Public Safety

Cora Okonski feared for her life, friend testifies in murder trial Tait Purk charged with killing his fiancee in 2000

Tait Purk during a recess of his murder trial at the Iowa County Courthouse in Marengo, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 3, 2017.
Tait Purk during a recess of his murder trial at the Iowa County Courthouse in Marengo, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

MARENGO — A co-worker and friend of Cora Okonski testified Wednesday that Okonski was afraid her fiancé, Tait Purk, was going to kill her on April 16, 2000.

Ricki Jo Sanchez, in the opening day of testimony in Purk’s first degree murder trial in Iowa County District Court, said Okonski came to her house on that Palm Sunday to borrow a notebook because Purk wouldn’t talk to her and she wanted to write him a letter.

Okonski said she and Purk had been arguing and she feared for her life, Sanchez testified.

“She said Tait told her he was going to ‘bust her head open,’ ” Sanchez said.

Purk, 50, formerly of Tama, is charged with killing Okonski, 23, on April 16, 2000. The cold case was reopened last year and Purk was indicted in December. The trial, moved from Tama County because of pretrial publicity, started Monday.

Sanchez testified that Okonski told her to keep her windows open and asked her to call police if she heard screaming. Sanchez took her dog for a walk so she could watch Okonski’s house, which she could see from her yard, but she never heard any screams or saw anything, she said.

Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren in his opening statement Tuesday said Purk put Okonski in a choke hold and slammed her body to the floor, killing her. At the time, the couple were arguing over money and their upcoming wedding in May, which Purk wanted to postpone, Heeren said.

Purk’s lawyer, Aaron Siebrecht, told the jury in his opening there is no evidence Purk killed Okonski, adding there is no proof she is even dead or was killed. Her body hadn’t been located.

Sanchez also told the jury Wednesday about seeing Okonski earlier in the day on April 16, 2000, shortly after lunch. Okonski came to her home and asked for a ride to Belle Plaine to see one of Purk’s relatives. Okonski said she needed to get out of the house to give Purk time to “cool off,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez dropped her off and then returned about 7 p.m. to take her home. Okonski was “nervous and scared” about Purk’s mood when they returned to the Tama residence. Purk didn’t speak with Okonski, she said.  

On cross examination, Purk’s other lawyer, Scott Hunter, asked if Okonski also asked for the ride to get some drugs, as well as visiting the relative.

Sanchez said yes.

In other testimony, Sanchez also said she had seen bruises on Okonski and with a black eye in the past, and that Okonski told her Purk had caused those injuries.

In afternoon testimony, Jennifer Schones, a former Tama County Sheriff’s Office 911 dispatcher, testified about taking photos of injuries on Okonski in 1999. Okonski reported it was domestic abuse involving her live-in boyfriend.

Schones testified there were two different injuries — one abrasion on the top of her right arm and a large bruised area on her rib cage.      

Okonski’s parents, Jerome and Cecelia Okonski, both of Oak Lawn, Ill., both testified about their daughter, who they said was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder as a child.

Jerome Okonski said she would frequently “take off” and had erratic behavior at times when she lived with them but she always stayed in contact.

The Okonskis talked to their daughter for the last time on April 16, 2000. She was at Purk’s relative’s home and the relative had computer problems.

Jerome Okonski, a retired computer programmer, said he talked to her three or four times that day, trying to help.

Cecelia Okonski said she was concerned after learning her daughter was missing because whenever she had trouble she would call them for help and she didn’t call them this time. The mother also pointed out that her daughter wouldn’t intentionally leave her 2-year-old son Austin.

“She loved her son,” Cecelia Okonski testified.   

Jerome Okonski said Purk had called them a few days after he initially told them their daughter had gone missing. Purk wanted them to pick up Austin because he had to go to work and couldn’t keep him. When the Okonskis got to Purk’s house, all of Austin’s toys and clothes were outside in front of the house, and Purk brought Austin outside, Jerome Okonski testified.

The grandparents took Austin home with them but their niece in Kansas City said she wanted to care for the child. Austin, who is now 18, was adopted by the niece.

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