Jurors in the trial of double homicide suspect Robert Thompson got their first look Friday at the object prosecutors say was used to kill 12-year old Jodi Ragsdale and 15-year-old Sheila Carter -- a long, metal car jack.
Meanwhile, a forensic pathologist testified in support of the prosecutor's contention that the car jack was the weapon used to bludgeon the Atwater girls to death.
She also said one of the girls may have been strangled.
Members of Carter's family wept as a sheriff's investigator, wearing latex gloves, removed the car jack, about two feet long, from a large manila envelope.
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Ruth Kohlmeier, a Texas-based forensic pathologist, testified the wounds suffered by Ragsdale and Carter were consistent with those that would have been rendered by a car jack, based on ridge-like patterns of the girls' wounds. She also said the girls' wounds had a repeating pattern of parallel impressions and contusions consistent with the grooves on the car jack. She said their deaths were likely caused by blunt force trauma.
"This is a very, very heavy weapon. ... It's not a baseball bat, it's somewhat irregular," Kohlmeier said, pointing to the photos of massive jagged wounds and bruises on Ragsdale and Carter, which were shown to the jury. "There's a tremendous amount of force because, look at all of the tissue damage. In order to get skull fracture with brain matter oozing from the wound, there's got to be a lot of force."
Kohlmeier suggested that Ragsdale may have also been strangled, based on hemorrhaging and fractures found in her neck area during the autopsy. She added, however, that the neck wounds could also have been caused by a blow to the neck.
Kohlmeier estimated that Ragsdale and Carter were killed between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. on Dec. 13, 1986. The Merced County Sheriff's Department received a call from a passerby who had seen their bodies at 9:31 a.m. that day.
She was contacted by the Merced County District Attorney's Office to testify in the case because Boyd Stevens, the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy of the girls in 1986, has since died. Kohlmeier said she had examined the autopsy notes from Stevens about the case before Friday's testimony. "I felt that there was enough evidence, with both young ladies, that this (car jack) was the weapon used in both events," she said.
Under cross-examination, defense attorney Randy Thomas questioned Kohlmeier about how she could estimate the time of death when she had never questioned the original investigators in the case or visited the scene of the crime. He also mentioned that a witness had earlier passed by the crime scene around 6:30 a.m. and didn't see anything.
"It would be helpful if you had it, but it's not necessarily needed," Kohlmeier replied, when asked by Thomas why she didn't seek feedback from the case's original investigators. "You can still render an opinion."
Sgt. James Court of the Atwater Police Department testified that he found the car jack in the trunk of a white 1965 Mercury Comet after conducting a January 1987 warrant search on the Winton home of Donnie Lowen, Thompson's half-brother. Court said he noticed the car jack because "in looking at it, it had blood and hair on it."
The sheriff's department was notified of the find and the vehicle was impounded, Court said.
Thompson, who is accused of bludgeoning Ragsdale and Carter to death, was arrested for the crime Aug. 18, 2006, after investigators found Carter's DNA on the car jack. The bodies of Carter and Ragsdale were found off a rural Merced County road near Cressey.
Although the blood on the jack was said to belong to Carter, descriptions of the blood varied among the three investigators who testified on Friday -- a fact that defense attorney Thomas seized upon.
Court testified that he had seen a "splatter" of blood on the shaft of the car jack. Earlier during the day, however, Gary Courtner, a forensic consultant employed as a criminologist with the state's Department of Justice in Fresno at the time of deaths, testified that there had only been "a drop or two" of blood in a groove on the shaft of the car jack.
In addition, Mark Ridge, a former deputy with the sheriff's department who impounded the Comet in 1987, testified that he saw two spots of what appeared to be blood on the crank portion of the jack.
Thomas handed Court a tablet of paper and a red marker and asked him to draw the amount of blood he saw on the car jack. Court drew several drops on the paper in the pattern of a small circle. "Just so we're clear, this represents the side of the jack, not the grooves on top," Thomas said.
Thomas also raised questions about the vehicle registration of the 1965 Mercury Comet where the car jack was found -- which prosecutors have alleged belonged to Thompson. While questioning Court on the stand, Thomas handed him three copies of car registration documents found inside the Comet -- none of which bore Thompson's name.
During Friday's proceeding Courtner also testified that no traces of blood were found in Thompson's residence a month after the killings. Thompson's ex-girlfriend, Becky Tilton, testified earlier this week that Thompson had come through a window with blood on his hands and body -- and that he had left blood in the bedroom and bathroom.
Courtner was with a group of state Department of Justice investigators who visited the Gurr Road mobile home, where Thompson and Tilton lived, about a month after the crime occurred. "I found a lot of stains and I checked them all, and I did not find any blood," Courtner said.
Richard Kinney, a latent fingerprint analyst who inspected the Comet in 1987, also testified that there were no fingerprints found on the car or car jack that connected Thompson to the crime -- although he said fingerprints are not always present on weapons.
Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at 209 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.