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Prosecution witnesses testify in Purk murder trial

MARENGO — Five witnesses were called to the stand Wednesday as prosecutors began to lay out the case of first-degree murder against Tait Otis Purk. Jury selection in Iowa County District Court in Marengo wrapped up at 3 p.m. Tuesday with a jury of seven women and five men and two alternates seated.

The case is being hear in Iowa County on a change of venue from Tama County.

Purk, 50, was indicted late last year by a Tama County Grand Jury in the death of his fiance, Cora Ann Okonski.

At age 23, she disappeared on April 16, 2000, and has not been seen since. Authorities reopened the case in 2015 leading up to the Grand Jury action. The case is being prosecuted by Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren and Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan.

Purk is represented by public defenders Aaron Siebrecht and Scott Hunter.

Appearing first on Wednesday was Ricki Jo Weber Santos who the prosecutors maintain was one of the last persons to see Okonski alive.

Santos said she had given her nearby Tama neighbor a ride that day to Belle Plaine. When she returned to pick Okonski up and return her to the home Okonski shared Purk, she said Okonski was “very nervous, very scared and frightened.”

She said Okonski said she feared Purk might “bust her head open” or “might kill her.”

Santos said Okonski asked her to keep a window open in her home so she could call the police if there was trouble with Purk. Santos testified she stayed outside of her residence and walked a dog so she could keep an eye on the Okonski-Purk residence but detected nothing.

Upon cross-examination, Santos revealed she took Okonski to rural Belle Plaine so Okonski could purchase methamphetamine.

The testimony also said Purk and Okonski were coming down from a two or three day methamphetamine high on that Sunday.

Both Jerry and Cecilia Okonski, Cora’s adopted parents, were also called to testify.

Jerry Okonski told jurors Cora often ran away but would soon contact he and and his wife. He said Cora was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and being bipolar. Both parents testified this made for a sometimes difficult childhood.

Jerry Okonski said the couple was informed by Purk that Cora was missing and they traveled form their home in Oak Park, Ill., to Tama to pick up Cora’s two-year-old son, Austin, at Purk’s request shortly after Cora disappeared.

Defense attorney Siebrecht questioned the parents about their relationship with Austin’s natural father, identified as Jimmy Lambert in court.

Jerry Okonski said the relationship had not been good and they both testified they had been threatened by him.

Both said he had contacted them following Cora’s disappearance in an attempt to gain custody of Austin.

Former Tama Police Det. John Carr began testimony in mid-afternoon on Wednesday and was scheduled to return to the witness stand this morning.

Carr was on duty when Purk came to the Tama Police Station to report Cora Okonski missing on April 18, 2000.

Carr related he initiated a search for Okonski and several days later asked for help in the case from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

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