Evidence Allowed in Elderly Murders

Sunday, May 9, 1999

    If ever there was a case where the evidence of one crime was permissible at the trial of another, this is the case.3rd District Judge Pat Brian

Prosecutors are racing against time to keep behind bars a suspected serial killer who preyed on elderly women.

    Daniel Ray Troyer's 15-year sentence for a 1985 burglary conviction expires in 17 months on Sept. 23, 2000.

    But before he is freed, Salt Lake District Attorney Ernest Jones hopes Troyer will be serving life in prison -- or awaiting execution -- for the murder of two Salt Lake City women who lived within blocks of each other. Drucilla Ovard, 83, was murdered in 1985; Ethel Luckau, 88, was murdered in 1988.

    Prosecutors cleared a major hurdle May 3, when 3rd District Judge Pat Brian ruled that evidence from the Luckau homicide can be presented at Troyer's June 23 trial for Ovard's murder.

    Evidence of other crimes is not admissible at criminal trials unless the modus operandi -- the manner in which the crimes are committed -- are similar enough to qualify them as "signature crimes." And, according to Utah rule of evidence 404(b), the evidence can be used only to prove the defendant's identity, motive or plan -- not to show he is a bad person.

    Defense attorney Edward Brass claimed the two cases are not similar, and allowing any evidence of the other murder is "extremely prejudicial" to Troyer.

    But Judge Brian called the two crimes "shockingly and astonishingly similar," a "hand-in-glove" fit. "If ever there was a case where the evidence of one crime was permissible at the trial of another, this is the case."

    The judge said both victims were elderly and lived alone. There were no obvious signs of break-in, robbery was not a motive and both women were killed in a similar manner: Ovard was strangled, and Luckau was strangled and suffocated.

    But the most striking similarity, Brian said, was that the perpetrator left semen on towels at both murder scenes.

    Defense attorney Brass argued the two crimes -- committed three years apart -- were too remote in time to fit the rule. But the judge said the time gap could be explained by Troyer's prison history. Troyer was paroled from prison about a month before Ovard was killed. Luckau was murdered while Troyer was staying at a Salt Lake halfway house.

    In the Ovard killing, Troyer is charged with first-degree felony murder and aggravated burglary, punishable by up to life in prison. In the Luckau case, he is charged with capital murder, punishable by execution. No trial date has been set in that case.

    The 39-year-old defendant also is suspected of murdering two other elderly Salt Lake area women, but prosecutors say there is insufficient evidence to bring charges. Thelma Lillian Blodgett, 69, of South Salt Lake, died July 11, 1985 -- six days before Ovard was killed. Lucille Westerman, 73, a neighbor of Luckau, died Aug. 23, 1988 -- six days after Luckau was killed.

    Ovard was beaten and strangled July 17, 1985, in the bathroom of her home at 1457 E. Logan Ave. (1420 South). She was not sexually assaulted, but the killer unclothed and exposed her body and apparently masturbated, according to testimony at a 1997 preliminary hearing. Semen found on a yellow towel allegedly has been matched to Troyer's.

    Two weeks after the murder, Troyer was arrested less than two blocks away for breaking into the home of 70-year-old Carol Nelson. Nelson was not there, but a neighbor called police. (Jurors in the Ovard murder case also will hear evidence of the Nelson burglary.)
    At the time, Troyer was on parole for attacking an elderly woman in 1978. And his hand was broken -- an injury police say they believe he suffered while punching and breaking Ovard's ribs. But Troyer denied killing Ovard and there was little other evidence. He pleaded guilty to the Nelson burglary and was sent to prison for 1 to 15 years -- the prison term which is about to expire.

    It was 12 years later, in 1997, that DNA technology -- then brand new -- became sophisticated enough to link Troyer to Ovard's murder and allow charges to be filed. The defense will challenge the admissibility of the DNA evidence during a four-day hearing set to begin June 1.

    Troyer spent three years in prison for the Nelson burglary before he was paroled to a halfway house. About two weeks later, on Aug. 17, 1988, Luckau was murdered at her home, 357 E. 1700 South. The day she died, Troyer had left the halfway house to apply for work at a barber college, three doors away from Luckau's home. Her nude body was found in her bed.

    Troyer was charged in 1988 with Luckau's murder, but the charges were dismissed two years later when a judge suppressed crucial evidence, including a statement from Troyer's sister that he had asked her for an alibi; statements from two prison inmates, who claimed Troyer admitted the murder to them, and DNA testing of Troyer's hair.

    Prosecutors appealed the evidence suppression to the Utah Supreme Court, which in 1997 ruled it could be used against Troyer. Since then, prosecutors have submitted new samples for DNA testing and claim they have positively matched Troyer's semen to the Luckau murder scene.

    Troyer told a fellow inmate elderly women were "easy prey," according to testimony from a December 1997 preliminary hearing in the Ovard case.

    His first-known attack on an elderly woman occurred in 1978, when he beat, choked and attempted to rape a 71-year-old quadriplegic woman, who survived. Troyer pleaded guilty and went to prison. Ten years later, he won parole, which was revoked following the Ovard murder and his arrest for the Nelson burglary.

    Prosecutor Jones says he fears Troyer will kill again if he is freed next year. "We'd like to get him tried before [the] 21st century," Jones said. "On both murders."  

Copyright 1999, The Salt Lake Tribune