Detective describes how heat got turned up on cold murder case; defendant denies knowing victim

Posted Sept. 25, 2012, at 1:01 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 25, 2012, at 7:02 p.m.
Rita St. Peter
Courtesy photo
Rita St. Peter

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — The man who helped turn a cold case into a hot one testified on the fourth day of the Jay A. Mercier murder trial.

Maine State Police Detective Bryant Jacques took the stand Tuesday in Somerset County Superior Court. Mercier, of Industry, is on trial for the death of 20-year-old Rita St. Peter, whose body was found off Campground Road in Anson on July 5, 1980.

Jacques discussed how he was handed the St. Peter case in 2005, and how DNA evidence helped link Mercier to St. Peter, whom the defendant said he never met.

Assistant Attorney General Andrew Benson played three recordings Jacques took from separate interviews at Mercier’s residence in Industry between January 2010 and April 2011. Each interview was over an hour in length, but were edited down to a few minutes.

In each interview, Jacques asked Mercier if he knew St. Peter. And every time, Mercier denied knowing her.

“I’m 100 percent on that,” Mercier said during the January 2010 interview when Jacques asked him if he had ever met St. Peter. Mercier told Jacques that he never met her, had her in his truck, dated her or had sex with her. He did admit to knowing of St. Peter, and that she was actually a neighbor of his for a while.

After the interview, Jacques put on a pair of gloves and picked up a cigarette butt Mercier had discarded onto the ground outside his residence. The detective placed it into a paper bag and then delivered it to the Maine State Crime Lab, where it was processed.

The DNA from the cigarette was matched to that taken from a rectal swab of St. Peter’s body. Kathy MacMillan of the Maine State Police Crime Lab testified Monday that the probability of the DNA belonging to someone other than Mercier is “one in trillions.”

Even when state police Detective Adam Kelley, who joined Jacques during an interview on Nov. 16, 2010, told Mercier about the DNA match and said to him, “I’m here to convince you this ain’t a bluff,” Mercier stood his ground, and continued to deny knowing St. Peter.

Mercier was mostly stoic Tuesday. He rarely moved in his seat and didn’t consult his attorneys, John Alsop and John Martin, both of Skowhegan.

Most of the trial Tuesday was spent analyzing the tire tracks found at the crime scene.

Original lead investigator Paul Stewart, who was a Maine State Police detective at the time, testified about the measurements he took of the tire tracks at the crime scene.

He measured the tire width to be approximately 9 inches, and the distance between the outside of the left tire to the outside of the right tire to be 6 feet, 4½ inches.

Alsop grilled Stewart and a Maine State Police forensic specialist, Detective Robert Burns, on how the tire width measured at the scene was 9 inches across, but the imprints done on Mercier’s tires were between 7 and 8 inches across.

Burns explained that a three-dimensional environment would provide a wide pattern because of the sidewalls of the tires touching the ground, which would not happen on a hard, flat surface with ink, the process that was used to take imprints of Mercier’s tires on a cement floor.

However, Alsop pointed out that the difference in measurement should only be fractions of an inch.

After checking the specifications from the manufacturer, Burns concluded that he “could not exclude [Mercier’s] vehicle” from creating the tire tracks at the scene of the crime.

Earlier, Stewart testified that Mercier told him he could have been on Campground Road the night St. Peter was murdered, but wasn’t sure.

Alsop pointed out that no interviews conducted with Mercier were recorded by Stewart back in 1980. Instead, written notes were kept by Stewart that didn’t include everything that was said, according to Alsop.

Alsop said there was a lead on the case in August 1980, when a vehicle was found in Somerset County that contained a mallet with hair and blood on it. A blunt instrument was used to kill St. Peter before she was run over with a vehicle. However, the mallet was ruled out in the St. Peter case on the same day it was found, said Alsop.

Two people who were in the area where St. Peter had been on July 4, 1980, also took the stand.

Lelia Brooks, who said St. Peter stayed with her and her two daughters from time to time, testified that she spoke with St. Peter at the Depot, a Madison bar, the night she was murdered.

Another witness, Brent Savage, testified to seeing Mercier in a parking lot near the Depot the same night. He said Mercier had left and come back to the parking lot two or three times while Savage was there with his sister and brother-in-law.

Superior Court Justice John Nivison told the jury that the evidence part of the trial should conclude by the end of Wednesday or Thursday morning, and it will go to the jury Thursday.

The trial is scheduled to resume at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday.

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