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Ex-wife was sane at time of 2017 stabbing in Independence, witness says

Mental health expert testifies Hillary Hunziker was able to plan killing

Veronica Lestina of Fort Madison testifies Friday Dec. 13, 2019, in Buchanan County District Court in the first-degree m
Veronica Lestina of Fort Madison testifies Friday Dec. 13, 2019, in Buchanan County District Court in the first-degree murder trial of Hillary Hunziker, 34, accused of stabbing her ex-husband, Jason Hunziker, 39, on Nov. 6, 2017, at his home northwest of Independence. Lestina, who works for Forensic Assessments in Fort Madison, testified that Hillary Hunzinger was sane at the time of the stabbing. (Jeff Reinitz/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
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INDEPENDENCE — Hillary Lee Hunziker had planned to gut her ex-husband after she stabbed him to death in his home in November 2017, a prosecution witness said Friday during Hunziker’s first-degree murder trial.

Hunziker had bought a separate knife with a gut hook to her ex-husband’s home. But after stabbing him, she realized she didn’t have enough time to use it. She knew she needed to grab their 9-year-old son and flee because she knew her son had called 911 to report the stabbing.

It was those plans and calculations that led a licensed mental health counselor to conclude Hunziker wasn’t insane at the time of the attack.

“There were many steps that indicated she was functioning very well to carry out a planned method of procedure for what she wanted to occur that did not indicate that she was struggling and suffering to interact with reality or life,” Veronica Lestina, who works for Forensic Assessments in Fort Madison, told jurors.

The attorney for Hunziker has indicated the 34-year-old woman will use an insanity defense at her trial in Buchanan County District Court.

Hunziker is accused of stabbing her ex-husband, Jason Hunziker, 39, on Nov. 6, 2017, while he was sleeping in his home northwest of Independence.

DIAGNOSED WITH DEPRESSIVE DISORDER

Lestina said she diagnosed Hillary Hunziker with major depressive disorder, general anxiety disorder, alcohol use disorder and borderline personality disorder.

Even so, Lestina said, there weren’t signs Hillary Hunziker was going through a psychotic episode at the time of her ex-husband’s stabbing. Other facts, she said, also point to her being sane.

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For instance, she said, Hillary Hunziker told Lestina she had paused just after entering her ex’s home because she needed time to build up the courage to carry out her plan to kill him.

“She mentioned that she was scared, and she couldn’t describe what she was scared of. However, she said ‘taking someone’s life is a really big deal.’ … That made me think she appreciated what she was about to do and understood what she was planning to do,” Lestina testified.

In addition to buying knifes, Hillary Hunziker had brought snacks and toys for her son.

Authorities said she planned to hand off her son to her mother in Robins and then possibly take her own life. She wanted her son taken to relatives in Minnesota to raise — unbeknownst to the relatives. If her mother didn’t take the boy, she had enough fuel to drive to Minnesota herself, Lestina said.

UNFOUNDED CLAIMS OF ABUSE AGAINST EX

Prosecutors said Hillary Hunziker for years had lodged unfounded claims that her ex was molesting and starving their son, and Lestina said she noticed a pattern to the allegations, which often came with alcohol and drug use and hospitalizations.

The first abuse complaint came in the spring of 2013 a few months after their divorce was finalized and he was granted physical custody of the child. The Iowa Department of Human Services investigated the allegation.

The next came in 2016. Text messages recovered by investigators showed she had been trying to reunite with Jason Hunziker. When he made it clear he wasn’t interested, she made the abuse claims, Lestina said. DHS officials again were involved.

Finally, in January 2017, another round of abuse claims came after Hillary Hunziker showed up at Jason Hunziker’s house unannounced and refused to leave until authorities arrived, Lestina said.

“So, when things weren’t really going well with Mr. Hunziker in her mind, there would be these reports, there would be substance abuse, there would be hospitalizations for treatment for mental illness,” Assistant Iowa Attorney General Susan Krisko said. “They all kind of coincided at these particular moments in her life.”

“Yes,” Lestina replied. “It became what I would refer to as a consistent pattern.”

20 STAB WOUNDS, cuts FOUND

Also on Friday, jurors heard State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein testify to finding about 20 cuts and stab wounds on Jason Hunziker’s body.

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A comparatively small wound at the base of Jason Hunziker’s neck was the most serious, he said.

“That actually injured a blood vessel — the jugular vein,” Klein said. “The other injuries involved injuring muscles, which over the number and depth of the wounds will lead to significant bleeding, not as rapidly or as significantly as that one injury to the left neck.”

He said Jason Hunziker died of multiple sharp force injuries and ruled the manner of death was homicide.

The state rested its case Friday afternoon. The trial is scheduled to resume Monday with the defense presenting its case.

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