Prosecutor says DNA found on blanket is key to trial in teen's 1974 Iowa farmhouse murder

Decades after a teenage girl was beaten and shot to death in a rural Iowa farmhouse, DNA testing on a blanket provided the evidence that investigators needed to finally charge a man who had been the prime suspect all along, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.

Assistant Attorney General Denise Timmins laid out the prosecution's first-degree murder case against Robert "Gene" Pilcher in the April 9, 1974, slaying of 17-year-old Mary Jayne Jones outside of Ottumwa.

But Pilcher's attorney, Allen Cook, told jurors in his opening statement that his client was not responsible for the teenager's death and that the semen from Pilcher came from a sexual encounter days before her death. He said some semen found on the blanket came from someone who still has not been identified.

"I think, generally, the defense theory would be that Mary Jayne Jones got involved with somebody that she didn't know was dangerous, somebody she trusted, and she paid the ultimate price," Cook said. "Undeserving as it is, that's what we believe."

Jones, an outgoing drive-in restaurant employee who had moved to Iowa from North Carolina to live with her sister in 1973, was beaten with a gun then shot with a rifle, once in the head and once in the heart, Timmins said. Investigators suspected Pilcher because he had access to the house, which was owned by his cousin, and Pilcher had been accused of sexually assaulting another woman in the same bedroom four days before the slaying, the prosecutor added.

Pilcher, then 27, was also a regular customer at Henry's Drive-in, had asked the teenager out on dates when she served him and was rebuffed repeatedly, she said. But she said Pilcher wasn't charged because investigators could not find "a direct link" to the crime scene.

That changed, she said, after a cold case unit with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation started to re-examine the case in 2010. She said a DNA specialist at a state crime laboratory in 2012 conducted testing on a semen-stained blanket on which the teenager's naked, bloody body was found 38 years earlier.

Most of the semen came from the cousin, whose bedroom it was and who was in California at the time of the slaying. But Timmins said three stains — two on the side of the bed and one stain found directly under the Mary Jayne's crotch — "were found to be a match to the defendant."

"The state has now found a direct link to the crime scene, the evidence that puts the defendant there," she said in a courtroom at the Wapello County Courthouse in Ottumwa, as several of Mary Jayne's relatives watched.

But Cook, the defense attorney, told jurors that Pilcher left his semen on the blanket during a sexual encounter in the bedroom with another woman four days before the killing. He said investigators were aware of that encounter in 1974, which led to a sodomy charge against Pilcher that was eventually dismissed by the Iowa Supreme Court.

None of Pilcher's DNA was found on Mary Jayne, and DNA from a third individual was also found on the blanket, he noted.

After getting the DNA match to Pilcher, investigators interviewed him at a Des Moines homeless shelter where he was living and questioned his associates. A former girlfriend told investigators that Pilcher had once bragged about having "offed someone" years ago in the Ottumwa area, Timmins said. The woman, Kim Armstrong, is expected to testify during the trial, which is expected to last into next week.

Pilcher also sent his wallet and money to a brother-in-law after saying vaguely he might have to go away for bad acts from his past, Timmins said. Pilcher was arrested in November 2012 and has been jailed since then.

Pilcher, now 67, faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted.