MARENGO — Cora Okonski was killed with a “choke slam” and then buried in a wooded area in a hole so deep steps were needed to reach the top, a man who served prison time with Tait Purk testified Friday during Purk’s first-degree murder trial in an Iowa County District courtroom.
Purk, 50, is charged with killing Okonski, his fiancée, who was 23 when she disappeared in April 2000. Her body has never been found.
Sean Ward said Purk had slowly revealed to him what happened while both served time at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2005. Purk was there on drug charges he picked up after Okonski’s disappearance, and Ward was in for federal weapons charges originating in Iowa.
“We spent a lot of time together because we were from Iowa. Just over a period of time, inmates tend to brag about stuff they’ve done or haven’t been convicted of. It’s just something that happens in prison,” Ward said.
Ward said Purk told him there had been an argument and Okonski had threatened to call the police on him. He said Purk revealed to him that he “lost his temper, ran across the room at her, grabbed her by the throat and choke slammed her.” Purk told him that he “thought he’d knocked her unconscious” but “realized he broke her neck.”
Ward continued his account saying that after Purk realized what had happened, he placed Okonski in a bathroom closet and left her there overnight. The following morning, Purk opened the closet door and found she was dead.
Ward said Purk told him he slapped Okonski’s lifeless face and told her, “You’re not telling the police now ... .”
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He said Purk told him that he loaded Okonski’s body into his truck and drove to a state park or a nature preserve — a clearing in a wooded area someplace where people wouldn’t be doing any digging — and buried her. He said Purk told him the hole was so deep he needed to dig steps to climb out and he covered the makeshift grave with leaves and sticks.
A jury of nine women and five men also heard how Okonski had allegedly been choked out during other spats with Purk.
Joshua York, an acquaintance of Purk’s, testified he was at the couple’s East Fifth Street home in Tama in 1999 when Purk and Okonski became involved in an argument. York said Purk grabbed Okonski around the neck from behind and Okonski passed out.
Purk lowered her and she was unconscious for about five seconds, York said.
Tarah Bear, a longtime acquaintance of Purk who had worked as a waitress with Okonski at the King Tower restaurant in Tama. Bear testified that once, in 1999, when she went to pick up Okonski to give her a ride to work, Purk said Okonski wasn’t available.
She said she saw Okonski sleeping on a couch with bruises on her neck. She shook her but wasn’t able to rouse her.
Bear said Purk told her they had been in an argument and Okonski had to be put in her place. After further questioning by Assistant Attorney General Laura Roan, Bear acknowledged that she had earlier testified in another hearing that Purk told her he had to “knock her ... out.”
“I don’t know if it was a sleeper hold or he put his hands around her neck,” Bear said.
She said she initially thought Purk was joking around when he said it.
During cross examination, defense attorney Scott Hunter asked if Okonski’s deep sleep could have been a “crash” after coming down from a meth high.
Bear answered in the affirmative.
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Deputy Bruce Rhoads with the Tama County Sheriff’s Office outlined several searches authorities have conducted in attempt to locate Okonski’s remains.
The first was in October 2003 when authorities received a tip that in 2000 someone had spotted freshly dug ground next to a red car on Don Purk’s salvage yard near Belle Plaine. Don Purk is a relative of Tait Purk.
Rhoads said he flew over the site and took photos that the informant used to pinpoint a location. The dig turned up some bones that were determined to have belonged to an animal.
In April 2004, a source told authorities that Okonski had been buried on a farm, which prompted some small-scale hand digging which turned up no body.
Then, in the fall of 2005, investigators speculated that the Columbia Wildlife Area could be the burial spot. This search involved flyovers, ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs but again came up empty.
Finally in March, another tip came in that Okonski was buried at a salvage yard on Tama’s south edge a few blocks from Purk’s home. Rhoades said investigators excavated a clearing in the yard and found some decaying clothing but no trace of a body.
The trial is to resume Monday.