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Missing woman murder trial delayed after judge breaks ankle

The trial will resume Monday after the judge needed emergency surgery
Published: Feb. 18, 2021 at 8:20 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 18, 2021 at 4:44 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The trial of a man accused of killing his wife is delayed until next week after the judge overseeing the case suffered a broken ankle.

On Thursday, witnesses were scheduled to take the stand on Day 4 of the two-week trial of James Prokopovitz. However, Judge Timothy Hinkfuss was not at the bench. Brown County Judge Marc Hammer sat in and announced, “Judge Hinkfuss asked me to sit in this morning. Judge Hinkfuss slipped and fell last night returning home from work. He suffered a broken ankle in three places and he needs surgery.”

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

Hammer told jurors because the surgery is scheduled for Friday, the trial would not resume until the morning of Monday, Feb. 22.

Reporter Sarah Thomsen, who’s covered Victoria Prokopovitz’s disappearance for eight years, spent Thursday getting answers about the impact this delay could have on the case and the jury.

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While accidents happen and a delay like this is always a possibility, it doesn’t happen often and raises questions about not only the judge presiding over the case but the jury which is not sequestered. How do they keep from finding out anything about the case?

Judge Hammer instructed them, “During this break, you are not to research any information that you personally think may be helpful to you in understanding the issues presented to you in this case. Do not investigate this case on your own or visit the scene. Do not read any newspaper reports or listen to any news reports on radio or television about this trial.”

The jury is ordered at the close of court every day not to discuss the case.

Legal experts we talked with Thursday say those instructions are critical now. They add there’s a high likelihood the jurors will be specifically asked about any possible communication or exposure to the case when they reconvene Monday morning.

Testimony so far in the case has been very detailed and covered several topics, from searches to sludge ponds, James’s demeanor and work history, and emotional testimony from Victoria’s children. But after four days, could jurors forget anything they’ve heard or have a hard time picking up where they left off?

While that can be a risk any time, law experts point out the jury has the right to have testimony read back to them if they ask.

While there’s no state law that says the same judge must preside over a case, it would take both sides agreeing to allow a reserve judge to take over. As of now, the trial is slated to resume at 10 A.M. on Monday.

Action 2 News is livestreaming the trial. You can watch here: https://www.wbay.com/livestream3/ (NOTE: We may break away for other news coverage.)

THE CASE

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.

Prosecutors argue that James Prokopovitz killed Victoria and had motive. They say he had access to sludge ponds at a local landfill to dispose of 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.

On Wednesday, testimony focused on co-workers of James Prokopovitz at McKeefrys. They worked together to load paper waste onto dump trucks to be transported to the landfill.

DAY 3 TESTIMONY: https://www.wbay.com/2021/02/17/more-witnesses-to-be-called-on-day-3-of-missing-woman-murder-trial/

DAY 2 TESTIMONY: https://www.wbay.com/2021/02/16/watch-live-more-witness-testimony-set-for-day-2-of-missing-woman-murder-trial/

DAY 1 TESTIMONY AND OPENING STATEMENTS: https://www.wbay.com/2021/02/15/opening-statements-monday-in-brown-county-missing-woman-homicide-trial/

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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