MARENGO — It has been more than 17 years since Cora Okonski went missing from the Tama home she shared with her fiancé, Tait Purk.
For years, her disappearance was treated as a missing persons case until investigators took another look in 2015 and ultimately charged Purk with first-degree murder in December.
Though Okonski’s body was never located, a jury of seven women and five men on Wednesday found Purk, 50, guilty of killing Okonski, 23. He now faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole.
Sentencing is set for July 10 in Iowa County District Court. The trial, which began May 1, was moved there from Tama County due to pretrial publicity.
As the verdict was read before 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner, Purk looked straight ahead and showed little reaction. His family members in the courtroom were visibly upset.
Okonski’s parents, Jerome and Cecelia Okonski of Oak Lawn, Ill., and her brother Jeff, said they are relieved.
“Nothing will bring back Cora,” Jerome Okonski said. “Cora was a good girl. She had some mental health problems, but she had a wonderful disposition. The end result here is that they got a bad guy off the streets today who can’t hurt anyone else.”
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Purk, before being charged in this case, was already serving time in a federal prison in Kansas for manufacturing methamphetamine and a firearms violation.
During the trial, prosecutors argued Purk killed Okonski on April 16, 2000 — Palm Sunday — and then buried her body in a remote area. The defense argued there was no evidence to suggest Okonski was even dead as her body was never found.
“The evidence was there,” Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan said after the guilty verdict was handed down. “We knew the jury would hear evidence that he had confessed the same thing to two different individuals about the manner of death and how he disposed of the body. His sole purpose was that she would never be found, and he would get away with murder.”
Roan said this isn’t the first murder case in Iowa where a body hasn’t been recovered, but it made trying the case a challenge.
Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren noted the case “got better as time went on because (Purk) confessed to others.”
Roan and Heeren credited the Tama County Sheriff’s Office and Tama Police Department for their work and decision to request help from Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation cold case agents in 2015.
Scott Hunter, Purk’s lawyer, declined to comment.
During the trial, the prosecution presented two witnesses who said Purk confessed to killing Okonski and burying her in a remote area.
Chad Rogers testified Purk told him, while both were in a halfway house, that he killed Okonski because she was going to tell police about his involvement in stealing a truck and a store burglary.
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Purk, during his testimony, admitted he stole the truck and that he broke into a convenience store, but he denied killing Okonski.
Sean Ward said Purk told him in 2005 — while both were serving time at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. — that he grabbed Okonski by the throat and “choke slammed” her. Purk thought he had knocked her unconscious but then realized he had broken her neck.
Another witness, Ricky Jo Sanchez, said Okonski told her that Purk threatened to kill her the day she went missing.
Hunter, during his closing argument, argued there were no witnesses to the alleged killing and said the prosecution’s witnesses presented “rumors and hearsay and inconsistent statements.”
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