Public Safety

Tait Purk takes the stand, recounts night fiancee went missing

Purk, 50, charged in death of Cora Okonski, 23

Tait Purk during his murder trial at the Iowa County Courthouse in Marengo, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Purk is on
Tait Purk during his murder trial at the Iowa County Courthouse in Marengo, Iowa, on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. Purk is on trial for murder in the 2000 disappearance of Cora Okonski. The trial was moved out of Tama County due to pretrial publicity. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

MARENGO — Tait Purk took the stand Monday, saying more than once he didn’t kill his fiancée Cora Okonski and doesn’t know what happened to her in April 2000.

Purk said he and Okonski, 23, had relationship problems and he thought Okonski’s drug issues were to blame. Now, he said, he thinks she had mental health issues. Later in testimony, he said their relationship was good — “they just had arguments.”

“I wasn’t violent,” Purk said. “She got violent.”

Purk, 50, is charged with first-degree murder and facing trial in an Iowa County District courtroom. The trial was moved from Tama County due to pretrial publicity. The trial began May 1.

During testimony on Monday, Purk explained the large bruise on Okonski’s back that a dispatcher testified about last week, was from her falling, and the scratch on the top of her arm was from a cat, not the result of domestic abuse as Okonski claimed. In another incident that witnesses testified about last week involving him setting her belongings on fire and her getting burned, Purk admitted to burning the items but said Okonski slipped near the fire and was injured. 

The prosecution says Purk put Okonski in a choke hold and slammed her body to the floor, killing her. At the time, the couple was arguing over money and their upcoming wedding, which Purk wanted to postpone. The defense argues there’s no proof that Purk killed her or even that’s dead because a body has never been recovered.

Purk said Monday he and Okonski got into an argument on April 16, 2000, over the discussion of a wedding dress. He wanted to slow things down because he didn’t have the money. Purk said Okonski was upset and went for walk about 10 or 11 a.m.

Her 2-year-old son, Austin, stayed with him and Okonski didn’t return until 8 or 8:30 p.m., Purk said. She was still upset and eventually went to borrow a writing pad from a neighbor.

Purk said he could see her in the bedroom when she returned and she was writing a letter. She then asked him for money to buy cigarettes. She then took the money and left.

Purk watched her go out the back door, around the side of the house to Fifth Street and walk west toward the store. He said it was the last time he saw her.

The next morning he went to five friends' houses, where he thought she might be. He drove by Ricky Jo Sanchez’s, the neighbor who lived behind them, but didn’t see her car and didn’t stop. Nobody had seen her.           

He had to go to work at 2 p.m. so he left a note for her on the door and took Austin to stay with his sister-in-law. Purk said the note was still there when he got home.

The next day, he called police and asked them to check area jails for Okonski, Purk said. Police told him to file a missing person’s report and he did the next day.  

Purk said he also called Okonski’s parents to ask if they had heard from her. He said they offered to come and pick up their grandson.

Purk denied telling Sean Ward and Chad Rogers, who testified last week, that he killed Okonski. He began tearing up and wiped his eyes with a tissue in refuting their testimony.

“I dispute (that) story 100 percent,” Purk said. “I didn’t kill her.”

On cross examination, Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan asked Purk several questions, including whether he was using drugs at the time of Okonski’s disappearance, how many years he had spent in prison and whether he once stole a pickup truck and who he was with when he did.

Purk said he “occasionally” used drugs on weekends, he spent 13 years in the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, on a conviction for manufacturing methamphetamine and firearms, and he did steal a truck and Okonski was with him when he did.

“You always denied Cora was with you before,” Roan said.

Rogers, who testified last week, said Purk told him he killed Okonski because she threatened to expose him for stealing a truck and robbing a convenience store.

The defense rested after Purk testified. The prosecution rested after one witness in the morning. Closing arguments are to start at 10 a.m. Tuesday.  

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