MARENGO — A former co-worker of Tait Purk testified Thursday he didn’t believe it at first when Purk told him he had killed his girlfriend after she threatened to expose him for stealing a Chevy pickup and for robbing a convenience store.
“It just seemed too far out there,” Chad Rogers, 49, told jurors as testimony entered the second day in Purk’s first-degree murder trial in an Iowa County District courtroom.
Purk, 50, is charged with killing Okonski, his fiancée, who went missing in April 2000 and whose body has never been found.
Prosecutors allege Purk killed Okonski, who was 23 at the time, following an argument at their home in Tama. The defense argues there is no evidence that Okonski is even dead.
The trial began Monday with jury selection.
Rogers said he met Purk at a halfway house following a stint behind bars. They also worked together at the Swift meat processing plant, along with Purk’s nephew, Jeremy Purk.
One day, while working on Tait Purk’s pickup truck in Alden, Rogers said Purk told him the vehicle almost cost him a life sentence. He said he didn’t know what that meant at the time, but he went on to explain that the truck was stolen. Another time at the same house, Purk told Rogers he had to kill his girlfriend because she was going to go to authorities with the information, Rogers testified.
“He told me that he had to kill his former girlfriend because she was going to turn him in over a stolen truck and a burglary,” Rogers said, adding he didn’t know Okonski and, at the time, he didn’t believe Purk had actually killed anyone.
“I felt it was a threat to me to keep quiet or else,” Rogers said.
Rogers said he offered the information about Purk’s statements to authorities in 2004 when he was trying to catch a break on numerous theft charges he had accumulated. He said he never received a written deal for the information, but he believes he was given a lighter sentence on charges he faced in Marshall County.
Under cross examination by the defense, Rogers admitted he has trouble with his memory because of drug abuse.
Jeremy Purk shed some light on the store burglary allegations. He said he, Tait Purk and Okonski broke into a convenience store in September 1999. He said they entered the building by smashing through a cinder block wall. No one was ever arrested in the case.
Earlier on Thursday, a former Tama police officer told jurors how he had been called to the Tama home of Tait Purk and Okonski in the months leading up to Okonski’s disappearance.
John Carr, who retired from the Tama Police Department in 2012, said he had been at the home three times for “relationship issues” in late 1999 and early 2000. Twice, Okonski was upset but denied anything physical had happened, and the officer gave her a ride to an acquaintance’s house.
On one of the calls, Carr — who is on witness lists for both the prosecution and the defense — said he arrived to support another officer who had been sent to the house, and on that occasion Purk had called 911 to report that Okonski had attacked him with a knife. He said he was told that Okonski had planned to kill him and then herself, and that Purk had restrained her with the use of duct tape.
In the days after Okonski was reported missing, Carr and Purk had frequent contact, the officer said. He said he was at the home but had seen nothing out of place and didn’t conduct a search, and he said Purk was emotional.
Two months after the disappearance, Carr traveled to Chicago where Okonski had family to show her photo around. He said Purk had suggested that she had left to reunite with an ex-boyfriend in the Chicago area.
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A waitress and manager at a Chicago truck stop identified the photo of Okonski as a woman they had recently seen. The woman had been cleaning up in a restroom and became upset when staff told her she couldn’t do that. The witnesses said the woman looked thinner and more strung out than the person in the photo.
Carr said he told Okonski’s parents about the sighting as evidence she may still be alive. He said he believed she was alive at that time. but later changed his mind.
Testimony in the case is expected to continue Friday.