Murder trial begins

Published 7:24 pm Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Allegedly shot acquaintance

By Elizabeth Pattman

Staff writer

The DNA of accused murderer Eric Saub was found on the pants and shoes of his alleged victim, Jean Marie Smith, according to testimony Tuesday in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court. 

Isle of Wight County prosecutors called on state forensics expert Dr. Lashonda Oglesby to provide evidence concerning the DNA that is believed to have been transferred to Smith’s belongings when the suspect dragged her body into the woods after killing her, according to the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office.

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Meanwhile, Saub argued that the warm weather and his previous contact with Smith were key factors in his defense.

The jury trial of Saub began Monday and continues this week in Isle of Wight County Circuit Court. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Saub is accused of murdering the then 25-year-old Smith execution-style in April 2015 and is charged with first-degree murder, use of a firearm to commit murder and having possession of a gun as a nonviolent felon.

Saub walked quietly into the courtroom each morning, casually dressed in a gray T-shirt and khaki pants, carrying a stack of neon pink file folders filled with documents from the proceedings, prepared to represent himself in the case.

Saub is accused of murdering Smith after the pair returned from a trip to Florida on April 15, 2015. Saub was the last person to be seen with Smith while she was alive, according to testimony. 

The pair appeared in security footage from a 7-Eleven in Courtland on that morning. Lt. Tommy Potter, one of the investigators in the case, testified Monday that he began to suspect Saub of foul play after his stories did not line up with those of the victim’s grandmother, Mary Hawalka, and because of his stoic nature throughout the investigation.

Saub and Hawalka were interviewed shortly after Smith’s body was found, according to testimony. 

The Commonwealth’s first witness was county resident Tide West, who found the body of Jean Marie Smith about 20 yards off a wooded trail near Courthouse Highway. West was turkey hunting at the time and had diverged from the trail to avoid a large mud puddle when he spotted Smith’s bright pink socks.

Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office Investigators Potter and Kris Coughlin, and forensic technician Bert Nurney, testified that Smith was found on her back with her shoes off and socks pulled halfway down, partially covered in pine straw and natural debris. Nurney explained that there were tire tracks leading down the trail, stopping just short of where Smith was found, followed by tracks leading to the body’s location. 

Coughlin’s testimony indicated that investigators believed Smith was dragged by her ankles into the woods, where she was found days later. Bunching around the ankles of her sweatpants, the pulled off shoes and socks and the fact that her sweatshirt was pulled up around her midsection led them to this conclusion, he said.

Smith was identified by a marking of her initials on the sweatshirt tag, an identifying tattoo and fingerprints, according to the investigators.

A death investigator from the Medical Examiner’s Office, Rob Robinson, who was on scene during the investigation, indicated to Coughlin that the victim was likely to have died eight to 12 hours prior to being found, though Robinson testified that his estimations cannot be used as fact. 

In response to Robinson’s testimony, Saub followed with a line of questioning that led Robinson to concede that the particularly warm weather near the scene at the time of the crime could have led to changes in the speed of body decomposition processes such as rigor mortis or the stiffening of the body. Saub argued that this speeding of the process means he could not have been with Smith at the time of her death.

Dr. Wendy Gunther, an assistant chief medical examiner, later testified that Smith died from a single gunshot wound to the back of her head, though she was unable to determine the exact date or time of death. 

Oglesby took the stand Tuesday morning. Oglesby collected evidence from the Sherriff’s Office and conducted DNA testing on Smith’s sweatshirt, sweatpants and shoes. According to her testimony, Saub was a major contributor of DNA on the outside of Smith’s pants near the ankles, and on the outside heel of her sneakers. The Commonwealth argued that the DNA would have been left when Saub allegedly dragged her body, while Saub countered that the DNA was left while packing for the pair’s trip to Florida shortly before her death. Oglesby conceded that brief contact, such as during packing, could leave behind DNA samples as well.

Since being arrested in April 2015, Saub has denied any involvement in the death of Smith, a Navy veteran whom he met online and has called his “closest friend.”

Commonwealth Attorney Georgette Phillips presented evidence at Saub’s March 2016 preliminary hearing, which included law enforcement testimony, cell phone data from Verizon towers placing Saub’s cell phone in the area where Smith’s body was found and Saub’s DNA on Smith’s sweatpants and shoes. This was enough for Judge W. Parker Councill to determine that the Commonwealth had presented enough evidence to find probable cause against Saub.

The Commonwealth’s remaining evidence is expected to be presented through the next several days of testimony.  {/mprestriction}