credible evidence that corroborates the testimony of former prison cellmates Sean Ward and Chad Rogers, who said Purk confessed to killing Okonski.
Purk’s admissions to Rogers disclosed his motive, Thornhill said. He wanted to prevent Okonski from telling police he stole a pickup truck he was driving at the time and about a burglary he had committed. Purk also made a general statement to Ward that Okonski had threatened to call the police.
Purk also told Ward he killed Okonski by grabbing her by the neck and slamming her to the ground, Thornhill pointed out. The way Okonski had been killed was corroborated by two other witnesses who testified about Purk’s violence against Okonski in previous incidents.
Josh York testified he saw Purk choke Okonski until she passed out, according to testimony. The other witness, Tarah Bear, testified Okonski had red marks on her neck, and Purk demonstrated to her what he had done to Okonski by putting his hands together, facing each other with fingertips nearly touching — like a “choke hold,” Bear said.
Thornhill said Ward and another witness, Ricky Jo Sanchez, Purk and Okonski’s neighbor, also established that the couple were fighting at the time of Okonski’s death. Sanchez had repeated contact with Okonski that day, and Okonski told Sanchez she feared physical harm from Purk the day she died.
Thornhill ruled it wasn’t necessary to address the defense argument there’s no proof that Okonski is dead but instead had voluntarily disappeared. But because this argument was made, he is free to “scrutinize” the claim.
The defense relied on the fact Okonski’s body was never found and “purported eyewitnesses” saw her in the Chicago area after April 16, 2000. But Thornhill said he found this “hearsay evidence unreliable.”
The corroborated testimony of Ward and Rogers alone show Okonski is dead and Purk killed her, Thornhill said.
Two other key facts show Okonski is dead, Thornhill said. She hadn’t contacted her parents since April 16, 2000, and had left behind her young son.
She also never made arrangements for her Social Security disability checks to be sent somewhere else, and they were not picked up by her after April 2000. She always had done so in the past for many years, her parents testified at trial.
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