OTTUMWA, Iowa – Despite a lack of direct evidence connecting Robert "Gene" Pilcher to the killing of a 17-year-old waitress at his cousin's Iowa farmhouse, investigators immediately suspected him in the 1974 death, a prosecutor reminded jurors Thursday at his murder trial.
Three days before Mary Jayne Jones' beaten, bullet-ridden body was found in the lone bedroom of the farmhouse near Ottumwa, another woman told police that the married exterminator had handcuffed her in the very same room and forced her to perform oral sex, assistant state attorney general Denise Timmins said in closing arguments.
Pilcher was convicted of sodomy and perjury in that case. But he wasn't charged in Jones' death until two years ago, when cold case investigators matched his DNA to semen stains on the blanket beneath Jones' body, including one that was just underneath her crotch.
"Almost 40 years ago, the defendant killed Mary Jayne Jones. And we're now able to stand before you today and ask you to find the defendant guilty, because he did it," Timmins told jurors in a courtroom at the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa. "And your common sense and your reason tells you that he did it. You know that he did it."
The evidence of his semen, though, "cuts both ways" since it is known that he had sex in the bed days earlier, one of Pilcher's lawyer, Allen Cook, reminded jurors Thursday.
"He did have sex with somebody else there. He did have access to the house. But that's not in dispute," Cook said. "It does also explain and have a legitimate innocent reason for why Gene Pilcher's DNA would be there."
Cook said the state's case is built on "guess upon guess upon guess," and he urged jurors to acquit Cook, who was a homeless Des Moines man when he was arrested. Prosecutors did not show how Jones ended up at the farmhouse, didn't offer evidence that Pilcher and Jones were ever together outside the restaurant where she worked, and didn't prove that Pilcher's semen came from sex with Jones, he said.
"Any one of us can make a guess, but guesses aren't good enough," Cook said.
Pilcher, 67, would be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder in Jones' death.
Jones' naked, bloody body was found on a bed in a farmhouse outside Ottumwa that was owned by Pilcher's cousin, Max Marlin, on April 9, 1974. Investigators say she had been brutally beaten with a shotgun, sexually assaulted and shot with a rifle through the heart and the head.
Jones, who had moved to Iowa from North Carolina to live with her sister in 1973, was last seen five hours earlier at an Ottumwa bank. Her body was discovered by Marlin's mother, who had stopped by the home while her son was on a trip to California.
Timmins said that Pilcher was the prime suspect in the case all along. Pilcher knew that his cousin was out of town and had access to the farmhouse.
Pilcher knew Jones as a customer of her restaurant, made lewd comments about her and was rebuffed when he asked her out, Timmins said.
After Pilcher learned that investigators reopened the case in 2012, he acted like a man "whose past has caught up with him," she said. Pilcher's brother-in-law testified that Pilcher sent him his wallet, saying he may have to go to jail and was not proud of some things he had done in his past.
Timmins acknowledged some unanswered questions in the case. She said it remained unclear exactly how Pilcher got Jones to the house, and that no eye witnesses saw the crime. But she said jurors should piece together bits of circumstantial evidence like a puzzle, and "see the big picture" pointing to Pilcher's guilt even if a few details are missing.
But Cook, the defense attorney, said those holes created reasonable doubt. Pilcher could have left his semen on the blanket during the sexual encounter four days earlier, and investigators have never identified another source of male semen found on the blanket, he said.
Many other people had access to the farmhouse, which was a bachelor pad and the site of many parties, he said. Some witnesses recalled seeing Pilcher the afternoon of the murder, and he didn't seem nervous or anxious, Cook said. And the state's theory that Pilcher likely lured Jones into his car "does not make sense."
"Why would this girl get in a vehicle with someone that bothered her so much?" he said.
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