The Ottumwa Courier

January 22, 2014

Last witnesses take stand

By MARK NEWMAN
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — Years after Mary Jayne Jones was murdered, a highly trained law enforcement official took a second look at the case.

Marv Van Haaften is former Marion County sheriff and retired in 2007 as the director of the Governor’s Drug Task Force. He testified for the defense Wednesday that he was accepted at the FBI Academy, including the death investigation class. The FBI asked him to bring an unsolved case. That was in 1996, 20 years after the initial Jones murder investigation.

Robert "Gene" Pilcher is currently on trial for murder in the 1974 killing of the Ottumwa teen.

Questions by defense attorney Kenneth Duker focused on blood that would have sprayed out of the victim. Where did that blood end up?

Photos of Jones and of a blanket, both covered in blood, were introduced. On the blanket, Van Haaften pointed out a blank spot, where there was no blood. Duker asked if the killer could have been kneeling there.

Yes, Van Haaften said. Kneeling or standing right there. In fact, probably standing for one shot and lower down for the other shot.

Blood splattering onto the killer was significant because during testimony a day earlier, defense attorney Allen Cook established that not a single 1974 witness reported seeing blood on Pilcher.

The prosecutor, Denise Timmins of the Iowa Attorney General's Office, noted that the blood seen on the blanket had been soaked in. That was probably the chest wound, with blood running down the victim’s leg. She asked how much blood would have splattered onto the killer.

Surprisingly, said the defense witness, not that much.

So you say there may not have been a lot of blood to be seen, queried Timmins.

“It amazed me going from the civilian world [entering] law enforcement that you could have a very bloody crime scene, but when the perpetrator is found, they have very little blood on them,” said Van Haaften. “Or at least, not as much as you’d think.”

“It’s not like TV,” asked Timmins, “where we see someone shoot … and then they’re [all] covered in blood, is it?”

“That would be atypical.”

In fact, he testified, some of it may just be “micro spray” that is not visible upon casual viewing.

Timmins then asked if the investigator could even tell whether or not the assailant was dressed at the time of the shooting.

Van Haaften said he could not determine that.

Due to where different types of blood were, he was able to theorize an order of occurrences in the murder of Mary Jayne Jones: She was first beaten, knocked unconscious, sexually experimented upon, shot in the chest and finally, shot in the head.

Yet Mr. Pilcher, said defense council Wednesday, was not the only one who could have killed the victim. Cook and Duker wanted to know why investigators didn't pay closer attention to other suspects.

Ron Nichols knew Mary Jayne Jones had a boyfriend but still pursued her romantically. Did the DCI take Nichol's fingerprints, the defense asked Special Agent Don Schnitker, who took over the cold case in 2012. They did not. But they did take a DNA swab. Why hadn't anyone investigated Nichols further, Cook asked the agent. DCI had not been able to place him at the farm, nor find anything that indicated he was even involved in the crime.

Nichols had moved out of Iowa years ago. Still, the prosecution brought him in as a witness.

Now 62 years old and wintering in Florida, Nichols was polite and perhaps a little overwhelmed on the stand. There was a lot he said he'd forgotten in the 40 years since the crime. He knew detectives had talked to him at the time about his whereabouts. During his most recent questioning last year, he was asked if he remembered a girl named Mary Jayne Jones. He said he did not until he had a chance to review his 1974 statements.

"Even though you were romantically involved with Mary Jayne Jones," said Cook, "and she turned up dead, you did not remember her?"

"I didn't, I'm sorry," Nichols said.

He and Cook discussed his old statements, which seemed to leave doubt as to his location around the time of the killing. He agreed that the statements he gave showed he went by the restaurant Jones worked at around noon. On April 9, Cook said, Nichols was supposed to make an appointment at 1 p.m. In a sworn statement from 1974, Nichols' boss said his employee never made it to that appointment.

"Where were you?" asked Cook.

I don't remember, Nichols said.

The witness was then asked if he knew the owner of the farmhouse or if he knew Pilcher. No, he said, he didn't. Had he ever been to the farmhouse? No, he said.

"Why is it you can remember not knowing Max Marlin or ever having been out to a farm house, you can remember those two things, but you can’t remember anything else about this case?"

"I know who I associated with," Nichols explained.

"You just said you couldn’t even remember knowing Mary Jayne Jones, and you had sex with her!" countered Cook.

"That’s true," Nichols said.

Timmins asked if the party lifestyle he lived in the '70s might account for some of the relaxed attitudes he had at the time. His life has changed quite a bit, he acknowledged. It wasn't unusual for him to hook up with ladies for romantic flings. At times, he'd had multiple "girlfriends." He and other young bachelors hung out at the Holiday Inn. He was young. He had, he acknowledged in 1974, slept with Jones. He'd also been getting together with other young women at a time when hanging out, and having fun was a priority to the young people he hung out with in Ottumwa, which was a pretty wild place in the '70s. He was about 22 at the time, making good money and, he admitted when asked by Timmins, he had a reputation as "a player."

So, asked prosecutor Timmins, would you have been jealous that Jones had a boyfriend? No, that wouldn't have bothered me, he said. Would it have stopped him from hooking up with someone? No, he admitted, it wouldn't have.

Things were different then, Nichols said. He is now a retired home improvement salesman, has five children and has been married more than 30 years.

"Did you have anything to do with the death of Mary Jayne Jones?" Timmins asked.

"Absolutely not," Nichols said. "Absolutely not."

When approached by police in 1974, he cooperated, Timmins noted. And though he was surprised to be contacted by a criminal investigator, he did so again in 2012.

"I had nothing to hide," Nichols said. "I wanted to help. I still want to help."

Both sides have now rested. Thursday morning, the jury will get their instructions on how to come up with a verdict. Then the attorneys will make closing arguments. The jurors will get any last-minute instructions from the judge and could begin deliberations the same day.

— News reporter Mark Newman is on Twitter @couriermark