Public Safety

Court upholds conviction of Tait Purk for killing Cora Okonski in 2000

'Ample evidence' supports murder conviction, judges rule

Tait Purk exits the Tama County courtroom Dec. 8, 2017, after a District Court judge found him guilty of second-degree murder in the April 2000 slaying of Cora Okonski. The Iowa Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied Purk’s appeal of his conviction, saying the trial judge had acted properly in finding him guilty.  (Jeff Reinitz/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
Tait Purk exits the Tama County courtroom Dec. 8, 2017, after a District Court judge found him guilty of second-degree murder in the April 2000 slaying of Cora Okonski. The Iowa Court of Appeals on Wednesday denied Purk’s appeal of his conviction, saying the trial judge had acted properly in finding him guilty. (Jeff Reinitz/Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier)
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DES MOINES — A Tama County man convicted last year for killing his fiance in 2000 has been denied an appeal of his second-degree murder conviction.

Tait Purk, 53, in his appeal, argued his previous bad acts and other evidence were improperly admitted at trial and that the guilty verdict delivered by a judge in February 2018 wasn’t supported by sufficient evidence or was contrary to the weight of the evidence.

In December 2017, 6th Judicial District Judge Ian Thornhill found Purk guilty of second-degree murder, ruling the prosecution had proved that Purk grabbed, choked and slammed Cora Okonski, 23, to the floor on Palm Sunday, April 16, 2000, and that Purk had acted with malice aforethought — a fixed purpose or design to do physical harm — elements of a second-degree murder charge.

The trial court could “have reasonably found the facts of the case to be true,” according to the Iowa Court of Appeals ruling.

“Our review has revealed ample evidence — some direct, some circumstantial — from which a reasonable fact-finder could infer Purk purposefully killing Okonski on April 16, 2000,” the court stated.

Purk was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

During Purk’s trial, testimony showed Okonski went to her neighbor, Ricky Jo Sanchez, that day and said she and Purk had been fighting. Purk was angry and she was afraid he would kill her. She asked Sanchez to watch her house and call police if it appeared Purk had harmed her.

Okonski went back home and hasn’t been seen or heard from since that day, the ruling stated. She hadn’t contacted her parents or son, and although she received monthly Social Security disability benefits, she had never picked up a check since April 2000.

The court said the evidence suggests Okonski disappeared because Purk killed her.

Purk told a friend that he “had to kill his former girlfriend” because she was going to tell police that he had stolen a truck and committed burglary.

Purk also confessed to an inmate, while in prison for drugs in 2004 and 2005, that he was fighting with “Cora” and had run across the room, grabbed her by the throat and slammed her to the floor, killing her, according to the ruling.

Purk told the inmate he killed her because she had threatened to call police about his criminal activity, the ruling states.

The court denied Purk’s arguments that testimony by witnesses — one who had seen Purk once choke Okonski into unconsciousness and another who said Purk told her about choking Okonski during a fight — shouldn’t be admitted because they were prior bad acts. The court said they were properly admitted because they go to motive, opportunity, intent or plan.

Thornhill also found this testimony was credible and didn’t abuse his discretion by admitting the evidence, according to the ruling.

Purk also argued that the evidence presented was insufficient to find him guilty of second-degree murder because Okonski’s body was never found and the state’s case relied on circumstantial evidence.

Purk has been convicted twice of killing Okonski. An Iowa County jury found Purk guilty of first-degree murder in May 2018, but the trial judge, 6th Judicial District Judge Mitchell Turner, overturned the jury’s verdict and granted Purk a new trial.

Turner, in his August 2018 ruling, said the confession witnesses were not credible and that he doubted Okonski was dead.

Turner recused himself when Purk asked for a bench trial, and Thornhill was appointed to hear the retrial.

While the investigation into Okonski's death was closed with Purk's conviction, law enforcement remains open to any information or tips that lead to the discovery of her body, in hopes of bringing closure to her family, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Rick Rahn said Wednesday.

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

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