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Purk trial continues

MARENGO — A federal inmate identified as a fellow prisoner with Tait Otis Purk, 50, took the stand Friday morning in Purk’s first-degree murder trial and accused the defendant of killing Cora Ann Okonski at the residence she shared with Purk in Tama.

The jury trial, in its fifth day, on a change of venue from Tama County to Iowa County District Court in Marengo, is expected to continue this next week with the defense anticipated to begin calling witnesses as soon as Monday.

Okonski, then 23, vanished in mid-April 2000 and has never been located. Okonski and Purk had been scheduled at one point to be married in May of that year.

Under questioning Friday by Assistant Iowa Attorney General Laura Roan, Sean Michael Ward, 37, testified Purk related to him while they both were in federal prison at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., that Purk “choke-slammed” Okonski during an argument, breaking her neck resulting in her death. The action allegedly took place on April 16, 2000.

Ward demonstrated for the jury the “choke slam” which involves grasping the neck of the victim from behind and slamming the body to the floor.

Ward accused Purk of telling him he put Okonski’s body in a bathroom closet. The next day, Ward said Purk told him he placed the body in the back of a pickup truck and drove to a state park or wildlife refuge area and buried her.

He said Purk said he buried he body so deep he had to build steps to get out of the grave.

Under cross-examination by Purk’s attorney, Scott Hunter, Ward was questioned whether he was offered a reduced federal prison sentence for his testimony. Ward denied it although then admitted in an interview conducted in 2005 the possibility had been mentioned.

Ward is currently serving a sentence for felony firearm-related charges. He was in prison in 2005 for methamphetamine conspiracy he said in court Friday.

Purk was serving a sentence for felony firearms possession and drug charges at that time.

Hunter, the defense attorney, also questioned Ward about whether a shovel was allegedly used for the burial.

Also taking there stand Friday was Tama County Sheriff’s Det. Bruce Rhoads.

Rhoads testified he took the lead in the case in 2013 following the retirement of Tama Police Det. John Carr who had been in charge of the investigation.

Rhoads said he had been an assistant to Carr earlier in the case. He detailed searches of a junk yard near Belle Plaine belonging to Don Purk in 2003 and the Behounek Junk Yard in Tama looking for Okonski’s remains.

Rhoads also recounted being one of two Tama County deputies who transported Purk back and forth from Leavenworth to the Courthouse in Toledo where he faced a theft charge in 2005.

Rhoads testified Purk told him that Rhoads did not “like him” for what he thinks he did to Okonski. Purk accused James Lambert of killing Okonski during the ride back to Kansas, Rhoads testified. Lambert has been identified as the father of Okonski’s then two-year-old son.

Also among testifying Friday were Tara Bear who said she knew Tait Purk from childhood and Joshua York.

Bear told the jury she had observed bruises on Okonski when she stopped the residence to pick her up to giver her a ride to work at King Tower Cafe here both were employed by waitresses. Bear said she found Okonski asleep on the couch and shook her but she would not wake up.

During defense cross-examination by defense attorney Aaron Siebrecht it was suggested Okonski was “coming down” from a methamphetamine high and people slept for long hours during that period of drug involvement.

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