Witnesses quote defendant from memory, not tapes, in murder retrial

 

HUDSON—An undercover State Police narcotics investigator who befriended Warren Powell told the court that the defendant instructed him about how to do away with someone he didn’t like.

     The investigator’s testimony Tuesday, April 14, followed by a day the testimony of a man now serving time in a Florida prison, who also attributed statements to Mr. Powell that implicate him in the murder of his wife on or about October 1, 1994.

     Mr. Powell, 38, a Valatie native, has pleaded not guilty to the crime, and his attorney has accused police of mishandling the case and of lacking any recordings that would back up their notes and recollections of incriminating statements they attribute to the defendant.

     He was previously convicted of the crime in 1997. But in 2004 a state appeals court upheld his challenge of the conviction due to an error by the judge during jury selection, and the case is now being retried in County Court.

     The Powells were living in Halfmoon, Saratoga County in 1994, and Mary Ann (Tasick) Powell, 21, was six-months pregnant. Although she disappeared in October of that year, her body was not discovered for almost two years, when campers hiking near Gay’s Point in Stockport found it in the Hudson River in May 1996. She had been strangled to death and stuffed in a hockey bag weighed down with rocks.

     On the stand in Columbia County Court Tuesday Senior Investigator Samuel Mercado said he was pretending to be Carlos Rodriguez, an employee of a major supermarket chain on the midnight shift, when he first met Mr. Powell in the fall of 1995. Though Mr. Powell had moved to Schenectady from the apartment in Halfmoon, Mr. Powell was still working for Apex Sewer and Drain, as he had been the year before at the time of his wife’s disappearance.

     Using a fake identity as part of a narcotics investigation, the undercover investigator visited Mr. Powell at his Schenectady residence November 7, 1995. As a result of investigation, Mr. Powell was eventually charged and convicted of drug sales. The investigator was aware that at the time that Mr. Powell was a suspect in his wife’s disappearance.

     Sr. Inv. Mercado said he had told Mr. Powell about his girlfriend having a boyfriend he did not like and his desire to get rid of him. According to the investigator, Mr. Powell picked up an electrical cord, held it taut at both ends and demonstrated to the investigator how it could be used as a deadly weapon wrapped around someone’s neck.

     Asked by the investigator how he might then dispose of the body, Sr. Inv. Mercado testified that Mr. Powell told him to bind the hands and the feet of the victim together, putting him in a fetal position, cover him with a blanket, carry him out like a package, put him in a vehicle and take him away.

The investigator also testified that Mr. Powell called his wife Mary Ann “a bitch.”

     Inv. Mercado was also present during Mr. Powell’s arrest May 26, 1996, after the body of his wife was found. The investigator said he picked up Mr. Powell under the pretense of taking him to examine a car the investigator was interested in buying. State Police had orchestrated a scenario in which they would pull the undercover vehicle over and take both Mr. Powell and the undercover investigator into custody on drug charges.

     When they got to the barracks, police officers took them outside were they had the clothes that Mr. Powell’s wife had been wearing at the time of her death, hung up on a clothesline. The clothes were “tattered” and a “malodorous” stench permeated the air, said Inv. Mercado.

     The investigator testified about Mr. Powell’s shocked reaction to seeing the clothing and his subsequent statement that “he couldn’t believe they found the f……. body.”

     The police then told both men they would be charged with murder, and Inv. Mercado said he kept asking Mr. Powell what was going on, saying, “I’m not going down for no murder.”

     At that point Mr. Powell told police to leave Mr. Mercado alone, that he was a friend and that “he had nothing to do with that,” according to the investigator.

      During cross examination, defense attorney Stephen Coffey accused the investigator of deceiving Mr. Powell and criticized the investigator for not wearing a recording device in his face-to-face conversations with Mr. Powell.

     Though the investigator had taped numerous phone conversations with Mr. Powell, he said he did not try to tape his in-person conversations because the equipment available 14 years ago at the time of his investigation was awkward and would not record long conversations due to limited battery life.

     The bulk of testimony during the afternoon was given by State Police Investigator Dennis Moessner, who was involved in seizing the 12-foot aluminum boat Mr. Powell bought the day his wife disappeared and had taken samples from several Columbia County bodies of water, including lakes and river access points back in 1994.

     Since testimony in the retrial started April 2, the prosecution conducted by Assistant District Attorneys David Costanzo and H. Neal Conolly have called about 25 witnesses.

     Among them was Barbara Tasick, who testified about how her son-in-law Mr. Powell notified her and her husband about their daughter’s disappearance three days after the fact, did not make any inquiries of anyone to try to find her and did not report her missing until the Tasicks insisted and went with him to the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office.

     Mr. Powell, who has been vigorously involved in his defense, constantly directing his attorney to ask about things he deems crucial, even questioned a witness at one point, a highly unusual circumstance that required the approval in advance of Judge Jonathan Nichols.

     The prosecution has called a procession of Troop G State Police investigators, who have testified about everything from the unusual and incriminating statements Mr. Powell made to them, to the issues the couple argued about on the date of Mrs. Powell’s disappearance, the clothing that was found on her decomposed remains and the heavy rope that was wound through her mouth and around her neck in the hockey bag pulled from the Hudson River almost two years after her disappearance.

    But police officers were not the only ones to talk about Mr. Powell’s incriminating statements. Two men with criminal records also told the jury Mr. Powell told them about doing away with his wife and the baby she was carrying.

     An engineering professor from RPI told the jury that scuff marks discovered on the seats of the aluminum boat belonging to Mr. Powell were made when some of the vinyl rubbed off the bottom of the hockey bag as it was dragged across the seats with the weight of Mrs. Powell’s body and nearly 100 pounds of rocks inside.

     The defense has strenuously sought to discredit nearly every witness, with Mr. Coffey saying that police settled on Mr. Powell as the primary suspect and set out to frame him for the murder. Defense Attorney Coffey has criticized police procedures and the lack of audio or video recordings that would document what Mr. Powell actually said, as opposed to police recollections and notes of what was said.

     The prosecution’s case is nearing completion with perhaps one more witness to take the stand Wednesday, before the defense begins its case.

To contact reporter Diane Valden email moc.r1566337281epapa1566337281ibmul1566337281oc@ne1566337281dlavd1566337281.

 

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