Six witnesses take the stand in day one of Patrick Elliott murder trial

The witnesses ranged from law enforcement, forensic analysts and a church pastor. All were called on by the state.

Posted: Jul 15, 2019 8:02 PM
Updated: Jul 18, 2019 8:11 PM

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) - The state called on six witnesses to testify in the first day of the Patrick Elliott murder trial. Testimony started at 8:30 Monday morning. As News 18 previously reported, Elliot is accused of murdering his wife Donita on August 8th, 2017. Patrick audio recorded the murder on his cell phone.

In opening arguments, the state played the audio for the jury. You can hear Patrick and Donita arguing. Donita is yelling loudly at Patrick, using several expletives throughout. They begin by arguing about Donita taking her medication. Then the argument evolves into who will sleep on the couch and who will sleep in the living room. Donita yells at him to "get the (expletive) out." Patrick's tone of voice is level and calm throughout the confrontation.

You can hear the television playing in the background. After a beat of silence, you hear Donita yell, "Shoot me! I don't care, I don't give a (expletive)." Then you immediately hear a gunshot followed by a few more beats of silence before you hear ask for help, which Patrick refuses. You hear Donita ask for help eight times. You hear Patrick say, "I will help you when I'm done watching you die...You are (expletive) Satan...you (expletive) hate my guts."

Digital Investigator Sean Leshney was one of the witnesses called to the stand today. Based on time stamps from the audio file, it started recording at 12:48 a.m. and finished recording at 12:53 a.m. Phone records show that Patrick called 911 at 12:54 a.m.

They played the 911 recording while Detective Jodi Rohler from the Tippecanoe County Sheriff's Office was on the stand. You can hear Patrick tell the dispatcher that he just shot his wife, that they had been fighting for over a week and that she had a knife. Patrick said, "(I) knew it was coming to this, officers knew, everyone knew." Patrick later admitted to planting the knife. He also claimed to not know where he had shot Donita, even after the dispatcher helped walk him through examining the body.

By saying "everyone knew" this was coming, Patrick is referring to the fact that they had been in contact with police throughout the evening of August 7th. Det. Rohler was one of the crime scene technicians who documented the scene. She was able to explain the crime scene photos presented as evidence, as well as where they found pieces of evidence such as the knife, the shell casing and the gun itself.

Patrick's attorney Mike Troemel asked Rohler if she felt empathy for Patrick initially after the investigation, to which she said she did. When the state attorneys asked her if she still felt that empathy today, she said she did not.

Detective Jason Morgan took the stand after Rohler. He is the crime scene technician who took the crime scene photos. He confirmed that the murder weapon was a Kahr 9mm handgun. The gun was taken to a state laboratory for testing in July of 2018 and confirmed shortly after. 

Investigator Leshney took the stand next. He is the one who discovered the audio recording, as he took a copy of the phone data for evidence. He looks at everything from phone calls, text messages, emails, calendar inputs and app usage to map a person's whereabouts. He also looks at pings off of cell phone towers to pinpoint locations. His evidence suggests that, based on cell phone locations, both Donita and Patrick were in their home at the time of the alleged shooting.

The fourth witness called was Andrew Koeling from the Indiana State Police. Koeling is a forensic biologist. His main focus was looking at the knife for DNA residue. He did a full swab of both the blade and the handle of the knife. The blade came back negative for any substantial DNA residue. There was also no bodily fluid on the knife, such as blood. However, the handle came back with Donita's DNA, and not Patrick's. The state attorneys asked if there was any way he could know if the knife had been handled with a towel or a glove, Koeling said there was not. Troemel made sure to emphasize to the jury that Patrick's DNA was not found on the knife, even though he had already admitted to planting it.

The next witness was Dr. Darin Wolfe. He is a forensic pathologist. It's his job to determine the cause of death of a corpse. The time of death was 7:06 a.m. on Aug. 8. He confirmed that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to Donita's left upper chest area. You can see several grain-sized red dots around the gunshot wound in a photo submitted as evidence. He said these dots are called "powder tattooing." This happens when gunpowder from a gunshot in close range gets on the skin and causes the skin to burn or deteriorate. 

Dr. Wolfe concluded that Donita was shot in a six to 30 inch range from a handgun, based on the powder tattooing. Based on the entry and exit points on Donita's body from the bullet, they determined the trajectory of the gun as downward facing. He said the bullet passed through her fifth rib, hit the sack surrounding the heart, grazed the heart, hit the left side of the liver and stomach and exited through her thoracic 10 vertebrae. He concluded that even immediate and instant medical care most likely would not have saved her life.

The final witness was Keith Evans. He is a former Associate Pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lafayette. He was Patrick and Donita's pastor for about six years. He said he counseled the couple between six and 12 times over the course of those six years. He said he was made aware of how extensive Donita's mental health struggles were through Patrick. He said Donita had come to him saying that Patrick was sometimes abusive to her. He had also witnessed some of Donita's aggression through a strongly worded email she once sent out to the whole congregation over a problem with another member of the church. He said the email essentially told the entire church to "go to hell."

After the murder, Evans said he had about six conversations with Patrick about the incident. At first, Patrick told Evans that Donita came home and immediately attacked him with a knife. He said he shot Donita out of self-defense. Evans said his first visit to Patrick in the jail was to provide pastoral care. But after seeing the probable cause affidavit and local media reports that Patrick had actually planted the knife, Evans went to the church for his next move.

In the Reformed Presbyterian denomination, a group of elders called the Session leads each individual church. He said they also have four stages of discipline that they admonish to church members for sins. The stages range from mild punishment to excommunication. After the church learned that Patrick had lied about what happened, they wrote a discipline letter to him saying he is guilty of lying to the church. Evans claimed the probable cause affidavit was sufficient evidence for the church. Patrick was given notice of suspension from the church in that letter. Evans delivered that letter to Patrick on his second jail visit. 

Evans said that Patrick told him, "I did not lie, I planted the knife but everything else was the same." Evans said Patrick had been a faithful member of the church until that point. However, the letter of discipline ended by saying the church needed to see an act of "softness, honesty and repentance." It also ended by saying, "we will pray for you."

All six of Monday's witnesses were called on by the state. We still have yet to hear from any of the defense's witnesses. Judge Randy Williams said at jury selection last Friday that they expect this trial to go on until Thursday.

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