Video appears to put Gonzalez at scene of Attkisson’s death
The trial of a man accused of murdering a Greencastle woman last year opened Monday with 12 witnesses and nearly 80 exhibits entered into evidence.
Most pointedly, a video taken from defendant John Gonzalez’s pawned cell phone appeared to place him at the scene of Melissa “Lisa” Attkisson’s death after she had been fatally wounded but before she ultimately succumbed to her injuries.
Gonzalez, 30, Greencastle (formerly of Terre Haute), is accused of the January 2020 murder of his on-and-off girlfriend Attkisson, 44, Greencastle, who was found dead at her Berry Street home on the night of Jan. 28, 2020.
Besides murder, Gonzalez faces the additional charges of Level 6 felony auto theft and Level 6 felony theft of a firearm.
The two additional charges originally filed against Gonzalez, both relating to illegally carrying a handgun as a felon, were dismissed last week at the request of the State of Indiana.
Monday’s proceedings included opening statements from both the prosecution and the defense, followed by a part of the prosecution’s case before recess was called shortly after 3 p.m.
The day opened with Putnam Superior Court Judge Denny Bridges swearing in the jury, giving instructions to the 12 jurors and three alternates and reminding them of their responsibility in the case.
“You are the exclusive judges of the evidence,” Bridges told the jury before giving way to opening statements.
Prosecutor Tim Bookwalter spent much of his opening statement giving the jury “a preview of what we think will happen.”
He explained how Attkisson’s body was discovered by her adult son Devan on Jan. 28, three days after authorities believe she was killed, with police responding and beginning their investigation soon afterward.
Bookwalter went on by introducing the two people of interest who were identified early in the investigation, Gonzalez and former boyfriend Colton Croan, against whom Attkisson had filed a protective order the previous year.
“They had two separate people they were looking at and they went down two separate trails,” Bookwalter said.
He continued by explaining how the evidence began pointing toward Gonzalez, including him selling his mobile phone to a kiosk in the Walmart on U.S. 41 in Terre Haute, evidence he later began introducing through dozens of exhibits.
Bookwalter also noted photo and video evidence found on Gonzalez’s phone that appeared to place him at the scene.
“You’re going to see that he had on a pair of Air Jordans — gray Air Jordans — and there’s a little bit of blood on one of those shoes,” he said.
Bookwalter went on to explain how he planned to show that Gonzalez spent the days following Attkisson’s death traveling through Indiana, Illinois and Missouri in Attkisson’s 2016 Ford Escape, her cell phone in his possession.
The veteran prosecutor then explained how Gonzalez had been found in Rock Island, Ill., on Feb. 5, near the crashed Escape he is accused of stealing, with several of Attkisson’s possessions, including the phone, identification and credit and debit cards in his possession.
Bookwalter added that the phone had been sold by an acquaintance of Gonzalez for four bags of crack.
“We believe when you hear all our evidence, we’re going to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt,” Bookwalter said.
Defense attorney Jim Bruner, who did most of the speaking in place of public defender Jim Hanner, whose voice is currently gone due to a medical condition, then offered his opening statement.
“This is an unusual case, I find, for a murder case,” Bruner said.
He noted that there are no “fact witnesses” for the time leading up to her death, none to her death and very few for the aftermath.
Secondly, Bruner said Gonzalez had made no admission of guilt under interrogation by the police, which is often the case.
Finally, he noted “serious time-of-death issues.”
“There are reasons that cases go to trial,” Bruner said. “This case is going to trial because John Gonzalez did not murder Lisa Attkisson.”
He then gave some of Gonzalez’s background, including a previous marriage and fathering a baby before meeting Attkisson and beginning “a stormy, on-again, off-again relationship.”
Bruner then gave some admissions about Gonzalez’s behavior.
“John did a lot of bad things on Jan. 25,” Bruner said. “One of the things he did is got really high with Lisa. The autopsy will show that Lisa’s methamphetamine level was off the charts and she has some fentanyl in her system as well.”
After that, according to Bruner, Attkisson got out her own gun, which caused Gonzalez to strike her in self defense. In the struggle, Bruner said, Attkisson was shot.
“So he does kind of a weird, high person thing,” Bruner added. “So he takes a couple of photos and he shoots a video to show that she was alive before he left.”
Bruner then essentially admitted Gonzalez’s guilt to counts two and three.
“John is guilty of auto theft and theft,” Bruner said. “We acknowledge that.”
The attorney said his client then left Greencastle, meeting up with a woman named Dabryn Tanner in Brazil.
“In his state of mind, not knowing what to do, they traveled around together for four or five days throughout an area all the way from Terre Haute and Brazil, up to Danville, Ill., and through Illinois and into the state of Missouri,” Bruner said.
At that point, Bruner said, Gonzalez returned Tanner home and headed west again, where he was found in Rock Island.
“This is a murder trial, not an auto theft trial, not a theft trial,” Bruner said. “This is a murder trial.
“The science will show that he did not murder Lisa Attkisson,” he added. “Science will show you that he did not murder her. Your common sense will show you that he did not murder her.”
Bruner also addressed the time that lapsed between Attkisson’s death on Saturday and the discovery of her body on Tuesday night.
He also said that while the gun and the gunshot would be the matter of much discussion, it was not actually the murder weapon.
“Ms. Attkisson did not die from the gunshot,” Bruner said. “She died from blunt force trauma from an object that was recovered at the scene.”
The opening statements over, Bookwalter and Deputy Prosecutor Austin Malayer began building their case.
Attkisson’s son Devan Attkisson and his then-girlfriend Mackenzie Childress told the court of how they lost contact with Lisa Attkisson in the days leading up to her discovery.
Both testified that the victim was always the kind to respond to any phone calls or text messages, but that all stopped around Jan. 25.
After Devan got off work on Tuesday, Jan. 28, he went by her house for the third straight day, but this time found a way in, getting through an unlocked window and making his way around the house. Before going upstairs, he said the only thing he noticed was how cold it was in the house.
Then he went upstairs.
“I didn’t make it very far,” Devan Attkisson said. “I just kind of saw her laying there and I kind of fell down.”
He said his mother’s body was on the floor, with her face covered with a towel.
“I think I kind of blacked out a little bit,” Devan said.
It was Childress who ultimately called the police.
On cross examination, Bruner mainly asked about Attkisson’s gun, which Devan had purchased for her after an incident with Croan.
The prosecution then moved on to its questioning of Greencastle Police Department officers Alec Pettit and Luke Brown, who were two of the first three officers on the scene, along with former Sgt. Eric Vaughan.
Pettit was the first person with positive proof that Attkisson was dead.
“I went to check for a pulse and could feel she was stiff,” Pettit said. “There was no pulse there.”
Brown spoke of how he had canvassed the neighborhood, asking neighbors if they had seen anything. One told him the air conditioning had been running for several days even though it was late January.
On cross examination, Brown did not recall any neighbors telling him they’d seen any coming or going at the residence.
After the brief testimony of Ascena Human Resources Manager Amy Pennington to establish a bit of Attkisson’s work history, Bookwalter began introducing more and more evidence into the court record through the testimony of Indiana State Police and Putnam County Sheriff’s Office investigators.
First up was Sgt. Brandon Mullen, a crime scene investigator for ISP. During his lengthy testimony, Mullen led the jury through the house and what he discovered that night, including a damaged basement door and what he found within, including a hand-made table with two legs missing and a box matching the brand of Attkisson’s 9mm handgun, but with no gun inside.
The missing table legs came to be significant later in his testimony.
“Based on the damage, it looked like something was ripped out,” Mullen said.
Moving on to the bedroom, Mullen said it was in disarray, with signs of struggle and blood in multiple places.
Step-by-step, Mullen and Bookwalter went through the various bloody items found in the bedroom, including three separate pieces of what was determined to be a laminate counter backsplash, all three of which were bloody and which fit together in a way that indicated they had been broken apart.
Discovered behind Attkisson’s head was one of these pieces of laminate as well as a 2x4. The broken table was later placed in the middle of the courtroom, with Mullen showing the jury how the screws on the 2x4 matched the holes in the broken table.
“I believe that the items in the basement are directly related to the crime that occurred in the bedroom,” Mullen said.
Over the objection of the defense, Mullen offered his expert opinion that the shot had likely been fired through Attkisson’s abdomen while she was sitting or lying in the bed.
He further said that lab examination of the wounds did not indicate they were from close range, which would be indicative of a struggle.
Much of Mullen’s testimony also centered on the blood patterns he found in the room, though he offered no conclusions based on this evidence.
Sgt. Sam Stearley, who is in charge of detectives for Putnamville, briefly testified about the various ways investigators looked into both suspects, including searching for the car, gun and phone through statewide and nationwide databases.
One of these paid off for Det. Donnie Pettit of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, who through the database LeadsOnline was able to find Gonzalez selling his phone to the kiosk in Walmart in Terre Haute.
Evidence introduced at this time showed Gonzalez and a then-unidentified female at the store selling the phone at the kiosk on Jan. 29 around 9 p.m.
Testimony moved on to Michael McCann, who serves as director of law enforcement relations at EcoATM, which runs the kiosk in question. He explained to the court a bit about how their system works and how a disclaimer is offered letting clients know that pictures will be taken and information turned over to law enforcement.
It was actually PCSO Capt. Det. Doug Nally, along with fellow Det. Matthew Biggs, who recovered the phone from the kiosk.
Step by step, he took the court through what evidence recovered from Walmart loss prevention showed, including Gonzalez entering the store, going to customer service, selling the phone at the kiosk and then leaving the store, including the make and model of the car.
“Based on the video, it did appear to be a black Ford Escape,” Nally said.
Nally further testified that he later met with Colton Croan at his Fillmore residence.
“The purpose was to physically lay eyes on him as being in our community,” Nally said.
Probably the most compelling moments of the day came during the testimony of ISP Sgt. Chris Carter, whose specialty is extracting data from phones.
What he found on Gonzalez’s phone were two photos and a video, all taken within a few minutes of each other on the morning of Jan. 25, 2020.
In the first, a woman, identified as Attkisson, is lying on her back, clearly beaten about the face and with a wound in her stomach.
Carter said it would be hard to ascertain from the single photo if the woman was alive.
However, the addition of a second photo, taken just three seconds later, changed things.
“It appears she is alive,” Carter said. “She has a cigarette in her hand.”
In both photos, the gray Air Jordans, noted by Bookwalter way back in opening arguments, can be seen.
Finally, Bookwalter played a video extracted from the phone, taken a little over two minutes after the photos, in which Attkisson can be seen moving and heard speaking.
“John…” the woman says.
“What?” a male voice interjects tersely.
“Please make it stop.”
Amid other moans that are more difficult to understand, the voice repeats her plea.
“John, please make it stop.”
Asked by Bookwalter, Carter said he had never picked up anything like this on a phone before.
After no cross-examination from the defense, Bookwalter called Putnam County Jail Commander Ashley Smith to the stand.
Testifying that she has had hundreds of interactions with Gonzalez, Smith said she had heard the recording and there was no doubt in her mind that it was his voice.
At this point in the day, Bookwalter told Judge Bridges it was probably a natural stopping point, as his next witness was forensic pathologist Dr. Roland Kohr, whose testimony was likely to be lengthy.
At this, court recessed for the day, with proceedings set to resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.