Jurors hear two stories of a triple murder
Koepp murder trial
JANESVILLE The prosecution is going to tell the jury a story.
The defense will tell a story, too.
One story tells how James Koepp brutally murdered three people three years ago in a home just south of Janesville.
The other story says Koepp didn’t do it—somebody else did.
The two sides laid out their stories to a jury at the Rock County Courthouse on Tuesday, three years and 14 days after the bodies were discovered in the mobile home.
The bodies of Danyetta Lentz and her teenage children Nicole and Scott were found inside their home. Photographs and a video shown during the first day of the trial revealed disturbing, gruesome scenes inside the trailer.
District Attorney David O’Leary said he must prove that Koepp killed the Lentzes and that those killings were intentional.
The evidence will show that the victims were strangled and stabbed, so whoever did it intended to kill them, O’Leary told the jury in his opening statement, so “this case boils down to who done it.”
O’Leary noted that the state must prove Koepp did it “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but “your duty is not to search for doubt. It is your duty to search for the truth about what happened that terrible day.”
Assistant Public Defender Walter Isaacson offered a different version. He told of Koepp as a devoted husband who doted on the grandchildren from his wife’s previous marriage.
Koepp strayed, however, and had a brief romantic fling with Danyetta, Isaacson told the jury.
Koepp and Danyetta had one intimate moment in early January 2007 in which Koepp was unable to perform sexually, Isaacson said.
Koepp felt guilty and avoided Danyetta, and then he felt guilty for avoiding her, so he went to the Lentz trailer to tell Danyetta that their relationship had to end, Isaacson said. That was the evening of Jan. 11, 2007.
With the Lentz children around, Koepp never got to talk to Danyetta, and he left, Isaacson said.
Later that night or the early the morning of Jan. 12, someone entered the Lentz trailer and killed the family, Isaacson said.
O’Leary acknowledged that all witnesses to the murders are dead, and he has only indirect evidence that Koepp did it. But that evidence includes:
-- Danyetta’s blood on Koepp’s pants.
-- All three victims’ blood, together with Koepp’s DNA, on a necktie.
-- Koepp’s DNA under the victims’ fingernails.
-- Nicole’s boyfriend, who talked to her that night on the phone, when Nicole told him that “Jim” was in the trailer.
-- Koepp calling acquaintances afterward, telling them details police had not released, how Danyetta fought off an attacker and how all three were strangled and stabbed.
-- Koepp’s actions showed “consciousness of guilt,” including fleeing from police, his initial denial he even knew the Lentzes, and telling his brother he “did something stupid” and “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
Isaacson said that same phone conversation with Koepp’s brother included these words: “I know I’ve done a lot of dumb things, but I want you to know, what they’re accusing me of, I didn’t (expletive) do.”
Isaacson said the murders occurred after 10 p.m., well after Koepp left, and before 3 a.m.
The house was ransacked, suggesting a break-in, Isaacson said. Evidence presented Tuesday showed drawers and a purse or backpack opened and their contents dumped.
Koepp initially lied—saying he didn’t know the Lentzes—because he didn’t want his relationship with Danyetta to come to light, Isaacson said.
Isaacson said evidence will show DNA from an unknown male—not Koepp—on one of the murder weapons.
“A likely reaction you may have at the end of this case will be, like, no way did Jim Koepp commit these crimes,” Isaacson said.
One of the first witnesses was Danyetta’s father, Russell Lucht, who told of climbing into the home through the window and finding his daughter in a hall: “By the expression on her face, I knew there was no life.”
Then he found Nicole in the living room and “Scottie” in the kitchen.
“I knew all of them were gone,” he said.
Prosecutors tried to bring out the human qualities of Danyetta, a 38-year-old day-care teacher, and her children, both students at Parker High School.
The defense tried to do the same for Koepp. An early riser, he made coffee for his wife in the morning and made cookies with the grandkids the day before the bodies were discovered, Isaacson said.
A key point of contention will be what Koepp knew about the murders and how he knew.
Lucht testified that as family gathered at the crime scene, he didn’t tell them about finding Scott in a pool of blood. But he also could not recall neighbors gathering outside the trailer that morning. Koepp is known to have been among those neighbors.
Lucht said he couldn’t recall what he told deputies that morning about blood in the home, but a transcript reminded Lucht that he did describe to authorities the blood coming from Scott’s body.
Lucht said he couldn’t remember all he told police that day. “It’s three years ago, and I have to try and turn around and refresh everything I said,” he said.
Not mentioned in court was a Gazette report from the morning the bodies were discovered, describing “a sobbing man who apparently had seen the home’s interior” who told a reporter outside the trailer that “there’s blood all over the damned place.”
Lucht confirmed that observation in a Gazette interview published the following day.
Another issue is the defense theory of a third party who might have murdered the Lentzes. The defense tried to introduce testimony about a conversation between Nicole and her boyfriend the weekend before the murders, about a man who accompanied Danyetta home late one night, but the prosecution objected that it was hearsay and not relevant.
Judge Alan Bates sustained the objection but left the door open for the defense to try again through another witness.
Testimony is scheduled to resume at 9 a.m. today, with a forensic specialist, Nick Stahlke of the Wisconsin State Crime Laboratory. O’Leary introduced Stahlke as an expert in crime-scene processing and blood-stain analysis.
Isaacson said he did not accept Stahlke as an expert and would deal with that issue in cross-examination.
Koepp sat quietly throughout the day. He seemed to watch a crime-scene video intently, at times clasping his hands in front of him, putting a hand to his mouth and on occasion jotting notes for his lawyers.