The Ottumwa Courier

January 21, 2014

Original investigator returns to Ottumwa

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The single witness Tuesday morning essentially gave testimony about testimony. But it was the only way to give voice to some of the statements made nearly 40 years ago.

After Mary Jayne Jones was found murdered in 1974 in a Wapello County farmhouse, police interviewed potential suspects as well as people who could corroborate the statements of those suspects. Some of those subjects have moved; others have died.

Most of the interviews were conducted with retired DCI Special Agent Tim McDonald, who went on to become an assistant director of DCI. In 1974, he was a field agent assigned to assist in the murder investigation. Lead Prosecutor Denise Timmins asked McDonald to read the reports he made.

Several were attempts to determine "a timeline" of Pilcher's locations on and around April 9. The investigator mostly used his old reports. He acknowledged there are details he has personally forgotten about the case when asked by the defense.

But one statement described a situation that appeared to have some similarities to the current prosecution theory of the murder, though it is yet to be determined how significant the report will be in the current trial.

Roma Waterhouse, a woman who had been an acquaintance of the defendant, told DCI investigators she had an encounter with Pilcher. He saw her at the bar and told her he wanted to show her something. She agreed and went with him to the farm west of Ottumwa. That was a few days before Mary Jayne Jones was killed.

When Waterhouse and Pilcher arrived at the farm, "Gene," she told investigators, went rummaging around for something. When he found what he was looking for, he "grabbed her arm, twisted it and pulled her into the back bedroom." He began yanking her clothes off, pushed her down and handcuffed her. He then grabbed her and pulled her false teeth from her mouth. Violently grabbing her head, she reported, he forced her to perform oral sex on him. He was so violent, she feared resisting, she told investigators in 1974. But she was very angry. After he climaxed, she called him "a bastard."

Waterhouse said there were guns in the house, that Pilcher bragged about knowing a lot about guns. And that when he drove her back to her car, she believed Gene was indirectly threatening her. But the way she understood it, he was telling her not to repeat a story about drugs he'd told her.

She had been to the house with him once before, she told investigators. On that occasion, the report states, she and Pilcher had "natural" sex.

The afternoon's witness for the prosecution was a current DCI special agent, Don Schnitker. He's the one who found and interviewed "Gene" Pilcher in 2012. And the one who, weeks later, found Pilcher again; that time, he and Wapello County Sheriff Mark Miller arrested Pilcher for the murder of Mary Jayne Jones.

The interview with Pilcher didn't yield much; Timmins, the assistant attorney general, played the audio of the interview. This, Schnitker said on tape, was Pilcher's chance to come clean. To show remorse, a change of heart. To be more truthful than he had been all those years ago.

So. Did Mr. Pilcher know why DCI would want to talk to him? No, said Pilcher. Did he remember something happening in Ottumwa 30 or so years ago? No. Once reminded of the crime, did he remember the victim's name? No.

Agents released Pilcher, dropping him off back of the homeless shelter he'd been staying at. They then went to speak to Pilcher’s most recent girlfriend, Kim Armstrong.

"She told me he'd said that 30, 40 years ago … he told her he 'offed' someone in the Ottumwa-Blakesburg area," Schnitker testified.

Jurors had already met Armstrong in court. She'd appeared, the defense said, confused at that time. Was she that confused during the interview, defense attorney Allen Cook asked the special agent?

During the cross examination, the agent told Cook that he understood Armstrong. That she may get flustered when pressured, but "I’m not going to fire a hundred questions at her in two minutes. It’s clear to me, when she has time to think about it, she can answer things."

She eventually admitted that she and Pilcher had smoked crack together and that it may have been while high that he told her these things; she also admitted to some lies she'd told DCI during a 2012 interview with her.

Cook asked if huffing paint for two years would affect his opinion of a witness' credibility; the agent responded, "I wouldn’t recommend it."

The defense and the prosecution went back and forth on attempts to pinpoint Pilcher's location. They spoke with the retired agent since all of the location information and investigation had been done in 1974.

One of the main issues seemed to be that in two interviews, Pilcher gave two stories. The witness for the prosecution said it appeared to him that Pilcher was attempting to "tighten up his timeline" to account for some of the time he was without an alibi. The defense said the stories aren't all that different.

In the first "version," Pilcher said he took his medication, which makes him drowsy, and took a nap. In the second "version," Pilcher said he took his medication, which makes him drowsy, and sat back in his chair to relax.

But the retired agent's main point for timeline evidence was that Pilcher said he was at his mother-in-law's around 11:30 a.m. the first time and 12:15 p.m. the second time.

The current agent working the case, Schnitker, told the court he reread all the old reports. He said agents had to interview all possible suspects, just as he did when he took on the reopened case. When asked if there was one main suspect, he said there was.

"When the case was closed, the evidence was pointing toward Eugene Pilcher as the person responsible," he said.

— Iowa news reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark