By Rachel La Corte Associated Press
PORT ORCHARD —
Jurors on Monday listened to a recording of a 911 call made more than 20 years ago by a man who is being retried on murder charges in the slaying of his wife and a business partner after his original conviction and death sentence was overturned by the state Supreme Court.
The tape was played on the first day of testimony in the retrial of Darold Stenson, who is charged with two counts of aggravated murder in the 1993 deaths of his wife, Denise, and business partner Frank Hoerner at the Stensons’ exotic bird farm near Sequim. Prosecutors aren’t seeking the death penalty this time. If reconvicted, Stenson would be sentenced to life without parole.
In the March 25, 1993 tape, Stenson sounded out of breath and was speaking fast when he told the dispatcher that “Frank just shot my wife, and himself.”
“Hurry, please hurry!” he shouted at one point. Stenson told the dispatcher to hurry several more times, at one point asking, “what’s taking so long?”
Jurors also saw a videotape recorded by a former deputy with the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office. The silent walkthrough of the crime scene was narrated for the jury by Jeff Boyd, who is now deputy marshal for the City of Seattle.
The video was shown out of view of court spectators, but Boyd described for jurors different parts of the house and property, the body of Hoerner in a guest bedroom, and incidents of blood spatter, including the blood stained pillow where Denise Stenson had been laying. Jurors were also shown the revolver found near Hoerner’s body.
During opening statements earlier in the day, Stenson attorney Roger Hunko told jurors police mishandled evidence and didn’t follow other leads because “all they were looking for were facts that proved their hypothesis” that Stenson was guilty.
Clallam County Prosecutor Deborah Kelly said financial pressures had been mounting on Stenson, who was facing pressure from Hoerner, an investor who wanted his money back, as well as making good on a promise to buy the farm where he ran his business and lived with his wife and three children.
“The evidence will show that the defendant was being squeezed on all sides financially,” Kelly said.
The trial was moved from Clallam County, where the crime occurred. Stenson always has maintained his innocence, and filed multiple appeals to his death sentence. The courts stayed his execution three times, most recently in 2008 when he was less than two weeks from a scheduled execution.
When Stenson called authorities in 1993 to report the deaths, he suggested that Hoerner had killed Denise Stenson and then shot himself in another room. The Stenson children were sleeping in a nearby room when the shootings occurred. Prosecutors have said Darold Stenson shot the two to collect $400,000 in life insurance and to silence Hoerner, who had wanted back the money he had invested with Stenson for ostriches.
Hunko noted that Stenson called 911 while his wife was still alive, and asked them to hurry.
“What murderer would call while his wife is still alive if he was the person who shot her?” he asked.
Hunko also raised the idea of Hoerner’s wife’s involvement, telling jurors they’ll hear testimony about odd behavior exhibited by Hoerner’s wife, also named Denise, before she knew her husband was dead, including showing up wearing only a robe to a house where the Stenson children were taken.
Denise Hoerner is expected to testify during the trial, which is expected to take several weeks.
In May, the state Supreme Court reversed Darold Stenson’s 1994 convictions, citing the withholding of evidence from the defense by prosecutors. The high court said the state “wrongfully suppressed” photographs that raised questions about mishandling of evidence, as well as an FBI file that wasn’t provided to the defense until 2009, years after Darold Stenson was convicted.
Darold Stenson has been held without bail while awaiting the new trial.
One of the four witnesses called to testify on Monday included Christopher “Kit” Eldredge, who had initially bought the farm that Stenson lived on. Eldredge said the purchase was made as an investment opportunity, and that Stenson and his family lived there while making rent payments, with the understanding that Stenson would eventually buy the property when he was financially able to.
Eldredge said he had sought to accelerate Stenson’s purchase of the property because he was pursuing another business opportunity and that Stenson said he’d have the money soon.
A week after the deaths, Eldredge said he learned that he was the beneficiary on Denise Stenson’s life insurance policy. He said that he was surprised to receive the money, but said he felt that the right thing to do would be to deed the property to the Stenson family, which he did in 1994.