Opening statements Monday morning in the homicide trial of Stephen Robert Falkenberg shed light on the approaches both the state and the defense may be planning for the trial — and on a potentially pivotal piece of evidence.
Falkenberg is facing two charges: one of second-degree murder and one of first-degree manslaughter in the death of Tamara LaFramboise of Yankton, who was killed March 1 last year in her apartment in Yankton. Some of her dismembered remains were found in Michigan two weeks later.
The state has alleged that Falkenberg confessed the murder to his children.
Attorneys spent Thursday and Friday of last week conducting the jury selection process and interviewing about 200 prospective jurors for the trial.
Friday, the 12 jurors and two alternates selected for the Falkenberg proceedings were notified, but by Monday, First Circuit Court Judge Cheryle Gering told both parties in court that one juror had been excused, and that the trial would proceed with 13 jurors.
A two-week time block has been set aside for the trial.
Prosecutor Douglas Barnett addressed the jury first Monday morning, saying that the night Tamara LaFramboise was killed, there were two people present: one is dead, and the other has engaged in a pattern of lying and deceit, he said.
Barnett told the jury about LaFramboise’s life prior to her death; of her two children, Ron Jr. and Sidney Sedillo; her degree in environmental biology from the University of California, Davis; and her struggle with methamphetamine. Beginning in 2015, LaFramboise worked at Wilson Trailer in Yankton and lived in an apartment on Deer Boulevard in Yankton County. She was in a relationship with Falkenberg.
According to the prosecution, Falkenberg picked her up at work and took her to the Yankton Walmart after her shift ended in the early hours of March 1. He dropped her off at home, but returned and accused her of infidelity. The argument ended with LaFramboise’s death.
Prosecutors allege that Falkenberg placed the victim’s body in the bed of his Ford F250 pickup truck, covered the bed and drove to his brother Paul Falkenberg’s farm in Menominee, Michigan. On the way, he spent one night at the AmericInn in Tomah, Wisconsin, where he used a hot tub and ordered dinner.
The defendant lied to many people involved in the case, Barnett said.
On March 16, LaFramboise’s nude torso was found off Number 5 Rd. in Menominee Township. The torso was face down frozen on the ice when two boys walking their dogs spotted her from a bridge over the Little River, then went to get an adult.
Falkenberg was in the area, as the body was 1.5 miles from his brother’s farm and Menominee County investigators found her clothing, Barnett said.
When the defendant learned that the body had been found, he drove to Harrisburg in South Dakota to meet with his son and daughter, Sebastian and Marissa, Barnett said. He added that Falkenberg said LaFramboise had been cheating on him, he pushed her and she died.
At some point, Falkenberg removed her head, hands and feet to prevent authorities from identifying the remains, the prosecutor said.
Barnett made a point of telling the jury the story, though Falkenberg claims he was attacked by LaFramboise with a bat, investigators never found any bats.
Attorney Clint Sargent made the defense’s opening statement, for the first time telling Falkenberg’s side of the story.
Sargent told the jury that the state must prove that Falkenberg ended LaFramboise’s life in Yankton County in a depraved, cruel state of mind while in a state of passion.
He stated that LaFramboise had attacked Falkenberg with a bat, and he defended himself.
The villain in this case, Sargent said, was methamphetamine, which can cause death with a single use. Chronic use increases the chances of death and violence. Meth can cause untraceable cardiac arrhythmias, strokes and aneurysms as well.
The autopsy, he said, found no evidence of a violent struggle, but forensic testing showed that LaFramboise was high on meth the night she died.
LaFramboise became violent and irrational when on meth, Sargent said. His client was trying to help her, but she threatened him and his family. She attacked strangers and threatened law enforcement officers.
Falkenberg, who does not use drugs, stood by LaFramboise and made her probation calls to see when she had urine screenings, Sargent said. The defendant has no history of violence, but would let her hit him until she calmed down, the defense attorney said.
Falkenberg’s ex-wife and girlfriends have said he was a gentle soul, Sargent said.
At 19, Falkenberg suffered a severe brain injury from a car accident in 1993. Large portions of his brain have been removed, Sargent said, and no rehabilitation or follow-up treatment was given. Falkenberg is not a psychopath or a sociopath, but because of this condition, is easily manipulated, and the condition interferes with his reactions to problems, Sargent said.
For that reason, common sense does not apply when it comes to this case, he said.
The prosecution called several witnesses Monday who corroborated evidence gathered during the early part of the investigation, including Feb 28-March 1, the last night LaFramboise was seen alive, and the days leading up to the discovery of the body.
Her mother, Mary LaFramboise took the stand first, followed by a coworker who bought the deceased a six pack of beer the night she died; a representative from Wilson Trailer who reviewed video evidence of LaFramboise leaving work with Falkenberg; and the asset protection manager from Walmart reviewing video of LaFramboise shopping at the store shortly after work and leaving with Falkenberg.
The defendant’s March 1 trip through Wisconsin was documented with receipts, video and witness testimony.
Darren Moser of the Yankton County Sheriff’s Office testified about evidence gathering in Yankton, and Stewart Bass, also of the sheriff’s department, testified about a vacuum cleaner in custody that Falkenberg wanted. Bass did not give Falkenberg the vacuum cleaner.
Prosecutors asked several witnesses if they had seen a bat. None of them had, including Moser.
However, during his cross examination of Moser, Sargent asked specifically whether investigators searching Falkenberg’s shop had found any bats.
Moser replied that investigators had found several bats at Falkenberg’s shop, and that they were photographed and seized.
This potentially contradicts prosecutors assertions that no bats were found during any of the searches and could bolster a self-defense claim.
Sargent then asked if the bats had been tested forensically, and Moser replied that he did not know.
The trial resumes today (Tuesday).