BREAKING NEWS

Marion man charged with murder in death of woman found on Muscatine County roadside

A Marion man arrested last week as a “material witness” in connection with the death of a woman whose body was on the side of a highway in rural Muscatine County has now been charged with the woman’s death.

Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren announced Tuesday that Douglas Joseph Foster, 35, was charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of Lea Ponce, of Fairfield.

Ponce, 20, was found dead about 1 a.m. Jan. 8 on the side of Highway 38 between Muscatine and Wilton. Foster was taken into custody as a material witness on the night of Jan. 9.

Through their investigation, the sheriff’s office and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation determined Ponce was last seen alive at 12:30 a.m. Jan. 8 entering a white GMC pickup at the Muscatine Walmart, according to the complaint.

Investigators said the truck is associated with Foster.

According to a criminal complaint filed Tuesday by the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office, investigators determined Ponce was likely killed over drugs.

A search of Ponce’s phone records showed she made numerous calls and sent other communications in the late evening hours of Jan. 7 requesting a ride to Cedar Rapids. Ponce further communicated that “she was in danger” because an unidentified individual — referred to as “Individual A” in the complaint — “was going to kill her because (he) knew that Ponce had ripped him off.”

Ponce’s phone communications placed her in Muscatine at the time, according to the complaint.

Police said Individual A suspected Ponce had “taken a substantial quantity of methamphetamine from him.” The complaint states Individual A had “communicated to several individuals that (he) would pay a bounty (paid in the form of methamphetamine) for someone to locate Ponce.”

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Investigators said video surveillance showed Ponce was dropped off at the Muscatine Wal-Mart at 12:27 a.m. on Jan. 8 and she entered the store to use the restroom before returning to the parking lot and getting into Foster’s truck at 12:32 a.m.

A search of Foster’s phone showed that about 30 minutes before picking up Ponce, Foster was arguing with a female via text message, during which he stated that he was going to pick up a woman in indicated he was going to “turn her over” to “get beaten” to death.

Investigators said preliminary autopsy results indicated Ponce died as the result of blunt-force trauma to the head.

“Her injuries are consistent with a person being struck by a motor vehicle, dragged by a motor vehicle, and being thrown from or jumping from a motor vehicle,” the complaint states.

About 15 minutes after Ponce got in the truck, Foster’s phone records show he placed a call to Individual A that went unanswered, according to the complaint. Foster then called Individual A again, which lasted nearly two minutes, the complaint states.

Further phone records showed Foster made several internet searches the following day — on Jan. 9 — using the terms “muskatine (sic) news” and “muskatine (sic) murder,” according to the complaint.

“It should be noted that … (at) no time did law enforcement refer to the death of Ponce as a murder until Foster was taken into custody as a material witness,” the complaint states.

A criminal complaint stated Foster’s vehicle was found parked behind a storage facility at 4857 10th Ave. in Marion. Investigators searched the facility and found some of Ponce’s personal property in an area “where it appeared Foster had been staying,” the complaint said.

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Foster was found nearby, “hiding in an attic space among the rafters,” according to the complaint.

Investigators said Foster claimed he was hiding because he had active out-of-state arrest warrants. Police determined Foster has an active felony warrant out of Texas.

During an interview with investigators, Foster indicated he picked up Ponce at the Wal-Mart. But “after a few minutes, she insisted on getting out of the vehicle,” and he let her out, the complaint said.

Foster said he then returned to Marion, getting his vehicle stuck on a maintenance road along the way.

An obituary posted on the Behner Funeral Home and Crematory website said Ponce was the mother of two and worked as a housekeeper at AmericInn. The obituary says Ponce loved softball, soccer, dirt-track racing, cows and “spending time with her kids and family.”

l Comments: 319-398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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