Tama man convicted of killing fiancee in 2000 asks court for new trial based on lack of evidence, unfair prejudice

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TOLEDO — A lawyer for a Tait Purk, convicted of killing his fiancee in 2000, asked a judge Friday for a new trial, arguing there was lack of evidence, unfair prejudice and possibly jury misconduct existed.    

Scott Hunter, Purk’s lawyer, argued the jury may have unfairly judged his client because of testimony submitted about previous offenses of domestic violence, which included he had choked fiancee Cora Okonski once before, a burglary of a convenience store, stealing a vehicle and drug sales. He said the court should have excluded those from evidence.

“Not to mention whether Okonski is even dead is in dispute because a body was never recovered,” Hunter pointed out.   

Purk, 50, was convicted by Iowa County jury in May of killing Okonski, 23, of Tama, on April 16, 2000. The trial was moved from Tama based on pretrial publicity. Although her body was never found, prosecutors during trial argued Purk buried her body in a remote area, based on witnesses’ testimony.    

The defense argued at trial there was no evidence to suggest Okonski was even dead, since a body was never found.  

Hunter said the state’s evidence was weak that Purk killed Okonski because she knew he committed a burglary of the Jiffy convenience store in Tama and was going to turn him into police. It’s not credible motive because Okonski also was involved in the burglary, he added.

Purk, during his testimony, admitted he stole the truck and for the first time admitted that he broke into the convenience store, but he denied killing Okonski.

The state also argued Okonski was going to tell police about Purk dealing drugs, which makes no sense because there was evidence that Okonski was a drug user herself, Hunter said.

The evidence of prior domestic abuse incidents of Purk allegedly “choking her out” and that he burned her clothes also shouldn’t have been submitted, Hunter said.

“The jury could have convicted him solely based on prior bad acts … the verdict was contrary to the weight of the evidence,” Hunter said.

Hunter also pointed out two of the witnesses were “jailhouse snitches” who are felons that were under the belief that they would benefit from their testimony. Hunter said he didn’t know if they did received less prison time but they thought they might.  

During trial, 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.

Sean Ward testified 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, a neighbor and friend, said Okonski told her that Purk threatened to kill her the day she went missing.

Hunter also argued one of the jurors telling the others that she felt threatened by Purk’s family staring at her caused improper biased against Purk and none of the jurors were asked about it after the judge found out following the verdict.

Judge Turner said he recalled they talked to the court attendant, who wasn’t under oath, the day of the verdict and she said one of the jurors felt the family was staring at her and another juror said they didn’t think that was the case.  

Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren, in resisting a new trial, said there wasn’t specific “factual allegations” to support jury misconduct.

Heeren said he understands the defense disputes the facts of the case and that’s why it goes to a jury. In this case, the jury reviewed all the evidence and made a decision.

Heeren argued the testimony of Sanchez and others testified about what happened that day and in previous times showed premeditation and two witnesses said Purk confessed the crime to them. All the statements corroborate each other when taken together.

Turner said he would make a ruling regarding the motion for new trial within a week or so. Purk’s sentencing is set for July 28.

For years, Okonski’s 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 2016.

Purk, before being charged in this case, was already serving time in a federal prison in Kansas for manufacturing methamphetamine and a firearms violation.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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