Witnesses: Heater confessed
BUCKHANNON – Two witnesses testified about alleged murder confessions during the second day of a murder-for-hire trial in Upshur County Circuit Court Tuesday.
Jessie Lee Heater, 30, of Buckhannon, is facing charges of first degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, the concealment of human remains and conspiracy to conceal a deceased human body. His trial began Monday in relation to the death of 29-year-old Joshua Oberg, whose body was discovered in July 2012.
Rodolpho “Chino” Villagomez Correa, 33, allegedly paid Heater $5,000 to kill Oberg for having an affair with his wife. He is charged with one felony count of first degree murder, and one felony count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in connection with the death of Oberg. His trial is scheduled in July.
Robert Eugene Siron III, 31, of Weston, testified at length Monday about allegedly witnessing Heater murder Oberg in the woods on Jan. 23, 2012, driving the corpse around in a truck with Heater while buying a shovel and bleach, and burying the body after Heater took a photograph of the murder victim for proof.
Siron pleaded guilty in December to one felony count of manslaughter and one count of conspiracy to conceal a deceased human body in the death of Oberg.
On Tuesday, Tyler Arbogast, of Buckhannon, testified that Heater confessed to him that Heater murdered Oberg.
Arbogast said Heater told him he and another person had killed Oberg, but he did not tell Arbogast who the other person was. Arbogast said he and Heater both were seeing the same woman. He said Heater arrived at the woman’s house one day while Arbogast was there visiting her, and told him in confidence about the crime.
Heater’s attorney, Tom Dyer, said Arbogast informed police that Heater said he and another person had killed Oberg, secured the body with tape and dumped his body. However, Dyer said there was no evidence found of tape being used in the death of Oberg. Arbogast said he didn’t remember telling police those specifics.
“I don’t know none (sic) of those things,” Arbogast said. “I just know what I told you.”
Arbogast said after he was told about the murder he then went across the road and told his father what Heater said.
West Virginia State Police Senior Trooper R.A. Moss, the lead investigator in the case, also testified Tuesday. Moss said he was interviewing Arbogast’s father for the purposes of a different investigation, when Oberg was mentioned and the father told Moss that his son had something he needed to tell him.
Moss said Arbogast was then called into the conversation by his father and told he needed to talk to Moss. Moss said Arbogast reluctantly recounted Heater’s alleged confession, but said he had been told by Heater that if he talked to anyone he would “be next.”
Cross-examining Arbogast, Dyer asked why Heater, who Arbogast said he barely knew, would confess murder to him.
“We was kinda (sic) seeing the same girl,” Arbogast said. “I dunno (sic) if he was just saying that to intimidate me… I’m just telling you what I know.”
Dyer asked if Arbogast made any deals or was promised anything in return for testifying.
“I’m just speaking what is right, you know,” Arbogast said.
A former inmate also testified Tuesday that Heater confessed to the crime in a conversation from his jail cell at Tygart Valley Regional Jail.
James Roy, of French Creek, said he was jailed for 10 days on a probation violation for a felony charge of failure to register as a sex offender. He said he came forward after overhearing the alleged confession because he was only trying to do the right thing.
“It was just a serious matter and I felt that conscience will work on you,” Roy said, later adding, “I was concerned that someone would get away with doing something that violent.”
Roy said he was not part of the conversation, but overheard it going on between inmates. He said Heater admitted to the murder and to getting paid $5,000 by Correa to do it.
Dyer asked if Roy came forward because he was beaten by Heater in jail for being a sex offender.
“I’m telling you that’s completely false,” Roy said.
Roy said he was not promised any lesser charge or incentive in exchange for his testimony.
– The jury heard extensive testimony Tuesday from experts in the field of forensics called to the witness stand by Prosecuting Attorney Jake Reger.
Dr. John Carson, the chief dental examiner with the West Virginia State Medical Examiner’s office, testified he evaluated the dental remains found in the shallow grave and compared them to the 2006 dental records of Oberg. He said he was looking for consistencies in fillings and restorations between the older records and what could be observed of the remains.
“Those give me sound markers,” Carson said.
He said the remains and the records were each consistent with two silver fillings and one silver restoration. He said he also found the records of Oberg were consistent with the unique “s” shape of the canal at the back of the jaw.
“The remains were positively identified as being those of Joshua Oberg,” Carson said.
Dr. Hamada Mahmoude, a forensic pathologist, testified he examined the remains of Oberg during an autopsy on July 24, 2012, to determine the cause of death.
Mahmoude said the body was very severely decomposed and mostly skeletal, with only some soft tissue remaining. He determined from his evaluation that the cause of death was from a projectile bullet on the left side of the body near the spleen. He said the bullet was intact.
“That was the main cause of death in this case,” Mahmoude said.
Dyer asked if there was more than one gunshot wound, specifically around the neck area. Mahmoude said he only found one bullet and could only be certain of one gun shot wound.
Although Siron testified Monday that Oberg also had been stabbed, Mahmoude said he could not confirm or deny there were stab wounds because of the decomposition of tissue.
“It’s very hard for any forensic pathologist to determine if it is a stab wound or not,” Mahmoude said
Melissa Runion, a section supervisor for the WVSP Forensics Laboratory, said she examined the gun alleged to have been used in the murder, along with evidence retrieved from the West Fork River, including two lighters and a knife. She also examined concrete slabs believed to have been in contact with the body, that were found discarded under a porch.
She said her examinations returned no conclusive results that could be used in the case. She said heat, liquids and weather can wash away or damage DNA evidence over time.
“Even though the results may be reliable, there may not be enough information to determine who that individual was,” Runion said. She noted no DNA profile could be identified from the samples she cross-examined with genetic material from toothbrushes believed to have been used by Oberg.
Firearm and tool mark examiner Philip Cochran, with the WVSP Forensic Laboratory, said he could not conclusively say if the bullet found in Oberg’s body was fired from the gun alleged to have been the murder weapon. He said he also test-fired the gun and compared the results with the bullet found in Oberg’s body.
“I cannot identify or deny that bullet was fired by that handgun,” Cochran said, adding the 9mm pistol used .38 caliber bullets and he was able to identify a “left-hand twist” in both the test shots and in the recovered bullet.
“All I could determine was that it had a left-hand twist,” Cochran said.
He said bullets fired from a gun sometimes have grooves or other unique markings that can be linked to a particular weapon, but those could not be identified on the recovered bullet due to some flattening.
– The gun alleged to be the murder weapon featured in much of the testimony Tuesday.
Upshur County resident Melissa Frey said on the witness stand she was the person who purchased the gun from Heater for $75 and turned it over to police.
She said she met Heater at Cook’s Store in Buckhannon in 2012 when she was working as a confidential informant for the Buckhannon City Police. She said Heater had the gun wrapped up in his shirt and told her he needed to sell it.
“He just said he needed to get rid of it,” Frey said, adding Heater later called someone to say he’d sold the gun. Frey said Heater kept trying to reassure the person on the other end of the phone, saying he or she was “overreacting” to him selling the gun rather than disposing of it another way.
Dyer asked Frey why she didn’t use her phone to take a picture or to record audio of the conversation and prove it was Heater involved in the alleged transaction.
“I didn’t feel like getting shot that day,” Frey said. “So I just called the police and turned it in.”
Frey said she got away from Heater to go into Cook’s Store, where she contacted Patrolman Nick Caynor of the Buckhannon City Police, who told her to contact Sgt. R. Bennett. Frey said she never handled the gun and that it was located on the floorboard of her vehicle, where Heater left it, until police came to get it.
“Officer Caynor didn’t say ‘stall him a little bit so I can corroborate this?” Dyer asked Frey.
“No,” Frey said.
Dyer also asked Frey if she had anything to gain from telling the story.
“I have no reason to lie,” Frey said.
“That we know of,” Dyer said.
Bennett also testified and said he was out of town when he received a call from Caynor about the alleged gun transaction.
“Was it a situation where surveillance could have been done?” Dyer asked.
“Had I been in town, yes sir,” Bennett said, adding he went to Frey’s residence with another officer to retrieve the gun, which was in the floorboard on the front passenger side of her car.
Bennett said he turned the gun over to Moss and the State Police.
Caynor also testified, saying he was in Clarksburg at the time of Frey’s call. He said he instructed her to call Bennett.
“I implied to her that if all else fails, make sure you get that firearm,” Caynor said, later adding, “She is familiar with the format of how a control purchase works.”
Caynor testified he did not follow up with Frey or the WVSP until a week after the call to find out if the gun purchase was made.
Earlier in cross-examining Frey, Dyer asked her why there were no useable fingerprints found on the gun. Frey said when Heater took it out of his shirt it was wrapped in some kind of fabric.
“But he handles the gun, so his prints ought to be on there,” Dyer said.
Dyer also asked Caynor about fingerprints on the gun.
“Did you ask her if she wiped the gun down or did anything that could have caused the prints to be removed?” Dyer asked, referring to Caynor’s check-up with Frey a week after the alleged transaction.
Caynor said he didn’t recall saying anything like that to Frey, noting the conversation was more about reimbursing her for the gun purchase, which he said the Buckhannon Police Department did using investigation funds. He said Frey was upset she had not been reimbursed sooner.
“So we’ll just have to rely on her credibility, then,” Dyer said.
Frey said on the witness stand she only worked as a confidential informant the one time, when she was talking to Heater about the gun. However, Dyer asked Caynor to repeat himself when he testified to something that seemed to contradict her statement.
“Did I hear you right?” Dyer asked. “Did you say Mrs. Frey had worked for you numerous times (as a confidential informant)?”
“Yes,” Caynor said.
– Also on Tuesday, a relative of Heater’s testified about his behavior.
Ellis Wagner, who said Heater was her nephew and was living with her at the time of Oberg’s murder, testified Tuesday Heater did not come home for several days in January 2012. She said when Heater returned to her home, he began to respond negatively to any mention of Oberg.
“If you mentioned Josh around Jessie, he went ballistic,” Wagner said. “He doesn’t want nobody talking about Josh… that was after he (Heater) had left.”
She also said Heater, who was fond of the boots he wore, was not wearing them when he returned to her home after several days’ absence. Wagner said she never saw those boots again.
In testimony Monday, Siron said after Oberg’s murder he and Heater burned their shoes and clothing behind Siron’s house, and burned the bed liner of Siron’s truck at a friend’s property.
The trial will continue today in Upshur County Circuit Court.