Portland man goes on trial in decapitation murder

Chad Gurney writes on a pad as he sits in court Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine during his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years.  But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions.  (AP Photo/Joel Page)
AP | AP
Chad Gurney writes on a pad as he sits in court Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine during his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years. But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions. (AP Photo/Joel Page)
Posted Jan. 09, 2011, at 9:17 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:31 a.m.
Chad Gurney walks into court Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine for his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years. But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions. (AP Photo/Joel Page)
AP | AP
Chad Gurney walks into court Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine for his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years. But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions. (AP Photo/Joel Page)
A tattoo on Chad Gurney's knuckles is seen Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine as he sits during his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years.  But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions.  (AP Photo/Joel Page)
Joel Page | AP
A tattoo on Chad Gurney's knuckles is seen Monday, Jan. 10, 2011 in Portland, Maine as he sits during his trial on charges of strangling his girlfriend 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki then cutting off her head and setting her body on fire. Prosecutors are saying a 29-year-old Portland man was not insane when he strangled his girlfriend, cut off her head and set her body on fire nearly two years. But defense attorney Sarah Churchill told a judge during Monday's opening statements that Chad Gurney was suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented from appreciating the wrongfulness of his actions. (AP Photo/Joel Page)

PORTLAND, Maine — There’s no debate that Chad Gurney strangled his girlfriend in a rage, cut off her head and set her body on fire. The only question is whether the 29-year-old Portland man was sane.

Gurney, who once told a friend he believed he was a prophet, is using an insanity defense as he goes on trial Monday in the ritualistic-style killing of Zoe Sarnacki in his apartment.

Prosecutors maintain that the former Liberty University student and lacrosse standout was fully aware of what he was doing and the wrongfulness of his actions nearly two years ago.

“It’s going to be a state-of-mind case. It’s not a whodunit,” said Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who oversees the office’s criminal division.

In the early evening of May 25, 2009, firefighters were called to a blaze at Gurney’s Cumberland Avenue apartment, where they found Sarnacki’s charred body lying on a bed. Her head had been severed, and several items, including a crucifix, had been placed on or around the body, according to court documents.

Gurney told detectives he had strangled the 18-year-old and cut off her head with a knife.

He then bought some gasoline at a nearby gas station, poured it on the body and ignited it before driving to a motel in Old Orchard Beach, where he was arrested early the next morning.

Gurney told police he had “no particular reason” for severing the head or placing the crucifix and other objects around the body, court records say.

Gurney, whose case will be decided by a judge after he waived his right to a jury trial, relished having a confrontational, tough-guy image, friends said. His arms were covered with elaborate tattoos, and P-A-I-N was tattooed on his knuckles. But he also could be charming and had planned to go to Thailand the same week as the killing to further his interest in Eastern religion.

The trial is expected to last up to two weeks.

Dozens of witnesses are expected to testify, but the most important ones will be those who give their opinions on Gurney’s mental state at the time of the killing.

Prosecutors will call a psychiatrist and a psychologist in support of the state’s claim that mentally ill or not, Gurney was aware of the wrongfulness of his actions. Robert LeBrasseur, lead defense counsel, has a psychiatrist who will testify on Gurney’s behalf.

The defense will focus on Gurney’s mental issues. Gurney was never the same after a traffic accident while he was student at Liberty, a Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Jerry Falwell, LeBrasseur said. He declined to speak in depth about the case.

Gurney was a goalie on the Liberty lacrosse team in March 2005 when the team’s 15-passenger van was rear-ended by another school van in Alabama and pushed into the path of a tractor-trailer. He suffered a brain injury, nearly lost a leg and had to undergo several surgeries.

Gurney, who has been held without bail since his arrest, has had difficulty accepting what happened with Sarnacki, according to court documents. LeBrasseur wrote in October that Gurney presents a “particular challenge” for being evaluated, given his “underlying psychosis and his shame and fear of losing control.”

The motion says that Gurney had to be interviewed several times because he needed time to “digest and consolidate the experience without being overwhelmed.”

After the slaying, friends and acquaintances said Gurney and Sarnacki had only recently started seeing each other after meeting at a tattoo parlor. Sarnacki was a cheerful, happy young woman who had dropped out of high school after her junior year.

Sarnacki’s family last year settled a wrongful death lawsuit for $1.35 million. Gurney had received a large payout from an insurance company after the van accident.

Sarnacki’s family members declined to talk to The Associated Press.

Family members haven’t decided whether they will attend the trial, but it’s unlikely, said John Flynn, a Portland attorney who worked on the wrongful death lawsuit. “They’re putting their faith in the judicial system to run its course,” he said.

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