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Witnesses take the stand in Brown County missing woman murder trial

Published: Feb. 15, 2021 at 6:09 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 15, 2021 at 4:50 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Witnesses are being called to the stand in the trial for a Brown County man charged with killing his wife.

James Prokopovitz, 75, is standing trial on charges of 1st Degree Intentional Homicide, Resisting or Obstructing and Perjury. Prosecutors say Prokopovitz killed his wife, Victoria, in 2013. Victoria’s body has never been located.

The jury is made up of nine women and six men. There are three alternates. More than 70 people are on witness lists to potentially be called to testify, including dozens of investigators from local and state agencies, relatives of both James and Victoria, her doctors, James’s ex-wife, and informants when James was housed in jail.

Action 2 News plans to livestream the two-week trial. You can watch here: https://www.wbay.com/livestream3/ (NOTE: We may have to break away for other news coverage if necessary.)

Prosecutors argue that James Prokopovitz killed Victoria and had motive. They say he had access to a sludge pond containing industrial chemicals that would decompose a body.

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OPENING STATEMENTS

The prosecution and defense painted very different portraits of the family during opening statements. Prosecutors told the jury that James was abusive and controlling with Victoria. The defense said James loved and cared for his wife, a cancer survivor who battled depression.

Brown County Assistant District Attorney started his opening statement by telling the jury that Victoria Prokopovitz has been missing for 2,854 days and James Prokopovitz was the last person to see her alive on April 25, 2013.

Saunders described the victim as a 59-year-old woman with three children and several grandchildren. She had been married to James since 1989. Victoria was a colon cancer survivor who walked with a cane or a walker. Victoria once had a colostomy bag, but had that procedure reversed. She also suffered from bouts of depression and saw a psychiatrist, who will testify at trial.

The psychiatrist will testify about what Victoria said about her relationship with James. The prosecution says James was controlling and abusive. They say he controlled Vicky’s access to her depression medication. He allegedly controlled their finances. Victoria had no vehicle and relied on James to drive her around.

Saunders told the jury that they’ll hearing from people involved in the search for Victoria. They’ll testify that they heard James Prokopovitz say, “You will never find her. She’s not there. You will waste your time searching there.” James Prokopovitz’s daughter will testify that she heard her father express anger over the extensive searches for Victoria.

Saunders says James Prokopovitz conspired with his girlfriend, Kathy Friday to commit perjury. Prosecutors say Mr. Prokopovitz later told police he lied during the investigation to protect his relationship with Friday. Friday died by suicide last year before her sentencing on perjury and obstruction charges.

Saunders tells the jury that James Prokopovitz admitted to killing his wife, but quickly retracted that statement. Saunders says Prokopovitz told a fellow inmate that no one would ever find Victoria, and if they did, they wouldn’t be able to identify her body.

James Prokopovitz’s attorney, John D’Angelo, told the jury that this is a missing person’s case. D’Angelo said Victoria had mental health issues, including a multiple personality disorder and depression. He told jurors they would hear about at least two suicide attempts.

“The only person who knows what happened to Victoria is Victoria,” D’Angelo says.

D’Angelo said that there is no body and no evidence to prove Prokopovitz killed his wife.

“The state wants you to believe that my client murdered his wife because he wanted to get in a relationship with another woman. Not true,” said D’Angelo. “You’re not going to hear how it happened. You’re not going to know when it happened. You’re not going to have proof of a body.”

D’Angelo told the jurors that Victoria’s son, Wesley, lived with the couple. The attorney said the other members of the family are upset because they don’t like the way James grieved Victoria and because he didn’t join the searches. He said Wesley didn’t search, either.

The attorney said Victoria could walk and “putz around the garden” without her cane.

D’Angelo told the jury that James loved and cared for Vicky, and controlled her medication because he was “trying to keep his wife alive.”

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WITNESS TESTIMONY

The first witness to take the stand was former Brown County Deputy Christine Bilgo. She was the first to respond to the missing person’s report at the Prokopovitz home on Kunesh Road in Pittsfield. Bilgo spoke with James Prokopovitz, who told the deputy that he had last seen Victoria at 10 o’clock the night before. James said he went to sleep in his room while Vicky was up watching television in another room. James said he had been searching outside for Vicky, but was unable to find her.

Bilgo stated that James was concerned because Victoria had previously attempted suicide.

Bilgo made note of the large, rural area where the Prokopovitz home is located.

James said he woke up that morning and discovered Victoria missing, according to Bilgo. James stated this was not unusual because Victoria was known to get up early and go on walks.

Bilgo described James Prokopovitz’s demeanor as “calm.”

“He was very calm. He wasn’t out of breath. He wasn’t--he didn’t seem overly emotional in any direction. Just kind of waited for me to ask my next question,” said Bilgo.

James said Victoria’s purse was left behind and showed it to Bilgo. Bilgo asked what Victoria could have been wearing on her walk. James showed Bilgo where Victoria keeps her shoes and indicated a pair of stacked-heel boots were missing. Bilgo testified that she found it odd that Victoria would go out in the dark for a walk in heeled boots.

Bilgo said she asked if anyone else was home, and James informed her that Wes was upstairs. She found it odd that Wes didn’t come down to talk to her about his mother’s disappearance. Bilgo said she asked Wes to come down and answer questions. Wes said the last time he saw his mother was 6 p.m. the evening before and that he thought “she seemed fine.” Wes said he was worried about his mother.

Bilgo said she got “an uneasy feeling” from both James and Wes.

Bilgo called for assistance and directed them to search outbuildings, fields and the wood line. She testified that smoke appeared to be coming from a burn barrel in front of the home.

Bilgo also testified about the state of the Prokopovitz bed, which was made with dolls and pillows in place. Bilgo stated it appeared it had not been slept in that night, as James had claimed. Bilgo stated that the other option would be that Victoria came home from a walk and made the bed.

The defense was next with cross examination. Attorney D’Angelo asked Bilgo if she had taken notice of footprints or signs of someone being dragged. She said she did not. D’Angelo asked if she noticed an odd smell from the burn barrel. Bilgo said she did not smell anything unusual.

She said she did not. D’Angelo asked if she noticed an odd smell from the burn barrel. Bilgo said she did not smell anything unusual.

Bilgo testified that she noticed no signs of a struggle in the home.

D’Angelo asked Bilgo if she found any cigarettes around the home. Bilgo could not recall. She said she was unaware that Victoria was a heavy smoker.

When asked about the bed, Bilgo said it was unusual for a man to make a bed in such a meticulous manner as it was found. She testified that James didn’t say specifically that he slept in the bed, but that he had “gone to bed.”

As for the purse, the defense asked it if would be unusual for a woman going on a walk around her home to leave her purse inside. Bilgo agreed that would not be unusual.

Bilgo testified that James and Wes had a similar demeanor--both being calm. She stated that Wes was not overly emotional and not crying.

James mentioned that a white coat belonging to Victoria was missing. Bilgo said they never located that coat.

After a lunch break, the prosecution called retired Brown County Sgt. Richard Kurth to the stand. He responded to the Kunesh Road home with a K-9. Kurth testified that he did not notice any obvious signs of footprints leaving the home.

Following Sgt. Kurth, Brown County Sgt. Zach Roush testified. Roush had helped search for Victoria with his K9.

Sgt. Roush was followed by Victoria’s daughter, Stacey Deer. Deer testified about her mother’s suicide attempts, as well as how James handled money, and when he told family about a relationship with a new woman.

Deer is the first family member to take the stand, and told jurors her mother was a night owl, but wouldn’t have taken a walk in the middle of the night as the defense argued. She added it wasn’t until a police officer called her that she found out her mother was missing.

Deer went on to tell the jury James controlled the finances, had a gambling problem, and drank a lot. Prosecutors also asked about her mom’s mental health, and referred to a suicide attempt in 2003, which was a key argument from the defense.

“She had stated that no one would find her next time....She did tell me... I say that, but I really don’t mean it,” said Deer.

She went on to tell the court her mother was close to Wes, Victoria’s son, and tried to refute any doubt cast by the defense during opening statements that Wes could be involved in his mother’s disappearance.

Deer also testified James told the family that he had started a new relationship with another woman three months after her mother disappeared, and canceled her mother’s insurance.

During cross-examination, the defense focused on her mother’s suicide attempt years earlier.

“When she was out of the hospital, she was upset that she was found after her suicide attempt?” asked John D’Angelo, Prokopovitz’s attorney.

“Yes,” said Deer.

“And that’s when she made the statement, next time nobody’s going to find me?”

“Yes, she was very angry” said Deer.

“If I take your word is... she says things that she really didn’t mean... what if she said I’m very happy today, but maybe she doesn’t mean it. How would you know if she’s telling you the truth,” asked D’Angelo.

“I agree, but you can tell when mom is happy,” said Deer.

The defense also argued Deer wouldn’t know what state of mind her mother was in when she went missing because she hadn’t spoken to her for a few months.

Deer’s testimony comes after four police officers who were first on scene and who helped search for Victoria testified they were surprised James was so calm with his wife missing, and noticed the bed looked like it hadn’t been slept in, and found no footprints or other evidence of Victoria. In addition, they noticed a burn barrel near the house was smoking when officers arrived the day she was reported missing.

“Did you see any of the items that seemed like they were disturbed or that they weren’t where they were supposed to be, like something that would be of evidentiary value, like things are knocked off a shelf or something in on the floor,” asked D’Angelo.

“No, sir,” said Deputy Christine Bilgo.

“Hypothetically, if somebody was strangled in a house and taken out of that house in a vehicle and dumped somewhere else, you wouldn’t see a struggle in the house, would you,” asked Wendy Lemkuil, the Deputy District Attorney.

“No, ma’am,” said Bilgo.

Testimony is expected to resume Tuesday morning.

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THE INVESTIGATION

On April 25, 2013, Victoria Prokopovitz disappeared from the Pittsfield home she shared with her husband, James.

The next day, James Prokopovitz called the Brown County Sheriff’s Office to report his wife missing. He told them that she suffered from depression and he was afraid that she had taken her own life somewhere near the home. James told investigators that he saw his wife at 10 p.m. the night before. He said that’s the time he went to bed.

James Prokopvotiz said once he believed her to be missing, he “panicked” and went out searching for his wife. He said Victoria had left behind her cell phone, cigarettes, purse and identification.

WBAY Photo
WBAY Photo(WBAY)

James Prokopovitz went to work that day, April 26, but never told his co-workers that his wife was missing, according to a criminal complaint. Co-workers said he acted no differently than usual.

The Prokopovitz house is located on a rural farm property with numerous outbuildings. A K-9 searched the property to no avail. There were no shoe prints in the soil, meaning Victoria could not have walked from her home the night of her disappearance.

Family and friends have said James never helped in the searches for Victoria and “became hostile at times.”

Victoria’s daughter, Marsha, recalled a time that James said of Victoria, “She is dead. She is nowhere around here. She is never coming back.”

Family members told investigators about their increasing suspicion that James Prokopovitz was involved in their mother’s disappearance. James continued to make comments that Victoria was gone and they were “wasting their time” searching for her.

Just weeks after Victoria disappeared, James announced that he had started a romantic relationship with an old girlfriend named Kathy Friday. Investigators wondered if the relationship was part of the motive behind Victoria’s disappearance. One witness said James had told Kathy that he knew his wife was dead. A witness said Kathy got a second phone for the purpose of communicating with James.

Records found that James and Victoria had some financial issues, including unpaid medical bills and a foreclosure. Investigators found that James had taken Victoria off his family medical and dental insurance on August 28, 2013--a few months after Victoria went missing. He converted his insurance from family to individual.

James admitted that he had access to a sludge pond between his home and his place of work. The sludge pond contains industrial waste and “products that are “unstable” in nature. It would be very hard to search.

During a John Doe hearing, James Prokopovitz said that he didn’t know where Victoria’s body was and “if I could s--t my wife’s body out in order to protect Kathy [Friday], I would.”

Prokopovitz initially said he went to sleep at about 10 p.m. on the night Victoria disappeared. However, his bed was “meticulously made and did not appear slept in,” according to investigators. During the John Doe hearing, he changed his story and said he had slept in his recliner in the living room.

Investigators questioned James about the route he said he took during his panicked search for Victoria. Surveillance video from a gas station on his search route did not show James’ vehicle passing during that time.

James also claimed he had made several calls to Victoria’s phone after her disappearance. Phone records show that didn’t happen.

James’ claims that Victoria had tried several times to take her own life were not documented or validated by the investigation.

After the John Doe hearing, Prokopovitz was taken to the Brown County Sheriff’s Office for an interview. That’s when he said that he had lied under oath, and had been lying for years.

He said he was trying to protect his relationship with Kathy Friday.

“I did not kill my wife Vicki but I did lie to the police for years in connection with the investigation surrounding her disappearance. Ultimately, I lied in court today as well while I was under oath. I understand that lying to the police and the court was the wrong and illegal thing to do but I did not kill my wife. I lied because Kathy and I were trying to keep our stories straight.”

James also walked back a prior confession to killing Victoria. “When I told Sgt. Aronstein during the interview that I killed her, that was only due to my desperation as I did not kill her ... I did not dispose of my wife in the sludge ponds.”

Over the years, there has been no trace of Victoria Prokopovitz suggesting she would be living another life in another location. She has filled no prescriptions. She has not traveled outside of the country. She has not checked into any hospitals or mental health facilities. She has not accessed her bank account.

Victoria was known to have a bad leg, and it was “unlikely she would have been physically able to walk very far from” her home, investigators say.

Victoria Prokopovitz has never been found.

Following the John Doe hearing and interview, James Prokopovitz and Kathy Friday were taken into custody.

Kathy Friday was charged with Perjury, but passed away before the case was concluded. The charges were dismissed.

Watch the video below to watch opening statements and testimony streamed on the Action 2 News Facebook page.

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