Public Safety

An Iowa hog farmer said his wife fell on a corn rake. Now he's on trial for her murder.

Delaware County Attorney John Bernau (right) questions a witness, Delaware County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Holub, as he hands back a corn rake Tuesday during the first-degree murder trial of Todd Mullis, 43, at the Dubuque County Courthouse on Tuesday. Prosecutors are trying to prove in court this week that Todd killed his wife, Amy, by stabbing her with the rake. (Nicki Kohl/Dubuque Telegraph Herald)
Delaware County Attorney John Bernau (right) questions a witness, Delaware County Sheriff’s Deputy Eric Holub, as he hands back a corn rake Tuesday during the first-degree murder trial of Todd Mullis, 43, at the Dubuque County Courthouse on Tuesday. Prosecutors are trying to prove in court this week that Todd killed his wife, Amy, by stabbing her with the rake. (Nicki Kohl/Dubuque Telegraph Herald)
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It wasn’t life in rural Earlville, in Eastern Iowa’s Delaware County, that was getting to her. The 39-year-old loved hunting, fishing and spending time outdoors and had even left her job as a registered nurse so she could help out in the barn, her brother testified in court this week.

But her husband, Todd Mullis, was so controlling that Amy’s friends called her “POT” — short for “Prisoner of Todd,” her brother said. So as soon as all their crops were out of the field, she told her brother in August 2018, she planned on leaving him and filing for divorce. Todd, she predicted, was going to “flip out.”

She never got the chance to leave. Last November, as the harvest came to a close, Amy’s 13-year-old son found her slumped over in a shed on the family’s property. A corn rake was sticking out of her back.

At first, Todd blamed his wife’s death on a freak accident. “He hoped people would feel sorry for him and not ask any more questions,” prosecutor Maureen Hughes said in court.

But his explanation that Amy had fallen and landed on the rake quickly fell apart under scrutiny, police said. This week, the 43-year-old went on trial in Dubuque for first-degree murder. He faces a potential life sentence in prison if convicted.

As the murder trial got underway, the defense dropped any notion that Amy’s death was due to an accident. Todd’s attorney, Jake Feuerhelm, told the jury there was no doubt she had been “viciously and deliberately murdered.” But he said there were plenty of reason to question whether his client was the one who did it.

Prosecutors contend the hog-and-soybean farmer had an obvious motive: Not only was he angry his wife was having an affair and wanted to end their 14-year marriage, he feared losing half his land and potentially millions of dollars if she filed for divorce.

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“Being a farmer means everything to him. He has put his life into that farm,” Hughes told the jury. “The defendant had to find a way to keep his farm.”

Feuerhelm agreed the farm was important to Todd, “but not so important that he would murder the mother of his children.”

The couple’s marriage had been on the rocks since at least 2013 when Todd discovered Amy was cheating on him. Her friends later told police he became paranoid, requiring her to keep him apprised of her movements when she left the farm to shop at Walmart or meet a friend for lunch. Then, several months before her death, Amy started flirting with a man who serviced hog operations in the area and regularly stopped by their farm. At first, the two mostly talked about animal feed and the livestock business, but their relationship eventually turned sexual.

The man told police Amy said she wanted to leave Todd, but she feared what would happen if he learned about the affair, explaining, “If he catches me, he might make me disappear.”

The man who had the affair with her, Jerry Frasher, testified Wednesday that Todd had confronted him about the affair and that he lied and denied it, according to reporting from KWWL-TV. Todd then called Frasher’s wife to tell her about the accusations.

According to court records obtained by television station WOI-DT, Amy had expressed fears to several close friends, at one point predicting Todd would kill her and “throw her to the pigs” if he learned about her infidelity.

Though Todd told police after her death that the couple had a good relationship and never fought, detectives learned the two hadn’t shared a bed for five months. During that same period, Amy had texted a friend to say things were “still very tense around here.” In October 2018, she called up another friend crying and screaming because Todd had gotten wind of her covert affair.

Nov. 10, 2018, started out like any typical day on the farm. After a light breakfast, Todd and his 13-year-old son went to ready the hog barn for a delivery of small pigs. Amy, who was recovering from a recent surgery, joined them but started feeling dizzy.

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Todd repeatedly urged her to go back to the house and rest, but she insisted she wanted to help. Finally, he suggested a less taxing chore: She could get their old pet carrier out of the shed for a litter of orphaned kittens that had taken up residence in the workshop.

Later in the morning, Todd asked his son to check on Amy. He told police that he had stepped out for a drink of water, noticed that the pet carrier wasn’t there and wondered what was going on.

The boy, now 14, testified this week that his father had left the barn for a brief period before sending him to check on his mother, but the teen couldn’t say for sure how long he’d been gone — leaving a hole in the prosecution’s case.

Prosecutors contend Todd wanted the teen to discover his mother’s body so her death would look like an accident.

If that was the plan, it didn’t work for long. Medical examiners took just two days to rule her death a homicide. The corn rake had four tines, but there were six puncture wounds in Amy’s back, which meant she couldn’t have fallen and landed on it. Someone had repeatedly impaled her on purpose.

On Tuesday, Feuerhelm said the story about an accident hadn’t been a lie, but an “honest, legitimate on-the-spot explanation” based on facts available to Todd at the time. “This wasn’t something he manufactured, it was like, what else could it be?” he asked.

When testimony continued Wednesday, forensic pathologist Dr. Kelly Kruse told the jury Amy was impaled “at least twice, possibly three times” by the corn rake because of the direction of the sharp-force puncture wounds found on her body, reported the Telegraph-Herald of Dubuque.

The manner of death was not the only thing that prompted authorities in February to charge Todd with first-degree murder.

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According to a police affidavit, he had used his iPad to search the internet for terms such as “organs in the body,” “killing unfaithful women,” “what happens to cheaters in history” and “what happened to cheating spouses in historic Aztec tribes.”

The trial has been moved to Dubuque County from Delaware County. Mullis’ attorney said Todd couldn’t get a fair trial in Delaware County where his wife worked closely with law enforcement as a nurse.

The Washingon Post and the Associated Press contributed.

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