WATERLOO — A retired Davenport police chief testified Friday he noted a very distinctive characteristic on a charred body found in a field near a Davenport elementary school the night of Sept. 17, 1990.
The body, which appeared to be a young girl, had protruding front teeth with a gap in between them, said Don Schaeffer, then a lieutenant in charge of the detective bureau and the street crimes vice narcotic unit.
That matched the description of 9-year-old Jennifer Lewis, who had been reported missing several hours after she left her Rock Island home.
Lewis, who was days away from her 10th birthday, had been sexually assaulted, strangled, doused in gasoline and set on fire. The discovery of her body kicked off a multi-jurisdiction investigation that led to Stanley Liggins, now 57, a family acquaintance, to be accused as her killer.
Schaeffer was one of several witnesses to take the stand on the first day of testimony in Liggins’ first-degree murder trial in Black Hawk County District Court, where the trial, his fourth on these charges, was moved due to pretrial publicity.
Liggins was tried and convicted in 1993 and 1995, but both were overturned. In November 2013, the Iowa Court of Appeals said 77 police reports were not provided to Liggins’ defense team and prosecutors did not disclose a key witness was a paid police informant. His third trial began in late August in Black Hawk County, but ended in mistrial when jurors could not come to a verdict. Liggins has long maintained his innocence.
Much of Friday’s testimony focused on the discovery of the girl’s burning body in a field near an elementary school.
Christina Olsen, now of Rock Island, testified Friday she and her children were driving home at 8:16 p.m. Sept. 17, 1990, when she noticed a fire near the school.
“We saw the fire, but I thought it was just trash burning and I didn’t think anything of it and I just went home,” she said.
When questioned by defense attorney Aaron Hawbaker, Olsen said the fire was “going pretty good” and that the flames were “bright, they were very bright” when she saw it.
She testified her brother called to say he saw on the news a body had been found in the fire. That’s when she realized she had seen that fire, Olsen testified.
Jurors heard the prior trial testimony of former Jefferson evening custodian Randall Stender, who was unable to testify in person due to medical issues.
Stender discovered the fire that night and tried to “stomp it out” before realizing it was body.
Scott County Attorney Mike Walton said in a lengthy opening statement Friday gasoline had been poured on Lewis’ body and a trail of gasoline was poured back toward the road before she was set on fire.
Gasoline also had been poured heavily in her genital area, he said.
Walton said Liggins, an acquaintance of Lewis’ mother, Sheri McCormick, and stepfather, Joseph “Ace” Glenn, was at their home earlier that evening and had given Lewis a dollar to buy him a pack of gum from a nearby liquor store.
Prior to that, two women saw the girl, who was on her bicycle, talking to a man in a reddish Peugeot. One of the women identified the driver as Liggins, Walton said.
Other witnesses said they saw a similar car in the area of the fire, he said, and the Peugeot smelled of gasoline the next day.
“When Jennifer’s path crossed with Mr. Liggins on September 17 of 1990, when he lured her away from her house, her family, the evidence is going to show he raped and murdered her,” Walton said.
Hawbaker said in his opening statement the investigation into Lewis’ death was incomplete. He encouraged jurors to critically examine the evidence. He said police “keenly did examine” every step Liggins took that day, but did not do that with Lewis’ stepfather.
Hawbaker also said there was no evidence to tie Liggins to the murder.
Testimony will resume Monday. The trial, which began Tuesday with jury selection, is slated to last five weeks.