OTTUMWA, Iowa (AP) — One of two men who was dating a 17-year-old girl when she was killed in an Iowa farmhouse in 1974 testified Wednesday that he went to see her around the time she disappeared but had nothing to do with her death.
Ron Nichols, a 62-year-old retiree who splits time between Oklahoma and Florida, testified at the trial of Robert “Gene” Pilcher, 67, who is charged with first-degree murder in Mary Jayne Jones' death.
Pilcher's lawyers have portrayed Nichols as a possible suspect in Jones' death. Prosecutors tried to disprove that theory Wednesday by painting him as a family man with no link to the crime scene.
Judge Richard Meadows scheduled closing arguments for today after testimony from Nichols and two others concluded the weeklong trial at the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa. If convicted, Pilcher faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
Nichols testified that he had never been to the farmhouse outside of Ottumwa where Jones was found naked, beaten and shot to death. He also said he didn't know the house's owner, Max Marlin, who is Pilcher's cousin.
Asked by a prosecutor whether he killed Jones, Nichols twice said, “absolutely not.”
“I have nothing to hide,” Nichols, a married father of five, told the jury.
Marvin Van Haaften, a former Iowa sheriff who analyzed the crime scene 18 years ago during an FBI training class, testified that he believed Jones' slaying was sexually motivated. Pictures showing Jones' bloody, bruised body were shown on a screen as he described his analysis of the blood spatter.
He said the assailant first beat Jones with a shotgun that was found broken at the home, likely knocking her unconscious. He said he thinks her assailant then performed “sexual experimentation” on her body. Jones was then shot through the heart, which killed her, and in the head.
Several of Jones' relatives remained composed through the graphic testimony. Jones had grown up in North Carolina and moved to Ottumwa in 1973 to live with a sister, who moved there after getting married.
Nichols, then a 22-year-old vacuum salesman, testified that he had been casually dating Jones for about a month before her death. He said that he knew she was also dating another man who lived in Des Moines.
He said he stopped at the drive-in restaurant where Jones worked to see her at noon on April 9, 1974, but she wasn't there. Investigators say Jones was last seen at an Ottumwa bank at that time.
Her body was discovered several hours later by Marlin's mother, who stopped by the farmhouse while her son was out of town.
Nichols said he couldn't remember whether he missed a work appointment at 1 p.m. that day, as his boss told investigators, and doesn't remember where he was. “I thought I was in the office all day,” he testified.
Pilcher was suspected in Jones' slaying from the outset but not charged initially because of a lack of evidence. Investigators knew that days before Jones' death, another woman had accused Pilcher of luring her to the farmhouse and handcuffing her before forcing her to perform oral sex.
Then married and the owner of an extermination business, Pilcher was convicted of sodomy and perjury in that case.
The Iowa Supreme Court threw out the sodomy conviction in 1975, finding the law unconstitutional.
Pilcher was charged in Jones' death in November 2012 after an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation cold case unit re-examined the case. Prosecutors say testing at a crime lab matched Pilcher's DNA to semen on a blanket found under Jones' body.
Marlin's semen was also found on the blanket, which had been on his bed, as was the semen of a third person who hasn't been identified.
Nichols voluntarily gave a DNA sample to investigators last year. His DNA was not at the scene.
DCI Agent Don Schnitker testified that step was taken so that investigators could eliminate Nichols as a suspect. He said that Nichols had already been “looked at pretty thoroughly” in 1974.
One of Pilcher's lawyers, Kenneth Duker, asked the judge for an acquittal at the close of testimony. He argued that prosecutors failed to prove that Pilcher was with Jones, that he'd handled the murder weapon or that he had been with Jones when his semen got onto the blanket.
Meadows rejected the motion.
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