Retrial of Tait Purk, accused of killing Cora Okonski in 2000, underway

Tama County judge to decide his fate

Tait Purk, left, with defense attorney Scott Hunter during hearings on post-trial motions on Friday, July 14, 2017, in Tama County District Court. (Jeff Reinitz, Waterloo Courier)
Tait Purk, left, with defense attorney Scott Hunter during hearings on post-trial motions on Friday, July 14, 2017, in Tama County District Court. (Jeff Reinitz, Waterloo Courier)

TOLEDO — Cora Okonski feared her fiancee Tait Purk was going to kill her on Palm Sunday, April 16, 2000, a witness testified Monday in the retrial of Purk for first-degree murder.

Ricky Jo Sanchez, a friend and co-worker of Okonski who lived across the alley from Okonski and Purk in Tama at the time, was the first witness in Tama County District Court.

Purk, 50, is charged with killing Okonski, who went missing that day and has never been found. He was found guilty in May by an Iowa County jury — the first trial was moved from Tama County — only to have the conviction overturned by 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner, who ordered a new trial for Purk.

Turner later recused himself from presiding over the new trial, for which Purk waived his right to have a jury decide his fate. Judge Ian Thornhill was then assigned to preside over this trial and will issue a written verdict or ruling.

The trial is expected to last until Thursday. Thornhill’s ruling could take several weeks.

Sanchez, in testimony Monday, said Okonski told her Purk was upset and angry with her that day. Okonski asked Sanchez to take her to Belle Plaine to see Purk’s relative and give him a chance to calm down.

Later that night, she saw Okonski again when she came over to borrow a notebook, Sanchez said. Okonski said Purk was still angry and wouldn’t talk to her, so she wanted to write him a letter. Okonski told Sanchez to leave her windows open that night and if she heard anything to call the police. This was the last time she saw her friend.

Sanchez said she opened her windows and took her dogs outside to keep watch of the couple’s home. She watched the house for about two hours, sometimes walking the dogs around the blocks and down alleys by each of their houses.


Sanchez said she never heard or saw anything that night. She mostly was watching the couple’s backdoor because they didn’t use the front door. She then went over the next day, but Purk said Okonski wasn’t there — that she had gone out to buy cigarettes.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan asked Sanchez if Purk said Okonski went out to buy cigarettes and never came back.

Sanchez said no.

Purk told police Okonski left that day to buy cigarettes and never came back, according to previous testimony.

On cross examination, Aaron Siebrecht, Purk’s Marshalltown lawyer, asked Sanchez if she knew James Lambert.

Sanchez said no, but thought he might be the father of Okonski’s son.

Siebrecht asked if Okonski’s son, a toddler at the time, went with them to Belle Plaine that day or if he was with Purk.

Okonski said the boy didn’t go with them and she didn’t know if he was with Purk that day or after Okonski went missing.

Siebrecht als questioned her about how many dogs she had but she couldn’t remember. He then asked if she was making up the other comments about Okonski saying she feared Purk.

“Absolutely not,” Sanchez said.

In opening statements, Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren said Purk and Okonski argued that day, which was not only Palm Sunday but the 11-month anniversary of the two getting together. They had planned to marry the next month.


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Heeren said the argument escalated and Purk told her to leave and when she threatened to call the police he put her in “choke hold” and threw or slammed her to the floor. Purk saw she wasn’t moving and when he checked her pulse, she was dead, Heeren said.

A witness will testify that Purk “stuffed” Okonski’s body in a bathroom closet and then buried her in an unknown location, Heeren added.

Siebrecht, in his opening statement, said this is a case of “don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.” It’s full of witnesses’ “speculation and conjecture” because Purk wasn’t well liked, he said.

The only witness to the choking story — an implausible theory that came up years later — is a “neo-Nazi” federal prisoner, Siebrecht continued.

He said there will be no evidence to suggest what happened to Okonski or that Purk killed her.

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