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Prokopovitz murder trial goes to jury Friday

Published: Feb. 25, 2021 at 8:28 AM CST|Updated: Feb. 25, 2021 at 7:44 PM CST
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - The State has rested its case against James Prokopovitz in the missing-woman murder trial in Brown County. The trial will go to the jury on Friday.

Prosecutors say James Prokopovitz killed his wife, Victoria, who disappeared from her home in a rural area in the town of Pittsfield on April 25, 2013. Prokopovitz, 75, is charged with 1st Degree Intentional Homicide and Resisting or Obstructing. He’s also charged with Perjury for lying under oath during the investigation.

The prosecution states James had access to sludge ponds through his job loading paper waste for disposal at a landfill and those ponds would be a place to dispose of a body. The defense maintains Victoria had a history of mental illness and suicide attempts and argues she may have taken her own life or may be living homeless in another state.

Prosecutors ended seven days of testimony Thursday. The defense didn’t call any witnesses.

In closing arguments Thursday evening, the prosecution said this case is about lies and an obsessive relationship Prokopovitz had with another woman, giving him reason not to have Victoria in his life anymore. Deputy District Attorney Wendy Lemkuil said this is a case to her but it’s a tragedy for two families. She told jurors, “2,864 days. That’s how many days have gone by since Victoria Prokopovitz was missing.”

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.) Follow Sarah Thomsen on Twitter for live updates.

Lemkuil made her closing arguments for almost an hour-and-a-half, recounting the eight-year search for Mrs. Prokopovitz. She said it’s been an emotional time for Victoria’s children but wasn’t difficult for James. “While this family has been grieving, there’s another member of that family, someone who hasn’t been the same, somebody who’s moved on with their life, someone who’s benefited from Victoria missing.”

Lemkuil told jurors they’re not to look for doubt but to search for the truth, telling them to look at motive and opportunity, that James was the last to see her, pointing to a picture of Prokopovitz’s bed taken the day he reported her missing -- a bed that was made. “Why is that important? Jim never slept in that bed the night Victoria went missing. Jim was busy getting rid of Victoria,” she argued.

The defense has countered in opening statements and cross-examinations that prosecutors have no evidence Victoria is dead. Prosecutors argue one possible reason they can’t present a body is Prokopovitz had access to sludge ponds full of ash that would burn skin. “The biodegradable nature of what’s going into these sludge ponds,” Lemkuil said, “why they can’t be dredged, and why the substances in there would be such that if someone went in it, it wasn’t coming out.”

Lemkuil turned to false and contradictory statements Mr. Prokopovitz told during the years-long investigation and pointed to his girlfriend, Kathy Friday, as a motive, calling their relationship “obsessive.” “There is more evidence. It’s the fact that Kathy Friday and Jim Prokopovitz took it upon themselves because they knew they had something to hide,” Lemkuil said. “Jim was ready to move on, and that’s exactly what he did.”

Prosecutors called statements from Prokopovitz’s first wife about a history of abuse and that James told her she could never leave him similar to testimony from a confidential witness talking about Victoria.

After 43 witnesses, Lemkuil said jurors have all the proof they need. “This, ladies and gentlemen, gets you to intent, because if it was anything other than intentional, people come forward,” the prosecutor argued, “but if you kill somebody and get rid of their body, that’s intentional. That’s the only thing a ‘no body’ homicide can be.”

The defense will present its arguments Friday morning. The judge called a recess for the night, saying the trial was going too late and there was still much work to do before jurors could start their deliberations. The trial will resume at 8:30 A.M.

FINAL TESTIMONY

One of the final pieces of evidence the jury received was video of Prokopovitz being interviewed by investigators in 2019. Brown County investigators were questioning him about lying under oath in a May 2019 John Doe hearing. Prokopovitz said he lied to protect his girlfriend, Kathy Friday, by keeping their stories straight. As investigators continue to question him about his wife’s death, a visibly agitated Prokopovitz says, “There, I killed her. Kathy had nothing to do with it. I don’t know how I killed her. I didn’t, so I can’t tell you... I don’t know.”

Multiple times in the lengthy video, Prokopovitz said he didn’t know what happened to Victoria. At times he appears to cry.

“You lied on the stand today,” one investigator said.

“I did that. I’ll admit that. I do not know where she is, so help me God,” Prokopovitz replies.

This comes after the prosecution used testimony from its main investigators to lay out other lies in the case, like a video jurors saw Wednesday with Prokopovitz driving investigators on a route he says he took looking for Victoria years earlier, except investigators say his vehicle never appears on surveillance videos along the route.

The defense questioned why there’s still no physical evidence of Victoria Prokopovitz’s fate, even suggesting she might be homeless and unable to be found in another state.

Special Agent Jay Yerges of the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation answered, “There are no signs of life for Mrs. Prokopovitz. She is no longer in society.”

The defense also questioned why there’s no physical evidence of phone calls between Friday and Mr. Prokopovitz before Victoria’s disappearance.

“Circumstantial,” defense attorney John D’Angelo told an investigator on the stand, “based on you’re hearing these rumors that they had one, but you don’t have any corroborating evidence?”

“We were unable to corroborate that with any sort of documents,” Yerges answered.

Prosecutors contend there weren’t documents because Prokopovitz and Friday used burner phones -- disposable mobile phones -- which could not be traced to check the records.

After the prosecution rested, the judge sent the jury out of the room for a break while he questioned Prokopovitz before the defense presents its case. He asked Mr. Prokopovitz if he understood he has a constitutional right not to testify and the jury cannot weigh that against him. Conversely, the judge said, he absolutely has a right to testify in his defense if he chooses. Prokopovitz said he understood and has discussed it with his attorney.

Article continues below the video

DAY 6 TESTIMONY: https://www.wbay.com/2021/02/24/wednesday-is-day-6-of-testimony-in-missing-woman-murder-trial/

DAY 5 TESTIMONY: https://www.wbay.com/2021/02/23/testimony-continues-tuesday-in-missing-woman-murder-trial/

DAY 4 TESTIMONY: https://www.wbay.com/2021/02/22/testimony-continues-monday-in-missing-woman-murder-trial/

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/

Brown County Det. Sgt. Roman Aronstein was on the stand for much of Wednesday and was called back to the stand Thursday morning for cross examination.

Defense attorney John D’Angelo asked Aronstein if he noticed any sign of struggle or altercation or anything unusual at the Prokopovitz home when he responded the day after she went missing. Aronstein said he did not notice anything odd or out of place in the home.

Aronstein said his investigation at the time was focused on finding Victoria Prokopovitz. He said it was a missing persons case at the time.

Aronstein said he had to look at every possibility, including suicide.

Aronstein said based on everything he was told, he believed searchers would quickly find Victoria.

Investigators were given consent to search the Prokopovitz home, James Prokopovitz’s work vehicle and the vehicle belonging to Victoria’s son, Wesley. Wesley lived with James and Victoria.

Attorney D’Angelo asked if evidence was located to show harm was done to Victoria or a weapon was used in connection to her disappearance. Aronstein answered “no.”

The defense asked Aronstein about a burn barrel on the Prokopovitz property and if it yielded any evidence. Aronstein was not aware of any evidence coming from the barrel.

Attorney D’Angelo started questioning Aronstein about interviewing James Prokopovitz and his new girlfriend at the time, Kathy Friday. Aronstein said there was a lot of “deception” regarding their relationship. Aronstein said Kathy and James used alternate phones to conceal their “secretive” relationship.

Attorney D’Angelo asked Aronstein if there’s evidence James Prokopovitz had to gain financially from the disappearance of Victoria. Aronstein said Victoria was a financial burden on James due to her medical and pharmacy bills, use of electricity and penchant for purchasing knick-knacks. Aronstein said the knick-knacks were a point of “aggravation” for James. Aronstein also noted civil judgments for money against the Prokopovitz involving medical bills and credit card debit.

Aronstein couldn’t put a dollar amount on how much James would have saved following his wife’s disappearance. Aronstein estimated it would be a “significant” amount.

Aronstein testified James took him on a drive of the roads he said he took during his initial search for Victoria during the early hours of April 26. During the drive, they stopped at a Shell station in which James gave “specific detail of his vantage point” from the day of Victoria’s disappearance. James’s vehicle was not on surveillance video from that gas station during the time he said he searched for his wife. There are no other gas stations in the immediate area.

“It defies common sense that he would have not been in that area, unless he was completely not telling me the truth as far as the detail he recalled of being in that parking lot,” Aronstein said.

The defense asked about a written report by Aronstein in 2013 that reads “no foul play” and “pending further details” case should be closed. Aronstein said he was moving to another area of investigation.

On re-direct, the prosecution asked Aronstein about “‘no body’ homicides.” Aronstein talked about how inconsistencies in statements play an important role in cases that lack a body. The prosecution asked about statements made by James that Victoria was gone and would never be found.

The prosecution also questioned Aronstein about James Prokopovitz’s timeline for reporting his wife missing. Prokopovitz said he woke up early and went searching for Victoria and then went to work. He didn’t make the missing persons report until he returned home from work.

“He had an opportunity to change the scene prior to contacting law enforcement if he chose to,” said Aronstein.

Aronstein testified James Prokopovitz is quick to anger.

The defense said there’s no evidence to show that James Prokopovitz was physically violent with Victoria. Aronstein concurred.

The prosecution called Brown County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Richard Loppnow to the stand. He’s in the investigative division. Loppnow investigated the surveillance video from the Maplewood Shell gas station mentioned in James’s story about his search for Victoria in the early morning hours of April 26, 2013.

Loppnow reviewed the surveillance video for the hours between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. That time is based on statements from Mr. Prokopovitz. Loppnow testified that he never saw James’s vehicle in this video and never saw James or Victoria in the video during that time. This would dispute James’s story that he was at this gas station during his search for Victoria.

Loppnow said he’s watched the video multiple times.

The prosecution called Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Jay Yerges to the stand. Yerges testified that the investigation has found “no signs of life for Mrs. Prokopovitz.”

The prosecution asked Yerges if the Victoria’s children reached out to him for updates on the case. Yerges said they often reach out to him. James, however, never reached out to him for updates on the case.

Yerges had interviewed James Prokopovitz and his new girlfriend, Kathy Friday. James and Kathy maintained that they were friends 30 years ago and had a chance meeting at a casino not long after Victoria’s disappearance.

Yerges said it is unlikely that the old friends met by chance at the casino. Kathy Friday had maintained that she went to the casino in Wittenberg with some friends but refused to identify those friends to Yerges.

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