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More witnesses testify on Day 3 of missing woman murder trial

Published: Feb. 17, 2021 at 6:52 AM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - More witnesses took the stand Wednesday on Day 3 of the missing woman murder trial in Brown County.

James Prokopovitz, 75, is standing trial for the homicide of his wife, Victoria. James is also charged with Resisting or Obstructing and Perjury.

Victoria Prokopovitz disappeared on April 25, 2013. Her body has never been located.

Her last known location was the Prokopovitz home in a rural area of Kunesh Road in the Town of Pittsfield.

Action 2 News is livestreaming 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.

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.

The prosecution has called all three of Victoria Prokopovitz’s children to the witness stand. Questions from the prosecution and defense have focused on Victoria’s physical and mental health.

CLICK HERE for coverage of Day 2 testimony.

CLICK HERE for coverage of opening statements and Day 1 testimony.

DAY 3 TESTIMONY

The first person to take the stand Wednesday was Julie Smith, a long-time friend of Victoria Prokopovitz’s daughter, Marsha Loritz. She was a volunteer in searches for Victoria.

Smith says she volunteered during a search on April 29, 2013. She testified that upon return to the Prokopovitz home, James was asleep in his recliner. She testified that he had not been part of the search effort.

On May 12, 2013, Smith agreed to drop off some items for a professional search group. On that morning, she was unable to find the town hall and stopped at the Prokopovitz home on Kunesh Road. She testified that James opened the door, but his demeanor troubled her. She called it a gut-wrenching feeling in her stomach.

“As soon as that happened he looked away and was trying to shut the door,” Smith testified. She asked for directions to the town hall. He told her where to turn but shut the door on her before she could get clarification.

“I felt like he didn’t want me there,” Smith said.

The defense countered, asking Julie if she had previous encounters with James Prokopovitz. She said she had met him once before. The defense asked if James could have been short with her that day because he was upset that it was Mother’s Day and his wife was missing. She agreed that could be possible.

The defense also asked if Julie knew if James was home prior to the search on April 29. She did not. The defense asked if it would be unusual for a man to be asleep in a recliner at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. She said that would not be unusual.

The search turned up no sign of Victoria Prokopovitz, according to Julie Smith.

The next witness is another friend of Marsha Loritz. Rhonda Schmidt helped with several searches for Victoria. She saw on Facebook that Victoria had disappeared and reached out to Marsha to offer her help.

Rhonda testified that she never saw James Prokopovitz take part in any of these searches.

In April of 2014, Rhonda hosted a vigil for Victoria at her home. She says Marsha Loritz had planned a balloon release and dove release. James Prokopovitz was there, but Rhonda was put off by his demeanor. She says James was standing at the end of the dove table “rather than being among the crowd.”

“I didn’t think he was engaged with anything Marsha was saying or any of the group that was there on behalf of Vicky,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt said she had not met James prior to this vigil.

The defense asked if Rhonda had spoken to James that day to ask him about his behavior. She said she did not. Attorney John D’Angelo asked if she would know James’ personality or his mindset that day. She said she did not.

The next witness is Mark Blaser, one of three men who were James’ colleagues and would eventually testify Wednesday. They say they were hauling sludge or ash from the Georgia Pacific Paper Mill to sludge ponds, or cells as they called them, across from Austin Straubel Airport. Key testimony comes in their descriptions of that material, with one saying it could burn or corrode skin.

The men told jurors they couldn’t always see everything in the load in their dump trucks, and refer to the material they were transporting and dumping as quicksand.

Blaser worked with James Prokopovitz at McKeefrys. They hauled paper waste--or sludge--from GP to a landfill near Austin Straubel International Airport.

Mark Blaser hauled the materials in a dump truck. James Prokopovitz would fill the trucks with waste.

Mark said he didn’t have a personal relationship with James. They mostly chatted about work. They didn’t hang out outside of work.

The prosecution asked Mark about the morning of April 26--the day after Victoria went missing. Mark noted that he spoke with James twice that morning--short calls--regarding the loads they would be hauling that day.

Mark told law enforcement at that time that he thought it was strange that James would come to work while his wife was missing.

“I wouldn’t have went to work. I would have been out looking for her. But everybody has their own way of dealing with things,” Blaser recalls.

On cross examination, the defense asked about swiping in and out of Georgia Pacific. Blaser says McKeefrys employees had to get a card to get into GP and return it at the end of the day. They had to come in contact with a GP employee to get that card and return it.

Blaser says the landfill was not under “high security” but there was someone who would monitor for people who were unauthorized to be there. There was no “gate keeper” there.

Blaser further described the “sludge” that was dumped in this ponds at the landfill--also called cells. He says some of the sludge was “sloppier” and some was “drier.”

Blaser testifies that certain items can sink in a sludge pond.

Blaser’s testimony:

Wendy: “If something would go in there, is that something that could no longer be seen at some point?”

Blaser: “Depends how heavy it is is if it sinks or not.”

Wendy: “Would you agree with respect to that there are some areas that are almost like quicksand, that it is something that is liquefied?”

Blaser: “There are some soft spots, yes.”

Blaser’s testimony:

D’angelo: “If something fell in there, it wouldn’t sink all the way to the bottom, correct?”

Blaser: “I don’t think it’s that soupy because I know that one spot, the one time Bob forgot and drove out there and the cat and got stuck, but it didn’t sink out of sight.”

The next witness is Brown County Deputy Joseph Kazik. On May 4, 2013, he canvassed the area near the Prokopovitz home. Kazik says he and another officer visited 23 homes, speaking to about 15 people.

Kazik says he found no evidence regarding Victoria Prokopovitz’s disappearance during the canvass.

The next witness is John Hill, a dump truck driver for McKeefrys. He worked there in 2013 with James Prokopovitz. He says Prokopovitz would load the truck with ash and paper waste to be hauled to the landfill. He says one type of ash (called nine ash) they hauled was caustic.

“They either nicknamed it Red Ash or nine ash.... and that was caustic that had time in it would burn your skin and everything else, pretty nasty stuff,” said Hill.

Hill described the landfill as a “wide open area.”

Hill says he is not aware of surveillance cameras at the landfill. It had a keyed entrance, but the gate was open when he’d arrive with his first load in the morning. Hill said there was no system for checking in at the landfill. The former colleagues testify the sludge ponds weren’t under extreme supervision, and prosecutors say Prokopovitz did have a key that would have allowed him access to the landfill area at any time.

Hill testimony:

Wendy: “But there was no system for checking and swiping in or time stamping anybody going out.”

Hill: “No, no.”

Truckers were at the landfill between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m.

After several witnesses told jurors they thought it was odd James showed little emotion around the time his wife went missing, on cross examination, the defense established he was a hard worker, and his demeanor rarely changed, no matter what was happening around him.

The next witness was Steven Hilliker. Hilliker also drove dump truck for McKeefrys in 2013. He remembered a day after Victoria’s disappearance where he saw James Prokopovitz “had his head down, kind of looked like he was crying.” Hilliker said he never saw Prokopovitz show emotion prior to this incident.

“Except for one day, a few days later, I just happened to pull up and get loaded for sludge and Curly was sitting in the ladder and he had his head down, just kind of looked like he was crying. That’s the way I took it,” said Hilliker.

The next witness to take the stand was Dawn Bogucki, a secretary at McKeefrys. She testified that Prokopovitz acted no differently than usual in the days after his wife’s disappearance. However, she has never known James to show much emotion.

The next witness called was Julie Hazaert, a friend of Victoria’s daughter Stacey Deer. Hazaert helped in searches for Victoria. Hazaert testified that she overheard James say, “You guys are wasting your time, she’s nowhere around here. You will never find her. Women, all they do is bitch, bitch, bitch.”

Hazaert said those comments were “etched in her memory.” However, she needed a refresher from the prosecution on the lines “You will never find her. Women, all they do is bitch, bitch, bitch.” She couldn’t recall what she had told officials.

Hazaert said those comments were “etched in her memory.” However, she needed a refresher from the prosecution on the lines “You will never find her. Women, all they do is bitch, bitch, bitch.” She couldn’t recall what she had told officials. The defense brought up that Hazaert had not presented these statements to investigators until March of 2020--seven years after she heard them.

Following a lunch break, retired Ashwaubenon public Safety officer Scott Schermitzler testified. He spoke about dive teams searching a large quarry.

Following Schermitzler, Sherri Jo Lucas, who is with the Rapid Search and Rescue Team, and Georgia Pacific worker Richard Jones testified in front of jurors. Jones told jurors Prokopovitz was an endloader operator, and also discussed stability of materials.

When Jones took the stand, he described the material in the sludge ponds, and prosecutors call those ponds and what’s inside them unstable.

Jones testimony:

Wendy: “Could it be described that there are portions of that that could be consistent with what somebody would imagine would be like a quicksand?”

Jones: “Yes.”

Wendy: “Back in 2013, if law enforcement would have wanted to search these landfill cells, and it was indicated that it wouldn’t be possible to dredge them. Why is that?”

Jones: “Because of the instability of the material inside a cell. A typical cell will range anywhere from 250,00 - 800,000 cubic yards. So in essence, the sheer volume of moving that material.”

D’Angelo: “It well lit in a sense of that... is there lighting to guide these guys out or is it pretty much the reason why they work during the daylight is because it’s not lit up?”

Jones: “That that is correct. There’s very limited lighting.”

D’Angelo: “So if it’s dark wood, you know, if you’re driving towards a cell or not being out at that landfill..”

Jones: “You would need to have your lights on.”

At the end of the day, prosecutors call the main investigator in the case, Sgt. Roman Aronstein, to the stand.

He only gives a few minutes of testimony, with questions being asked about a person lying to investigators.

Prokopovitz also faces perjury charges.

Aronstein testimony:

Wendy: “Is that something to be deemed a consideration for somebody being involved in a criminal investigation that you’re investigating?’

Roman: “I think it depends on the nature of the lie, the significance of the lie, the sophistication of the lie... how protracted or how long the lie is maintained.”

Prosecutors tried to bring home the point that multiple search teams, both voluntary and coordinated through law enforcement, did several searches for Victoria. Those were done on foot, with dogs, on horseback and even doing dives in the quarry - but all came up empty.

More testimony will begin at 8:30 Thursday morning.

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 Prokopovtiz 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.

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.

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